We’ve come to rely on a new product roadmap definition: It's a statement of intent.
This type of roadmap isn’t a set-in-stone plan. It’s a visualization of where you’re going, and it can come in many forms. But it’s also a living document, which can change.
They are commonly thought of as communication tools. We don’t disagree. But this definition doesn’t capture the whole picture: it doesn’t explicitly encompass the important fact that they are also living documents.
What is a roadmap? More importantly, what is a product roadmap? Yes, it’s a communication tool — but the ideas your roadmap communicates are often subject to change. By thinking of it as a statement of intent, you emphasize that key differentiator.
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Why this product roadmap definition works
1. It smooths the alignment process
Beyond the challenges associated with actually building your roadmap, there can be a lot of interpersonal friction. How do you balance the demands of sales, marketing, execs, your hairdresser, your third-cousin Pam? How do you foster a sense of openness and empathy around the product roadmapping process?
We like statement of intent because it clarifies an often messy internal process; it offers a point of reference and context that every team can follow.
2. It grows with your company
As organizations evolve, so do their roadmaps. From talking to countless product managers, we know that in young companies, roadmaps tend to be a list of features. Referring to your roadmap as a statement of intent is useful at this stage, particularly in agile organizations that don’t necessarily run on timelines. It provides a flexible framework at a volatile phase of your product lifecycle.
This gets tricky at bigger companies, where roadmaps integrate a whole lot more complexity and often include aggressive timelines. By suggesting that you think of your roadmap as a statement of intent, we’re not suggesting you ignore deadlines. In large organizations, our definition is most helpful during the buy-in process. Get four departments in a roadmap meeting, and there will be conflicting agendas. By presenting your roadmap as a statement of intent, you can mitigate knee-jerk criticism from conflicting stakeholders.
3. It’s customer-friendly
It can be incredibly valuable to show your customers your roadmap. Less valuable: making promises you can’t keep.
When customers understand that your roadmap is a statement of intent, they understand that the items on it might shift. Making it clear that your roadmap articulates intention, rather than commitment, allows you to build enthusiasm while managing expectations.
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Where this product roadmap definition gets complicated
A roadmap needs to relay concrete events and activities — especially at large organizations where dependencies and deadlines are involved. Thinking of your roadmap as a statement of intent doesn’t mean avoiding commitment altogether. Sometimes flexibility just isn’t possible. Depending on the stage, size and structure of your organization, this definition will have different applications. The important point is that it creates space for flexibility — if and when flexibility becomes necessary.
It will always be a challenge to get stakeholders — especially executives — to understand that roadmaps aren’t written in permanent ink. Smaller companies can often sidestep this challenge by creating roadmaps without dates. Bigger, deadline-driven companies can reinforce the idea that a roadmap is a statement of intent by explicitly visualizing flexibility.
There will always be some friction during the roadmapping process, whether it’s hostility towards the initial plan or reluctance to pivot as variables evolve. Evangelizing a definition like statement of intent can help build understanding around the product roadmap process—both with your customers and within your company culture.
What is a product roadmap? Regardless of which definition you prefer, remember: it’s not literally a roadmap.