Thursday, 5 May 2011

Product Roadmaps can be Dangerous


I had a long discussion today with a friend today over products and roadmaps, though I have to say I am not a big roadmap basher myself but I am not a big fan too of roadmaps in the state that they are usually presented. The discussion emerged when my friend explained how much trouble it is to meet the expectations of the customers who are been promised things, specially those visionary things that are put on paper and do not or might never be in the product yet they are promised to those customers by our vicious sales personnel who by now are gone leaving your company to develop something that may not be of any use to the product.

Roadmaps may be beneficial for products, but when it comes to roadmaps not many companies put their thinking hats effectively. I see a lot of issues occurring from roadmaps made public and with this post I would also like to share a few ways on how to cover the roadmaps so it becomes a win win situation.

First lets talk about the challenges a company faces when dealing with roadmaps :

1. Agility : Assuming you created a roadmap for more than a year, and in the middle of the 1st quarter you get a customers who demand a huge feature in your product [Even ready to fund] what would you do? If you have a roadmap promised to world, you are either going to have fund a full new development team or think about going back on what you promised to your customers. Long term roadmaps cause a loss of Agility if not managed well.

2. Your roadmaps work against you sometimes? I prudently remember a few sister companies having similar product lines using X product's roadmap to show how that product is not ready for a specific market and why they should sell Y product only. If internals can have this issue think what competition can do to this. Of course there should be no competition / race internally in an ideal world.

3. You promised X in 2009 but its 2011 and you have not delivered it yet, heard something like this? Well if you sold your customers your vision and how your product would look like 2 years later, you run a risk of facing this. You have potential to make your customers unhappy if you do not present them your plans in the right way.

4. Expectation burden : This is usually the problem. Most roadmaps are done with a specific view. If a roadmap gives you say a 1 year release of a product the expectation around it usually becomes so high that it results in a expectation crusher when the release is actually done.

5. Customer clashes : For small products this may not be the case, but when roadmap's are shared in councils and customer forums, there usually comes an argument that there is nothing in this roadmap that I will be benefited from. Misery?

Well so some of these challenges we have faced, more precisely we were victim to the roadmap concept in a whole. So how how does one really handle this? By saying this I want to say that I don't think you can work without a roadmap. But here are things that can be done to handle above challenges and win confidence of customers, internal staff and provide a better and effective vision plan that can be termed as a roadmap with some alterations.

1. High Level Only
Roadmaps have to be very high level. A view that looks like a eagle view. talks about where the product is moving. Does not detail features at all. Brings consolidated modules together to form complete end result and how customer would benefit from it. A long time ago I had seen a roadmap from a product that is now a revolution in the CRM arena and has become a global force and platform. The roadmap listed customers, expected features, modules the company stratified and how they liked up together.

2. Visionary not time bounded
No April-2011, No Jun-2012.. It should be purely visionary with very high level time lines in years... I know it is difficult to answer if a customer says why.. but isn't it your roadmap? If your customers are asked to push things in they will want every thing in quarter 1 and you will be left crying for the rest of 9 quarters for other customers?

3. Not to all
it should be presented to a very few. Why show it to the world and then apologies if you could not do it for any reasons. We were in situations where bulky roadmaps were released to customers and then when economy had down turns and no development teams to fulfill those roadmaps we had to face the customer anger.

4. Negotiations?
Never show and negotiate roadmaps, if you do so you will end up running behind development teams to change things and behind customers to deal with.

5. Phased
Roadmap should not release bulk modules. Phase them into multiple releases. So if something is not ready by X date you have a easy way to manage it in a year in a phased manner without affecting the customer satisfaction.

6. Compact
Make your roadmaps and presentations compact. Do not bullshit to sell. more than 2 quarters is a problem more than 4 quarters roadmap is a disaster.

7. No Sales
Do not involves sales in roadmap presentations. They buy everything from customers to sell it to them. VP, CTO or Product managers are the right people to demonstrate roadmaps in 4 chair conference rooms with customers. If you are really having a team of attention seeking individuals ask them to present things on Launch.

8. Creators
Be careful in choosing the creators of the roadmaps. The more inputs from the sales the more the disaster. Have a person in this creation process who fights for usability not users.

I am sure there are many more things to discuss to ensure that the roadmap is better and effective and doesn't cause credibility issue to you and your company.