Product Roadmap and Product Strategy – What’s the Difference?
Earlier this week a good friend of mine, who works in technology, asked me a question – what’s the difference between product strategy and a product roadmap? It turns out that the majority of product development teams point to product roadmaps as the only tool being used to tie day-to-day tactical activities back up to the company’s overarching business goals for their respective product. This is less than ideal but it is the reality for many product managers and product teams.
Given this reality, I want to answer my friends question and differentiate product strategy from product roadmaps. Let’s start by defining product strategy.
Organizations typically have an aspirational goal or vision for what their product could ultimately become in support of an overarching business objective. This vision is often conceptual, not committed to paper or even fully shaped. Regardless, product strategy is the path that organizations choose to take in order to achieve this idealized future product. In other words, product strategy is intended to describe how the organization, or product team, intends to achieve a desired future state. It provides high-level context for a set of activities or milestones that are to be pursued and strives to be directionally correct.
A product strategy is visually illustrated as a phased timeline or series of future steps starting with the current state to some defined point in the future (E.g. 3 or 5 years or even longer in some instances). This is often necessary as a product team may not have the necessary resources at their disposal to deliver all that they desire in the aspirational future state so parsing the product strategy into clearly defined components helps to structure the work ahead and manage stakeholder expectations.
From a communication standpoint, breaking the product strategy into easy-to-understand components makes the path forward more digestible, particularly for those who are not part of the core product team with inside knowledge of the effort. It is important to note that solid product strategy not only defines the boundaries of the actions you intend to take to achieve the desired future state, perhaps most importantly, it also articulates those activities that lie outside of the scope of the strategy that will not be pursued.
Providing a solid product strategy will help focus activities, establish a direct link between the product and the company strategy, and clearly identify to everyone involved the high-level steps currently being taken to achieve the vision.
A product roadmap is common for products that can be delivered incrementally or in an evolutionary fashion, and high-level requirements or epics are their building blocks. Product roadmaps act as the bridge between the product strategy and the actual tactical product development projects that are undertaken in pursuit of attaining the product goals.
While the product strategy outlines a desired future state the product roadmap articulates the necessary tactical steps to take to achieve the vision. As business conditions and priorities change, so should the product roadmap—think of it as a “living document.” The roadmap can be visualized in two distinct time frames.
In the short term, it’s a record of planned releases and may extend two to four release cycles into the future. These activities are often represented by calendar year or on a rolling 12-month basis. Some projects on the product roadmap may be already in active development, or some amount of planning has already occurred, and there is a high degree of confidence that most of the specified deliverables will happen.
The longer-term portion of the roadmap outlines product capabilities that reside outside the organization’s current planning activities and are effectively queued while the current priorities are being developed. This section provides a directional view of where the product might head given current business conditions in the next 12 months or longer. Any major changes in the current projects, the external marketplace, or internally in the business can change these envisioned future releases. For products or platforms with relatively long lives or industries that are relatively slow-moving, the long-term view can project out multiple years or span a predetermined lifecycle. For faster moving industries, such as software or consumer electronics, a multi-year look into the future may be much more difficult to assess with any degree of certainty, given the native rates of change, but it should remain directionally correct.
The primary internal objective of product roadmap activities is to gain organizational alignment so that resource and budget allocations can be planned in advance to enable effective execution. The main components of the product roadmap consist of 1) a defined time frame, 2) a solid understanding of market events or deadlines that will drive deliverables, such as the underlying sales cycle or product seasonality, 3) specific products, product capabilities, or themes phased over a period of time, and 4) associated development activities or resources impacted or required. The internal product roadmap may also be the result of, or heavily influenced by, the product definition and project plan activities for the current release. Very often, the desired scope of envisioned capabilities to be delivered, in the current targeted time frame, far exceeds the team’s human resources or budget, and so a prioritization exercise will be needed for what is delivered now—versus what can be deferred. Requirements prioritization may go so far as to further define a set of phases for future work, which becomes additional short-term and possibly longer term aspects of the roadmap.
For some industries or products, especially those sold business-to-business, an external version of the roadmap may be required for customers. This is often the case where the product impacts a major operational or strategic capability of the purchasing company, or is deployed on a large scale across the organization. As the buyers are making long-term and/or major decisions for the company, they expect to see long-term product plans from the suppliers. Customers typically want to be sure that the organization will continue to invest in the products, and product roadmaps are often used as a means to measure the pace of investment. External versions typically contain much less detail than the internal roadmap and can also be much less committal on specific dates. The most common representation depicts a high-level set of planned release milestones, in presentation slide format, and is often used to support internal or external communication—generally face-to-face.
Product strategy ensures effective alignment between company business goals and defines the path the product is taking to reach an idealized future state. The product roadmap differs from the product strategy as roadmap activities highlight current and near-term tactical development activities that ideally support the product strategy and the overarching business goals. Unfortunately, many organizations lean too heavily upon product roadmaps without setting the product strategy boundary to ensure tactical activities stay between the lines now and well into the envisioned future.
Source: The Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge, Greg Geracie and Steven Eppinger