Chapter 13

6 common questions about the product roadmap

The product roadmap seems like a pretty straightforward document. You take your initiatives and plot them along a timeline or by themes, present them to your stakeholders, then move on to do more important product managing stuff.

Well, if that was true, we wouldn’t have written an entire guide about product roadmapping.

In reality, the product roadmap is a complex strategic tool that involves a lot of preparation, planning, people managing, research, organization, prioritization, and TED talk-level presentation #skills. See how we called it a tool and not a document? That’s because it’s not meant to be as static as a Microsoft Office file.

When you invest time, effort, and money (ahem, on a roadmapping tool like Roadmunk 😏) on your product roadmap, it can positively impact things like alignment, buy-in, and strategic organization at the business, product, stakeholder and product team levels.

But enough about why you (definitely, absolutely) need a product roadmap if you’re a product manager. Let’s get into some common questions and confusions about the product roadmap.

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product roadmap

1. Can my product roadmap also double as a release plan?

Not quite. Your product roadmap should illustrate the high-level product strategy. Because of that, every initiative along the product roadmap should be directly tied to a widely-understood, high-level product vision and strategy (note that we keep repeating high-level for a good reason). This means that the product roadmap doesn’t get into the tactical, granular weeds of product development.

Product roadmaps can also include general buckets for upcoming features and technical considerations, and demonstrate how a product will evolve sequentially over time (but not all roadmaps are built on a timeline, some just follow organizational themes). The most important functions of a high-level product roadmap are to align internal stakeholders and educate the team on the product vision.

On the other hand, a release plan is more tactical and granular than the product roadmap. It defines in more detail the who, what, how, and when of each strategic initiative. The release plan has actual deadlines; it shows defined dates by which the feature, bug fix or update will be completed. Apart from setting harder dates, it also answers these two questions:

  • What does the dev team need in order to work on this feature? (resources)
  • What tasks will the dev team work on to make this feature/bug fix/update happen? (requirements)

Compare that to the product roadmap, which illustrates the why. On top of that, the release plan’s audience is internal; it’s made almost exclusively of the engineering and development team.

Pro tip: To plan, organize and communicate those granular specifications, use a release roadmap. A release roadmap highlights new improvements, features and bug fixes that are launching in your upcoming release cycles.

Product roadmap

Release roadmaps typically span between 3 to 6 months, but can also be organized into shorter sprints. You can also pivot a release roadmap across teams like development, QA and product marketing to ensure inter-departmental alignment around your release.

product roadmap

2. Why can’t I just use a product backlog without a product roadmap?

Like the release plan, your product backlog is more granular and task-oriented than the product roadmap. The backlog is a list of prioritized requirements, tasks and features that should be completed in order to fulfill the product strategy outlined in the product roadmap. It’s a repository of refined, prioritized estimates (in the form of user stories) that help teams make decisions on what to work on next.

Even though the product backlog is an organized list of the priorities a team should work on, not every item becomes a feature or initiative. There might be constraints related to time, cost, effort, and dependencies where something comes up and must be completed before tackling any given prioritized item on the backlog.

A product roadmap is a visual communication of how the product will get from strategic point A to point B. It’s meant to show the high-level initiatives each team will we working on, and how they relate to each other on a timeline. A product backlog lacks that complexity—it’s a simple list that doesn’t specify the who, when or how it aligns with that strategy the roadmap is meant to communicate.

The product roadmap is not meant to show details like mock-ups, UX design sketches, workflow diagrams and user stories (although with a tool like Roadmunk, you can link to those documents without cluttering your product roadmap). So, it’s important to have both documents living in separate places, where the roadmap is informed by the backlog.

The product backlog and the product roadmap complement each other. Without a product strategy or a roadmap, your team doesn’t really understand why backlog items are prioritized a certain way. There’s no strategic alignment or transparency around the work being done internally.

Product roadmap

Image source

And whereas your product roadmap will be seen by the entire organization, the product backlog will only be seen by the product team. It’s not meant to be an external document for stakeholders to sift through. That’s where a product roadmap comes in instead.

product roadmap

3. Who owns the product roadmap?

Follow up question: Am I, the product manager, the only one involved in planning, building and updating the product roadmap?

The question of roadmap “ownership” is a tricky one. On the one hand, the official Scrum version states that the product roadmap falls under the Product Owner responsibilities. But in some companies, the product manager is also the product owner. In some cases, the role of the product owner isn’t “elevated” enough, so it gets turned into a technical product manager or associate product manager title. It depends on the organization, and there are no hard and fast rules on how to define these roles.

But roadmapping as a practice doesn’t happen in a silo. It should include the priorities, ideas and inputs of all the relevant stakeholders, the product team, and it should reflect the voice of the customer. Assigning a person to maintain the roadmap after all the strategy is agreed upon, like a Product Owner or PM, ensures that it’s always updated to reflect the always-changing and evolving needs of the product. It doesn’t mean, however, that the roadmap is the sole responsibility of that person.

A product manager who is assigned to take care of the roadmap is also in charge of leading these initiatives:

  • Manage the relationship between development and the roadmap by answering any questions or concerns regarding the requirements and how they’re prioritized
  • Leading prioritization initiatives to decide which backlog items will migrate to the roadmap and why

When planning the roadmap, you need multiple sources of input to make sure you get buy-in once the roadmap is finished. Product managers need to run the requirements by internal stakeholders and any relevant external stakeholders that might be invested in the product at that level.

product roadmap

4. What does a product roadmap look like?

Like this:

Product roadmap

The product roadmap should be visual and grounded in the principles of information design. This means it should communicate strategy using colours, shapes, visual markers and design elements in the most simple and intuitive way possible. These visual principles help convey relationships between the different initiatives plotted on the product roadmap.

Needless to say, the roadmap should be free of cluttered chunks of copy and comments made by team members. Changes shouldn’t be hard to keep track of, and updates shouldn’t happen at random and without an established hierarchy for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

The need for information design to communicate strategy is one of the reasons why roadmap tools like Roadmunk were born. Spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations aren’t as engaging and dynamic as a roadmap tool. They’re static, manual, and limited in format.

Product roadmapping tools like Roadmunk, however, allow you to build a visual roadmap that’s more grounded in the strategic needs of the product planning and development processes.

Product roadmaps also come in many shapes. Some popular formats include:

No dates: These roadmaps don’t rely on hard dates to establish when things will be delivered. They’re usually organized around sprints owners or themes. This type of roadmap is usually for early-stage companies with priorities that shift constantly.

Hybrid: Hybrid roadmaps include some dates, usually in the form of months or quarters.

Timeline: This type of roadmap is usually in place for more complex companies and products that need to juggle multiple departments, dependencies and deadlines.

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product roadmap

5. How do I create a product roadmap for a strategic plan?

The strategic roadmap is a powerful tool for visualizing the key steps to achieving your mission. Think of it this way: the product roadmap is all about the why (vision) and what (strategy), and the strategic roadmap can be used to paint a picture of the steps required to achieve that vision.

Championed by senior-level stakeholders, strategic planning roadmaps focus on mission-critical business objectives and usually emphasize long-term timelines and deadlines. Unlike product roadmaps, which often show which features and initiatives will be executed in the short-term, strategic roadmaps illustrate the long game.

product roadmap

6. How often should I update the product roadmap?

How often you update your product roadmap depends on a lot of factors unique to your product. The industry, the size of the company, where the product sits along the lifecycle, and the type of product are all factors that are likely to influence the cadence of product roadmap updates.

Things like how your users react to features, changes in the market and the industry, and new research will change the course of your product, which means your roadmap should be updated accordingly. On top of that, you should have a way to communicate these roadmap changes to everyone involved.

A word of warning though: saying that a roadmap is bound to change often doesn’t mean that you should make sure that it does. Adding new initiatives, features, and tasks without the proper documentation, requirements estimation, prioritization and discussion is a recipe for disaster. Always stay aligned with the strategy and focused on the overall product vision without going astray.

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