Without a map, it’s easy to get lost.

I was recently speaking with an executive who was complaining that he didn’t have enough engineering capacity to keep up with customer demand. He was frustrated that his team told him they couldn’t get a new feature set out for another six months. Curious, I asked him how he was progressing on his product road map and how those new features fit into the plan. I thought it was an innocent question. But he looked at me with wide eyes and, after a moment of silence, admitted that he didn’t have one.

What this executive hadn’t realized is that not having a product road map–or letting your engineers own it–is a common and avoidable mistake far too many companies make.

1. What’s in a plan?

So, what do I mean when I say “product road map?” A simple definition is that it’s a planned set of features you will introduce into your product over time. For some organizations, that might mean quarterly releases. For others, like agile companies, it might mean new releases every week. The point is that it’s a plan for where you’re going with your product and when you intend to introduce those changes to the market. For those in the software business, having a clear road map is needed to sell to major clients.

If you don’t have a plan, you’ll just end up wandering.

2. It’s a business issue

One thing people misunderstand about the product road map is that it’s a business issue–not a technical one. That’s why it shouldn’t be owned exclusively by the developers or the engineers. Yes, they are active participants in creating it. But if you left it to them, your road map would be oriented toward the latest whiz-bang features rather than something your customer truly values. The real decision in a road map is an investment equation: How much of a return in revenue and margin will you create with your investment of labor and development dollars? Your goal, if course, is to maximize your return by working on features that will be popular with your customers in ways they are willing to pay for. If your road map prioritizes features that don’t sell, then you’ve made a poor investment.

3. Evaluate risk over time

You need to constantly revisit your road map, because things change over time. It’s like taking a snapshot in time and then coming back to take a new look based on new opportunities that have arisen. If your goal is to maximize your returns, then you should always be looking at what the most impactful investments should be. That means evaluating two factors: How quickly can you bring something to market and how risky will it be to do so?

For example, if you identify a new feature that will be super valuable to your customers but will take a year to develop, is that still a worthwhile investment to make? Would you be better off, on the other hand, in tackling smaller features that might not move the needle as far but also come with far less risk? Just like in baseball: Sometimes it’s better to rely on hitting some singles and doubles, rather than waiting on hitting the big home run, to win games.

4. Don’t let customization trip you up

At some point, you’ll have the experience of your sales team coming to you, panting with excitement, about how a customization for a customer will lead to a huge sale. This can be very tempting. But anytime you deviate from your road map, there will be unintended consequences. The more custom work you tackle, the more likely it becomes that you will miss gates on your road map. Eventually, you can find yourself completely missing your long-term goals for the product because you’re constantly chasing these short-term dollars. In the early days of a firm, having customer-led development can work, but as you scale the company, you can’t depend on markets of a single customer.

The good news is that there are ways you can tackle custom work. One is by allocating a percentage, say 20 percent, of your engineers and developers to doing this work. This helps limit how distracted your team becomes.

The other option, which is really only suited to larger organizations, is to have a small team dedicated to just working on custom projects. These folks are completely independent from your road map team but should be using similar investment criteria when assessing which projects to pursue.

5. Map your way into the future

When it comes to keeping your organization focused on the long-term potential for products and services, use a product road map as your guide. Without one, you’ll find yourself lost and likely chasing short-term distractions that will leave you far short of your long-term goals.

Jim Schleckser
[email protected]