Remember a time before the GPS, when every road trip needed a bit more planning than keeping your phone charged? You had three categories of navigators: the “I’ll figure it out on the way” types, the “I’ll just ask for directions if I get lost” folks, and finally the ones with a glove compartment packed full of maps.
The first type generally got lost about halfway through the trip, while people in the second category definitely made it to their destination… after following conflicting directions from three different gas station attendants, anyway. If you want your organization to get to its destination without going in circles, you want to be part of that third group. You want the organizational equivalent of a glove compartment full of maps. That’s why you need a product roadmap.
A product roadmap definition
What a thoroughly annotated map is to your road trip, the product roadmap is to your product’s life cycle. It’s what you study before each leg of the journey, what you refer to when you feel lost, and what you show to everyone else in the car when they ask the same questions over and over again.
In practical terms, the product roadmap represents key initiatives that will get your product to market and keep it alive when it gets there. Prior to launch, your roadmap will show the steps needed to have a functional product. For software, that could mean feature development, interface design, QA testing, and more. Post-launch, the roadmap will represent ongoing maintenance efforts, new feature releases, and general improvements across the board.
Essentially, the product roadmap is your strategy made concrete. Once a product manager knows what needs to happen for a product to thrive in the market, they create the product roadmap to turn abstract strategy into something that everyone can refer to.
Why you should build a product roadmap
So why does this even need to happen? Simple. Lackluster communication can cause otherwise solid organizations to crumble, and at its core the product roadmap is a communication tool. Here’s how it can contribute to your overall organization:
- It’s a prioritization tool: Every organization, no matter its size, has multiple stakeholders who each want different things. Aligning them can be pretty tough. The roadmap is one way to get everyone to agree on priorities for teams across the organization. While the roadmap primarily covers a product team’s priorities, they can also contain marketing, sales, and customer support priorities. That means stakeholders from any team can see their needs represented by the roadmap.
- It accelerates onboarding: No matter what role a new hire needs to fill, they need to be aware of your product’s future. A simple, straightforward roadmap is a great way to get everyone up to speed on your product’s history, current initiatives, and future all in a couple of slides. Or, ideally, your project management tool.
- It keeps teams on track: No matter the team, everyone across your organization is trying to come up with the Next Big Thing, all while doing the necessary daily work to make your product thrive. With a product roadmap, you can help them align their winning ideas with your overall strategy or nudge them back when they stray too far.
- It works at every level: Need to communicate a development team’s focus for a whole quarter to the marketing team? What about getting potential investors on board with your plans? A product roadmap is an important visual tool for some of the most important conversations you’ll need to have.
Who is responsible for the product roadmap?
Technically speaking, everyone can contribute to your product roadmap — and they should feel empowered to. That said, you’ll usually want a product manager or a product owner to own the product roadmap. That’s because even though you want input from multiple collaborators, you still need a single, coordinated vision. After all, the product roadmap needs to be a single source of truth for your teams. It’s hard to do that when you’re dealing with multiple dissenting voices.
Your product management team should get together regularly to go over the product roadmap and ensure it still matches the organization’s goals. They’ll need to share it with stakeholders and leaders as well.
Who is the roadmap for?
Don’t let the name mislead you; the product roadmap is beneficial to more than just the product team. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that doesn’t benefit from a clear product roadmap:
- Development team: The product roadmap helps developers prioritize their work and lets them know how they’re contributing to the organization’s overall goals. Sprint planning and backlog grooming are much more straightforward when you can refer to a roadmap, too.
- Executives: One of the main challenges for an executive is getting visibility on everything they’re responsible for. Creating a clear product roadmap gives you a way to keep them in the loop without having to cosntantly write lengthy reports.
- Sales: Your sales team knows what your customers want better than anyone. If they have access to the product roadmap, they can tailor their plans around upcoming features and improvements. That can help them close high-value accounts, which helps everyone in the company.
- Marketing: Marketers live for the next big product launch. By knowing what’s on the roadmap, they can plan their launches ahead of time.
What about customers?
Your teams benefit from a detailed, internal roadmap, one you only share with them. But you can use a product roadmap to generate excitement, loyalty, and more from your customers. That’s when you want to use an external roadmap. Think of it as a more streamlined version, containing the features you’re most confident in. You don’t want to publicize and advertise a high-value feature, only to delay it when it ends up being more work than you thought.
4 of the best product roadmap tools
Now that you know what a product roadmap is and why you should have one, let’s talk about where it should live. Building a product roadmap can be as simple as jotting down a few important milestones on a napkin during a meeting with your co-founder, slapping some dates on them and calling it a roadmap.
But ideally, it shouldn’t stay on that napkin for very long. The best place to keep your product roadmap is in your work management tool of choice. You want to make sure your roadmap is simple enough that you don’t need to spend too much time maintaining it, but robust enough to answer most questions about your product strategy. Here are a few tools to consider when building a product roadmap:
- Asana: This work management tool is widely used by marketers, team leads, and executives alike. Its timeline view is practically designed from the ground up for product roadmaps. You can create tasks to represent each initiative, give each one labels to identify teams or areas of focus, and use sections to organize them by quarter.
- Smartsheet: This tool’s greatest strength is its customizability. A roadmap built in this tool can be as simple or complex as you need it. Want to build a Gantt chart to clearly represent dependencies between tasks? Smartsheet should be your go-to.
- Jira: Built with developers in mind, this tool can be great for keeping your product roadmap near some of the people working on it more directly. Jira’s native features make for robust roadmaps. For instance, you can tie tasks directly to initiatives to represent dependencies, with a simple drop-down menu giving you general information on those tasks right from your roadmap.
- Trello: It doesn’t get much simpler than Trello; that ease-of-use is why it’s one of the most widely-used platforms on the market. While you’re missing out on dedicated roadmapping features from other tools, you’re gaining straightforward roadmap building and a better chance of getting buy-in throughout the organization.
Ultimately, most work management tools can be used to build a product roadmap. While the ones listed above have some of the best features for doing this, the best place to build your roadmap is in the tool your company already uses to get work done.
A quick look at the product roadmap workflow
A workflow is a map for getting work done. The product roadmap is the map for where your product is going. It already seems like they have a lot in common, so what is the product roadmap workflow, then? In simple terms, it’s how you organize the work that goes into building your product roadmap.
That work can seem pretty simple when you’re starting out. Just take your product strategy, distill it into a couple of initiatives, and boom, you’ve got a roadmap. But in the same way that no plan survives contact with the enemy your you’ll have to adjust it once your product hits the road. The product roadmap workflow represents the continuous adjustments and re-prioritization of the roadmap. Here are some ways you can improve this workflow:
- Build your roadmap in your work management tool: It’s been said but it bears repeating. Just because you can draw a roadmap on a napkin or build it in a spreadsheet doesn’t mean you should. When your product roadmap is in your company’s work management tool of choice, you’re making it accessible, transparent, and easier to adjust along the way.
- Use a workflow management tool: If the workflow is the map for getting work done, a workflow management tool is how you get around construction, traffic jams, and the like. A workflow management solution like Unito can help you smash through blockers and streamline the sharing information across tools and teams, limiting the need for meetings and reports.
- Prioritize asynchronous communication: Sometimes there’s no better substitute than a meeting. But is that always the case? Just because you’re inclined to meet weekly to discuss a roadmap with stakeholders doesn’t mean you should. Keep everyone’s calendars clear by using chat apps and work management tools for as much of your communication as you can.
The best product roadmap templates from around the web
Just because a product roadmap can exist on a napkin doesn’t mean it should. If you’re in the process of transitioning from a scribbled roadmap to something you can show to a board of directors, here are some templates to guide you:
- Templates from Aha
- Customizable templates from Roadmunk
- A template for Asana by Asana
- A board template for Trello
Do you know where your product is headed?
Whether it’s on the road or in the office, you won’t get far without a map. Building a product roadmap is the best way to make sure everyone knows where the product has been and where it’s going. Pair a drive for organizational alignment with the right tools, and you’ll make sure the way forward is clear for everyone.