A product roadmap guides the direction of a product over time. It’s both a high-level summary and a strategic document that communicates what teams are building and why, with a clear strategic plan for execution.
Broadly speaking, a product roadmap serves several purposes:
It maps out your vision and strategic goals, presented in a visual way
Details how you’ll deliver against that vision and strategy
Communicates the necessary information to align stakeholders
Sets your priorities so that you focus on what’s important.
A product roadmap maps out the vision and strategic objectives for a product in a visual way, making it easier for development teams to share and collaborate. It displays priorities and details how everyone will deliver against the vision and strategy.
A roadmap also makes it easier for other product stakeholders to understand the most up-to-date status, how features are being prioritized, the long-term direction of travel, and the plan for execution.
By helping everyone involved understand how their input fits into the bigger picture, a product roadmap helps keep teams aligned, on-track, and focused on the right things.
Product roadmaps are typically used in software development, but their core benefits — easier collaboration, better progress tracking, and visualization of the product strategy — can be useful in almost any business setting.
There are three main types of product roadmap:
A progress-based product roadmap divides actions into lanes (usually columns on a Kanban board) defined by progress achieved, for example complete, in progress, and to-do.
Progress-based roadmaps are often used in agile development as they aren’t restricted by dates and timelines.
Generally speaking, they offer teams more flexibility as tasks are tracked based on progress rather than strict deadlines.
Time-based roadmaps can be an excellent method for visualizing how a product has progressed — and will advance further — over time. Time-based roadmaps divide tasks according to dates, milestones and deadlines.
Some companies will opt for a roadmap that mixes elements from progress- and time-based roadmaps.
For example, they might use the lanes in a progress-based roadmap to divide tasks by their rough timescale for completion: in-progress, next-up, coming soon, or even ‘maybe’.
Creating a new product or managing its lifecycle is a complex endeavor requiring multiple skill sets, careful allocation of time and resources, and alignment between technical and non-technical stakeholders.
As the digital economy shifts and grows, the business and competitive landscape can change quickly. In such a dynamic environment, product development teams need product roadmaps to:
Align key stakeholders with competing needs
Make objective prioritization decisions
Develop a product against an overarching business strategy.
Selecting features and setting a cadence of updates requires both careful planning and prioritization. This process becomes much simpler with a product roadmap. Roadmaps keep features in the pipeline without necessarily committing them to any specific release. That flexibility makes it easier to prioritize and still make course corrections as conditions change, or new information arises.
A product roadmap ties the day-to-day work of product teams to the company’s vision for both the product and the wider business.
In general terms, product roadmaps are used to:
Capture a product’s development strategy in a format that is easy to comprehend and share
Establish a single source of truth for everyone executing the strategy
Align all internal stakeholders
Simplify collaboration and team planning
Visualizing product vision and strategy in a roadmap can also make it easier to keep team members working toward a common goal, while securing executive buy-in for the development approach.
Product roadmaps have been around in one form or another since the dawn of personal computing in the 1980s.
Beginning with technology roadmaps, the concept was refined by Cambridge University with its T-Plan in the late 1990s, designed to address slow-downs and inertia in development processes.
The rise of Agile Development led to further refinements and the creation of a specific approach to product roadmaps.
Deciding which features or upgrades make it onto a product roadmap requires careful prioritization.
Product managers have to derive as much productivity as they can from limited resources and allocate them to tasks with the biggest impact.
Using a quantitative and time-efficient framework, such as a prioritization matrix or weighted scoring model, can help ensure that roadmaps are focused on the most urgent and strategic tasks.
Product roadmaps facilitate planning in a dynamic, fast-changing business environment.
They help product teams stay focused on the features deemed most valuable by the business.
Stakeholders gain a visual tool to see how a product is progressing and understand quickly how changes to the priority of one feature can impact other planned features and updates.
Product roadmaps help product managers fight scope creep. When multiple teams are working together, the roadmap keeps them focused on priority or high-value outcomes.
Roadmaps can cause problems if they are based on old or inaccurate data; or false assumptions about the achievability of timescales.
Time-based roadmaps can sometimes be too restrictive in a dynamic business environment that requires a more flexible roadmap.
Mixed roadmaps can offer teams more flexibility, but their lack of commitment to firm timescales and priorities can create issues related to vagueness, and open the door to scope creep.
Poor prioritization in roadmaps can also cause issues, particularly in resource allocation.