Photo by Tabea Damm on Unsplash

The End of Product Development Roadmaps has come — finally!

Product development roadmaps — as we know them — promote dysfunctional behavior and spark the wrong discussions. Luckily, their time is up, and the alternative is already in place.

Product roadmaps look irritatingly like Gantt charts, and that’s a problem.

Why roadmaps are problematic

There are some inherent negative consequences when we use roadmaps as we know them. Let’s take a look at those consequences first.

The end of the roadmaps is near! Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

What artifact do we use instead?

To support open, transparent, and continuous dialogues, we will need some visualization for the work that presumably needs to be done and some relation to when it will be done. We also need to satisfy the needs of the people involved; otherwise, the alternative approach cannot be accepted. The needs we’ve mentioned above are orientation, preparation, relatedness, safety, control, relaxation, and confidence. Moreover, the alternative to the current roadmap artifact needs to cope with the complex environment we face in product development, so we need to support flexibility, adaptiveness, focus, and effectivity structurally.

The alternative to roadmaps is a prioritized list of objectives with no time horizon.
“The Full-Kitting Work Flow” by Steve Tendon and Daniel Doiron p. 415

What this makes possible

This simple ‘company backlog’ approach changes the discourse on many levels. You step back from non-value-adding time discussions and focus on prioritizing, measuring success, and learning what works and what does not. You can genuinely adapt to what’s around you since there are no long-term commitments. You can build upon your latest learning from fast feedback from your actual users. You can stay focused on the anticipated value that new objectives add to your business concerning your business strategy. This also fulfills the need for control for the teams and the stakeholders. It also creates a sense of relatedness since continuous collaboration is encouraged.

Smooth operations

To let operations run smoothly, you often need effective combinations of artifacts, roles, and meetings. Since I’ve only discussed the artifact so far, I need to spend some sentences on the other elements as well.

Isn’t it all about a smooth flow?

Common concerns

Whenever I discuss changing the current roadmap to the ‘portfolio backlog’ approach described above, some legitimate concerns are immediately raised. That’s a good indicator that some underlying needs may not appropriately be met by the alternative approach, which makes it worthwhile taking a closer look at those concerns.

But we have deadlines to meet!

This concern is typically raised by middle managers who are in a somewhat unsatisfying situation that they are held accountable for something they cannot deliver themselves. To nonetheless feel in control, deadlines seem to be a probate solution. Investigating where those deadlines come from and why they are so commonly used is valuable.

But when will it be done?

Of course, there is the concern that we now don’t know anymore when the started ‘items’ (objectives, problems) will be done if we don’t map them on a calendar. I respect the need for confidence and control implied in this concern. If I am cocky, I ask how well the ‘calendar-fixation’ has played out in the past, and the answer is almost certainly “not so well”. So it might be a good idea to look the devil in the eye and accept that writing a finish date in a calendar only delivers a feeling of relaxation but does not affect delivery reliability.

“Your process is unpredictable. What you may not realize, though, is that you are the one responsible for making it that way.” Daniel Vacanty *

There are great books on that topic out there — most notably by Daniel Vacanti that deal in-depth with the question of ‘when will it be done?’ (see additional sources below). Just let me address that concern quickly. Usually, that question is raised when the delivery predictability is low. Low delivery predictability is the effect of starting work too soon and having way too much work in process in parallel. Combine this situation with almost random prioritization on all levels (executives to teams), and you get a delivery organization that is by definition completely unpredictable. I know that the question ‘when will it be done?’ is entirely reasonable in that working environment. Nevertheless, you have to address the urge for that question rather than ask that question repeatedly.

But we have more ideas than we can start with!

That’s a critical concern. No method in the world is going to change that circumstance. We will always have more ideas than we can deliver. This is partly because we produce vast amounts of solution ideas as long as we don’t completely understand the problem.

Underlying assumptions

This article is written from the perspective of a management consultant and agile coach who has a lot of experience working with companies in a very complex and volatile business environment. The suggested approach is highly applicable to those companies. Of course, some companies out there seem to be ‘blessed’ with more stability and thus predictability. I assume that those companies don’t understand the pain I have with the common roadmap approach, and I assume that there is no need for them to think about the suggested approach.

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Stefan Willuda

BetaCodex Consultant, Former Scrum, Kanban and Management Consultant | Agile Coach | TOC Enthusiast | I believe that a humane global economy is possible.