Why I use a theme-based roadmap

📅 2021-06-05 • prodpad.com

If you’re a Product Manager, you’ve likely been asked to display your roadmap as a Gantt chart, or other visual so that the deliverables can be seen against a timeline. This might be due to requests from C-Suite management wanting clarity when a feature will be delivered or due to legacy Project Management Office behaviours. Regardless of the catalysts, these requests come from good intentions. However, your organisation is likely focusing too much on shipping features and meeting arbitrary deadlines to sate customer requests than solving real problems. This approach is likely delivering features that do not meet expectations, dissatisfying customers and stakeholders alike.

I instead prefer a theme-based roadmap and framing these initiatives as problems we intend to solve. You can turn these themes into a roadmap by arranging them across different time horizons covering the Present, Near Term and Future. They’re usually labelled as Now, Next and Later. This is a real differentiator as traditional roadmaps are a list of promised features arranged Gantt chart timeline with an already locked specification.

Themes are a Promise to Solve Problems, Not Build Features.

Jared M. Spool

So how does a theme-based roadmap work?

Much like user stories in an active sprint, you’ll identify problems to solve. These will be arranged over three or four columns. From left to right they’ll read Now, Next and Later.

Anatomy of a Now, Next and Later roadmap

Items in Now are typically smaller well-understood problems with clear deliverables and fixed scope. As you move further to the right-hand side you’ll find larger items with greater ambiguity. I am currently using Now, Next, Later and Ideas. The Later column on my roadmap contains fluffy titles for candidate projects requiring discovery. While the Ideas column is a backlog for problems and new ideas to periodically replenish our Later column.

However, you can adjust the labels for each time horizons to best convene the current and future work. For example, you may decide that renaming Later to read H2 2021 is helpful while retraining those used to traditional timelines.

So what’s it like using a theme-based roadmap?

After using this framework for the last couple of years, I honestly believe arranging initiatives in this manner changes everyone’s mindset when discussing our roadmap in our Product Council meetings. Instead of discussing when we want a specific feature will be delivered, we have conversations about our customer’s problems and goals. As we release each new iteration we collect new feedback to confirm how well we solved the problem. Our roadmap has become the communication tool that facilitates these discussions.

I believe this has made the product team lean. Meeting and discussing the roadmap in this manner has forced us to carefully prioritise these problems. In turn, we’ve focused on the right opportunities and delighted our customers as we solve their challenges. I hope you try this format for your product.