F**k Roadmaps!!! – The good, the bad and the ugly – The wrap-up

We opened 2019 talking about roadmaps – a topic we had been asked in responses to our annual feedback to spend some more time on. We invited our speakers to share their different perspectives on roadmaps… and we heard come common themes to help understand how to keep a roadmap from controlling your life, and how to turn it into a fabulous communication and vision guide for inspiring your teams, plus some sage advice relevant to each organisation who took the stage that evening.

Below are some highlights from each talk plus the slides from each speaker – feel free to reach out to any of them if you would like to chat more. Plus we have added some references to other resources to read and explore at the end of this post.

David Bignall / Seek

David had much to share – ultimately not a fan but he did share some tips on how to help make them work for you rather than be a slave to them!

Roadmaps are a thing, every company has them so you will encounter them. David used this deck at Seek over a year ago to his team and people so proof they are a real thing, but after having the discussion has helped wean the team/group he is on off them.

For David when sharing what he thinks a roadmap is showed a map – because it is a journey to an unknown place.

“A document to capture and quickly convey a team’s big-picture goals, specific objectives and their imagined path to success” – Dave

 “A company roadmap is a document to capture and quickly convey its big-picture plans and objectives” – prodplan.com

“The first purpose is because the management of a company wants to make sure that the teams are working on the highest value items first, relevant to the company strategy.

The second purpose is because businesses may have date-based commitments. The roadmap is where they see and track those commitments.” Marty Cagan, SVPG

They can be useful – but they can also be a big waste of time – common issues:

  1. Intended goals/purpose are not stated or are not clear
  2. Often far to specific
    1. You can’t have that much foresight 9 months away
  3. They do not account for “time to value”. Iteration is almost always needed to realise the full value of a new product/feature – (David bravely shared an own example of a very bad roadmap!)
    1. Put item on there and them immediately moving on to the next thing
    2. Ignoring the process of iteration or things going wrong
  4. Detail on roadmap can lead team to auto-pilot. They build what they put down on paper often months in advance
    1. Team goes into auto-pilot. As if this is their job, rather than thinking of most value to be delivered for the customer
  5. Distributed copies are out of date
    1. Keeping stakeholders up to date can drain your time. You don’t want to feel like you work for the roadmap, and it is just sucking your time from doing real work.

“Many untested hypotheses, based on assumptions, plotted in an uncertain future, bearing no resemblance to reality” Jared Spool

Dave’s top tips for roadmaps

  1. Show where you want to go
  2. Choose granularity relative to the timeframe and audience
  3. Avoid specificity (Show the problem or JTBD or objectives as descriptors of intent rather than the solution)
  4. Keep it simple, centralised and accessible
  5. Don’t work for it, it works for you.

Whitney Cali / realestate.com.au

Whitney opened with sharing a story about her experiences of not liking roadmaps because she has never seen a roadmap, become reality. She first got to know REA when working at a company in the US, and became a slave to the roadmap as they committed to work they would deliver to this customer. Then, she joined REA and was so excited about agile and thought, YES! I’ll get away from roadmaps! But she was fooling herself – see the beautiful roadmap on the wall at REA (pictured in slides). However, she soon found that REA was using roadmaps and needed to due to the big size of the organisation and the need to coordinate a lot across so many teams, groups etc.

However, in Whitney’s attempt to accept roadmaps and make peace with the need for them she started asking “Why do people ask for roadmaps?”.

Some of the things she learnt don’t work when using them:

  1. Don’t work as a promise
  2. Too much detail – just a list of lower level features
  3. Lose focus on what the customer needs.

REA owns a lot of companies and even just within Realestate.com a dozen delivery teams.

“Satisfaction is a confirmation or dis-confirmation of expectations.”

Example of people waiting for train for 15 minutes but dissatisfied, and others warned that train will come at 5:30 and apologies for the delay, did not rate their travel experience as dissatisfying as compared to the first group as their expectations were met/managed.

With that in mind let’s try to think what this artefact does to satisfy our leaders.

So what are they currently doing with Whitney’s team – they use a 90 day view – showing a commitment up to 90 days. No promises beyond that – great for delivery teams. Not great for stakeholders.

For stakeholders they use a Discovery backlog (second 90 days) and an Opportunity backlog (all the rest – no priority) – people now satisfied that their idea is on there – somewhere. Others groups understand that stuff that comes out of Discovery will most likely make it to the committed version and the conversation is being moved to a different stage of team flow.

I encourage you to seek to understand with genuine curiosity, the needs of anyone who has a problem and thinks that a roadmap is the solution. Whitney

Keith Swann / Origin Engery

Keith brought to us a more positive upside to the roadmap discussion

His beliefs are that they help with:

  • Alignment – up or down
  • Influence – rarely based on dollars
  • Leadership – how do we inspire people and rally them to our cause

Alignment

  • Everyone will scrutinize it to their own beliefs, so do it carefully – target on your back
    • Strategic – Financial, PMOs, GMs, etc. etc. interpret the stuff and then try to manage up and down.
    • Cultural – make sure it talks to your audience
    • Influence Record – Successful record of moving things along. Better record = less scrutiny

A road map is a Story telling device and the aspects Keith uses are MUM, Problems, Position, Opportunity, Value. How do you tell the story, “up or down” the organisation. Think of the “Cone of influence” – below people can make lots of small decision but not big decisions. As you move up you get spun out if you aren’t managing those stakeholders.

  • Eisenhower: Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable
  • Every day the plan can change – the second your plan is finished it is out of date.
  • Roadmap = Vision.

Takeaways

  • Don’t put in too much detail
  • Think of your audience – Working Tested Feature – WTF
  • Don’t muddle the Project Mindset – Delivery Planning – Bookending with a roadmap
  • Don’t become vague in your horizon 2 and 3 – don’t over promise
  • Make it easily editable and manageable
    • Post Its on the wall and photos
  • Over invested time of effort – working with visual designers. 5 days work and 6/7000$ and printed in colour. Thus, you deliver to the roadmap even though you don’t want it anymore because too much effort went into the artefact.
  • Don’t clearly show values
  • Don’t focus on the feature – focus on the problem or opportunity.

Summary

Roadmaps may very well be a necessary evil, especially in a big organisation when you have many teams and people to motivate, inspire and align. However, our speakers have shared some great tips to help keep you from being a slave to them as well. For some more references and reading on steering clear of them and/or leaning into making them work for you check out some of the links below:

  • Brad Dunn has some opposing opinions on roadmaps.
  • Marty Cagan is not a fan and in these post he links to OKR’s which came up in both the speaker presentations and the questions afterwards.
  • And last but not least for a more practical tuition on taking back control of your roadmap you could check out Bruce McCarthy’s seminar on UIE

Thank you!!!

And thank you to our sponsors as always, without them these events do not happen.

gather
UnitedCo.
seek.com
Brainmates

Essential steps to building great products + services

Last Friday, Brainmates brought together an impressive line-up to talk about creating great products. The talks were linked through 4 steps of product creation:

  • idea selection
  • product design
  • product team
  • launch

The 4 speakers shared their experience in that area for the audience to walk away with a holistic inspiration for building great products.

Warren Wan kicked us off talking about idea selection and opportunity assessment steps at MyFitnessPal. His perspective is from building a start-up, which is often different to working on products at a large corporate, but in a short half-hour he shared a number of insights, including:

Three things are needed for a start-up to succeed:

  1. something the founder needs or believes in
  2. something they can build
  3. something few others think has value in it

MyFitnessPal’s founder, Mike, started out this way – with a need to lose weight in time for a wedding and frustrated by the standard calorie counter books that were handed out at that time. The available products didn’t match or suit the moment when you were actually at the supermarket needing to assess the calories in food and they certainly didn’t help with the calorie count at a restaurant. Mike went on to teach himself programming so he could build the solution himself.

MyFitnessPal are now in the growth phase and they still focus on the core use case – which for MyFitnessPal is the best in class experience and the food database. With a start-up, over-extending your limited resources is not something you can afford to do so this focus is incredibly important.

They choose to work on ideas that increase the user funnel (overall traffic), that assist with app store placement (currently top 3 app in over 65 countries) and funnel optimisation.

Warren had some important points to add regarding funnel optimisation.  Registration is thought of as something that needs to be fast but MyFitnessPal they found this is not an area to shortcut. The more information they can get about their user, the more they can do to support the users’ goals and journey. While that will see fewer sign-ups, the value the user feels by continuing through the process, the better job MyFitnessPal can do with calorie guidance and thus a better value relationship is created.

warren presenting

Other important concepts in idea selection are to iterate quickly & listen to the user. It’s important not to overbuild. It’s more important to ship. Every employee listens to support queries so the whole company feels the mission – and understands what the user needs.

Now in the growth phase with the option to hire and go beyond a one-man start-up, there is room to think about hard problems (with big returns). Warren described this as a “widen the moat” strategy – to focus on efforts that drive differentiation between competitors.

The culture at a company needs to support everyone having a voice, and MyFitnessPal concur. Warren explained the “amazon two pizza rule” which is a way to think about team sizes. The analogy is a helpful way to think about how to organise teams – the optimal number of people in a team can be fed with 2 pizzas. MyFitnessPal have sorted their teams around feature groups, to help with purpose and focus and knowing the number of pizzas to order 🙂

Next Lisa Wong took us through the next step in creation of a great product – the design stage. Lisa is director of product and user experience at eBay, Australia. Lisa pulled no punches:

“a product designer and a product manager are not the same thing”

If product managers aren’t designing what are we doing, what are we doing? We are defining the vision. Lisa asks her product team to define the product plan which is made up of just three things:

  1. What do you want to deliver
  2. Vision/product approach
  3. Roadmap

Easy right? Never underestimate/misunderstand the probability of miscommunication. What does this mean? It means the PM’s job is to over-describe and over-explain what is needed. A PM can get sucked into getting feedback, prioritisation and the tactical steps.

If one is so “execution focussed that they are not interested in the reason behind it, then success is a gamble”

Lisa’s guidance for her team to help rise above this is:

  • Articulate what you want to achieve
  • Establish a frame of reference (common ideas)
      For eBay, this was using a store or a warehouse as a metaphor for the digital landscape
  • Over-describe and over-explain what you mean
      You can never do this too much! There are lots of available tools so use all of them or whichever you need at the time. Use personas, mental models, customer journeys, mood boards, click path analysis, create mental dialoges, etc. Make sure they are are built from observation and data – not from asking.

A theme starts to emerge at this point as Lisa also reiterates comments that Warren has made.

“if you never execute and get out to market you never make money”, so “done better is better than done perfect”.

The focus naturally now shifts to the team and people you need for building great products and this was nicely covered by Henry Ruiz, Chief Product Officer at REA Group.

When looking for people at REA, they look for core skills that include product marketing, conceptual skills, ability to get into the market, ability to predict the market and to be authentic people that influence without authority. This last one is about hiring nice people 🙂

Henry said REA not only looks for high competency but high self-esteem and low ego. Refreshing to hear this articulated about your product management people and hiring process.

The way in which REA frames their work is the 3C’s:

  • Context
    • The problem statement
    • What is it the customer is trying to achieve
  • Concept
    • The success criteria
  • Content
    • The product idea
    • Where a lot of people get stuck and lost in without having defined the previous two.

The power of the product manager is in helping others see the context and the concept before they get lost in their product idea and thus ensuring when they do, it will be to work on the right component that needs solving at that time.

Henry presenting

Henry took us on a journey through the “co-creation approach to develop product concepts” at REA. Like most companies, REA have more than one stakeholder to consider – the real estate agent, the seller and the consumer.

In order to ensure they never tug too strongly for one stakeholder and end up hurting another, they ensure a balanced score card is in place for all 3. This helps them build solutions that bring value across that market. Such a disciplined approach leads them to create “sweetspot” concepts repeatedly.

Last, but by no means least, Jane Huxley, currently at Pandora internet radio, led us through launching a product. With experience across many products and industries, from Microsoft, to Vodafone, to Fairfax and now Pandora, Jane shared her experiences with a great deal of humour.

Launch success criteria have changed over time and certainly since Jane’s time at Microsoft. Jane was quite clear that now a launch is “not a date on the calendar” that you can get to and be done. One of those reasons for change is due to the types of products of that time when you would know how well you were doing by the simple(r) maths of the number of products shipping out the door. Now, your parameters for success have changed and Pandora understood that by giving Jane a year to plan for launch.

The support that she had by working with Pandora allowed for options that might not have otherwise been available – Jane called this standing on the shoulders of giants. One needs to make sure it is clear what you do and why you exist – for Pandora that is about being clear that they are targeting the 80% of the market of that are passive listeners of music, they are not after the active listeners that Rdio, iTunes, and MOG etc are after. This is how Pandora stands out from the rest.

The ambiguity that one has to be comfortable with and is necessary to launch and manage products now is something she guides her people on as she recruits them. Jane’s advice is to focus – remember what you said you were going to do in the 1st place. Pull out that napkin or beer mat where you wrote the idea down and as the noise of a launch tries to suck you in, pick up that napkin and remember why you are here. Spend the time beforehand to stave off the biggest risks before pulling the trigger.

Lastly, the viral secret sauce! When someone adds 2 personalised station, they 8 other users within a week. When we discover something new we are compelled to share, so Pandora’s secret is their personalisation + discovery.

And there was one final piece of advice, which I think wasn’t just about launching products – keep calm and play the long game. Jane wrapped up the entire talk with this statement as it rose above all the valuable tactical advice she had provided and essentially reminded us all not to sweat the small stuff.

The summary of advice from Jane to launch successfully:

  • Stand on the shoulders of giants
  • Stand out from the pack
  • Focus
  • Go viral
  • Keep calm and play the long game

It was a fabulous afternoon of product management goodness from all the speakers with much to learn and a fantastic view of the two great Sydney icons from the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Thank you Brainmates for organising a fantastic event!  If you want to check out more from the day, see the Storify.