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The Product Roadmap is about Strategy

One of the big frustrations in product management is terminology. What some companies call a product manager, others call a product marketing manager. What some companies call marketing, others call product management.


And what some companies call a roadmap is actually a release plan.

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The roadmap is the tool most often requested from executives, marketing, and sales teams. And honestly, it’s the one product-related tool that has caused me the most grief.


Let me show you why.


dictionary.com says the roadmap is any plan or guide to show how something is arranged or can be accomplished. That is, the primary objective of a roadmap is to communicate product strategy, what you're hoping to accomplish.


Roadmap is the right metaphor: just as with driving, you make a plan, yet make constant adjustments.


Suppose you want to drive from where I live near Washington DC to Boston. There are a few different ways to go. The typical approach is to go directly up I-95—which is a pretty straight route from DC to Boston.


Our goal is Massachusetts, starting from Virginia. We’ll go through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.


And that's our roadmap.

But it's not a release plan.


Let's estimate the route by consulting with some friends, checking out the road conditions. And let's go to the bank to get some cash “just in case.”


Now we have a schedule.


A project schedule maps out the key initiatives with rough time estimates. In this case, we’ve estimated times to the states we’ll drive through on the way to Boston.


Based on current conditions, we should be there by 4pm.


If we leave on schedule at 9.


If we average 50 miles per hour.


If we don’t encounter any problems such as car trouble or an accident or a traffic jam.


So, let’s see what happens in practice.


Ooh, good news: We left ahead of schedule and it looks like we’ll be there early—at 3:45. Awesome. Ooh, more good news: we are averaging 60 miles per hour, faster than expected. New ETA is 3:15.


Oh no! we encountered some busy traffic in PA and an accident in NY that caused a huge backup. Our average speed dropped to 40. And our ETA is now 7:30.


Good thing we didn't plan to meet for dinner.


Now that we’re through that mess, we’re rocking again at 60 miles per hour. Looks like we can make up some time. But now we’re likely to arrive at 7:00. That’s not what we’d hoped when we first put the plan together.


That's why we didn't plan to meet for dinner at 5:30 in Boston. Our plan said we might make it, but our actual performance has made that impossible.


A roadmap is a prototype of the plan to achieve your product goal.


The problem with this plan is you’re driving through every major city in the northeast during their rush hours. As we saw, one accident on I-95 can add hours to your trip.


Next time, maybe I will go “the long way” to avoid all the traffic on i-95, going up 81 all the way to Scranton, then 84 to 90 into Boston. Yes, this route is always longer in miles and a little slower… closer to 9 hours. But this way is less likely to encounter traffic problems and is much less stressful.


And that’s the point of a roadmap. Where are you going? How will you get there? Which route best accommodates changes and delays?


Janna Bastow, CEO of ProdPad says, "The roadmap is a prototype of your strategy." It’s a living document that adapts to changing market conditions and organizational priorities.


A roadmap is one thing; a schedule is another. Let's all try to use the right terms for these powerful tools.


This quick lesson on roadmapping is part of the Fundamentals of Managing Products course offered by the team at Product Growth Leaders.


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