The Road To Nowhere: A Roadmap Based On Features

Product roadmaps focused on features alone never helped me win. In fact, they got me into semantic arguments and created cultural upheaval. Here's why: people ascribe biased value to a feature based on whether or not they believe it will benefit them personally.

In the beginning, features don't count In the earliest days of an enterprise roadmap, a product vision should be grand enough that "features" become an appendix. The primary content of the roadmap is comprised of the business value and metrics the product will deliver. As a product manager, this is what you want everyone willing to buy and it's your job to sell it. Secondarily, it includes the major process or information changes that will occur in a customer's business. This is what you want everyone willing to do. It's your responsibility to understand how to influence their business processes to generate that business value you articulated. Finally, there is a high-level list of features or capabilities you believe will enable that process change that unlocks that business value. This is what you want everyone willing to build. It's important to understand the difference between 'buy,' 'do,' and 'build.' Build comes last.

The same basic principles apply early in the lifecycle of a consumer product. Most great consumer businesses have two core components (aside of a monetization model) - a user base and some information asset that's collected (photos, financial data, 'friend relationships,' etc.). I prefer product roadmaps that show me how the information collection strategy evolves over time and how we're going to measure that. I'm certain there are 30 ways to collect a piece of information, I don't really care which one works - that's a feature. If the design and development processes are nimble enough, you'll have multiple swings at the plate to determine which one is right.

In the early stage of product management, it's far easier to train an audience to measure progress against a roadmap that commits to strategic metric achievement. It's much harder to train that audience to accept feature progress as reason to continue to invest. If a roadmap does not clearly, defensible and quantifiably articulate compelling metrics, trash it and don't bother thinking about features, they're almost certainly unaligned.

However, as a product matures ... Users unknowingly organize themselves into different archetypes because they access and value different functionality within your platform. This makes things more complicated. If your product is a great enterprise product, it will change business processes. If it's a great consumer product, it will change lives. Once processes and lives change, people become more selfish. They believe they want the things that will accelerate their pursuit of the future. If your reaction to this phenomenon is to try to cram more features into your roadmap, you're going to have problems.

You can ask your customers/users what they believe their future to be. Enterprise product managers know how this goes. You receive a different answer from every customer and have to pull off the ultimate balancing act. Customers believe they are spending good money for the right to influence the product. Inevitably, 100% of your customers feel 75% happy. 75% happiness – that’s not a business I want to run.

Consumer product managers face their own dilemma. User feedback on roadmap issues works really well if you're small or until you begin to monetize a consumer service. Once you reach either of those milestones, user psychology frequently evolves to be one of semi-to-permanent discontent. This is due to a perceived lack of personalization and the constant pressure of ankle biting startups giving your idea away for free and willing to do more for each and every unique customer. Yes, if you're Facebook or Twitter and you've re-plumbed the Internet, you've got different issues.

So, my advice to product managers – personal bias is tremendously difficult to influence. Don't build roadmaps around features, you'll introduce personal bias. Leave the features in the project or development plans, as an appendix to your discussion. Build your roadmaps around a very small handful of strategic metrics that are massively compelling. Then, sell the value of transforming business or lives by achieving these metrics to your boss, your company, your customers, your prospects, your investors and the industry. You’ll disarm your co-workers and customers of their personal bias and focus them on what's quantifiably important. In the long-run, with repeated success, features will become nothing other than swings at the metrics plate -- a product manager's slice of heaven.