Crafting a lean roadmap

I previously wrote about common issues with traditional roadmaps. They make too many assumptions which causes miscommunication, wastes time and effort and renders you unresponsive to changing circumstances. Now I’m following up with how we can craft better, lean roadmaps.

The idea behind Lean is to reduce waste. Let’s make our roadmaps less wasteful and create a lean roadmap! This article is fuelled by the talks and writing of Janna Bastow, CEO of ProdPad.

Building blocks of a lean roadmap

  • Everything you do is anchored to your vision
  • You set objectives which get you closer to your vision
  • You form initiatives which you think will achieve your objectives
  • Finally you plot them on time horizons

Start with Why

Your product and company need a strong vision to not waste time on irrelevant tasks. If you don’t know where you’re going you can’t get lost, but you’ll also never arrive. To prevent wasting time always ask yourself if what you’re working on is the most important thing right now to get closer to your vision.

Crafting a vision

Janna Bastow recommends the elevator pitch template from the eye opening book Crossing the Chasm as a starting point. Admittedly, it creates a bit of an awkward statement so you will need to do copy writing on it to make it truly inspiring. But it’s a neat way to discover your organisation’s essence. I have also written about creating a vision for already established teams.

Here is Netflix’s vision to give you a more elegant example:

Becoming the best global entertainment distribution service

Focus on impact

Output is what your team delivers. You might measure that in story points burnt or tasks completed for example. But what you do means nothing if it does not have the impact you want. You are wasting resources if you are unsure whether your efforts bring you closer to your vision.

Let’s play this through as an aspiring product manager at Netflix. Your near-term objective on your roadmap is to improve viewing minutes because that’s a crucial part of becoming the best entertainment distribution service. Your way to do this is by smart recommendations. We’ll call this combination of a goal and a way to achieve it an initiative. Your initiative can be summarised like this:

We are developing smart recommendations to increase viewing minutes because it supports us in becoming the best entertainment distribution platform.

So your team has just released the recommendation engine. From the perspective of traditional roadmapping you’re full on track and you can dive right into the next topic. But what if that recommendation engine sucks so hard that nobody finds any new shows through it?

Since your initiative is not just tied to the smart recommendations feature but also the outcome (improving viewing minutes) you will not celebrate the release itself but inspect how many customers click and watch the recommended shows. If nobody likes the recommendations you are having zero (positive) impact. Your desired outcome was not achieved. Back to the drawing board. Only this time you don’t have to make a big story of failure out of it. It was always a possibility expressed in your roadmap.

Time horizons

Instead of focusing on a timeline counting weeks or sprints, focus on time horizons. You really only need three time horizons: now, next and later. It’s great for it’s clear and understandable structure without asking for details you can’t provide reliably yet.

Live in the now, know what’s next and dream of what could be later.

The Now can be concrete with a lot of nuance. Your initiatives have a lot of detail and defined steps. This horizon looks roughly one month into the future. That’s Netflix’s initiative to increase viewers minutes with the recommendation engine.

The Next horizon shows the initiatives of the following one to three months. Initiatives at this stage are broader topics which you are already evaluating. For our Netflix example the next goal might be to reduce user churn. You’re looking into allowing a grace period for outdated credit card information to reduce involuntary churn or adding a social what are my friends watching feature.

The Later horizon then captures your grand ideas which are not quite ripe yet. The goals are lofty and the initiatives function more like an idea aggregator. You will still need to test and select the best ideas. As our fictional Netflix product manager you might dream of partnerships to grow the business or an API for indie creators to distribute their content through Netflix. Here is an example format of a lean roadmap:

Example of a lean roadmap. You can find my template for a lean roadmap here.

Lean roadmaps are simple and elegant

A lean roadmap communicates the motivation for your work (vision), highlights objectives and puts your efforts (initiatives) to achieve them into a time relevant context (time horizons).

Use your roadmap as a prototype of your strategy. Then evaluate it with your stakeholders, team and customers. This aids the discovery of what is the most important thing to do next.

By making your roadmaps leaner you create a visual tool that is even easier to understand than traditional roadmaps. At the same time you’re not tying yourself up in knots with too many assumptions. Lean roadmaps need less upfront planning and more communication. Focus on the people involved rather than the process.

Further reading: