Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Highway sign - RoadmapOver the past few years, as agile methodology gained traction, I’ve met quite a few teams that were struggling to balance between the need to be agile while creating and communicating a mid to long term roadmap.

A well communicated roadmap allows engineers and PMs to have a guiding light telling them where they need to direct their efforts and allows you to better align other teams to get the most out of every product feature you deliver. This clarity enables your business partners in sales and marketing to better communicate to the market where the product is headed, generate more leads and close more business.

On the other hand, spending too much time in advance on rigid, detailed plans may make you unable to quickly respond to market feedback and new opportunities that present themselves.

Here’s a simple framework that worked for me and my team:

Identify Core Product Themes

The first step is to analyze the dynamics you’d like to create to drive value to your users and customers. This analysis should be fairly stable and although it may get updated every once in a while, it’s not a good sign if it significantly changes on a regular basis.

Create a simple flow diagram showing these interactions, then identify the core product pillars you’d like to address.

Community value driversThe diagram to the right is an example of how this analysis may look for a B2B community platform. In this case product pillars may be: user engagement, admin engagement and driving business value.

High Level Quarterly Plans

Planning 3 months ahead provides a good balance between agility and being able to focus enough resources to make an impact. Yes, you should definitely push features out every sprint, but sprint content should support the bigger themes you’re addressing in your quarterly plan.

I’ll discuss the planning process in a separate post, but it’s essential that you review your plan and get buy in from product leaders and relevant members of the management team a few weeks before allocating resources to start working on the plan. The review should be high level and contain several topics:

  • Present your product’s value drivers and the main pillars in your product strategy. It may seem repetitive to show this in every review, but it creates the alignment and the common grounds that will save you time during the review.
  • Clearly communicate that the plan is a starting point and not a detailed and committed workplan. This is especially important when the process is not well engrained in your culture and some stakeholders may not be comfortable with the agile process.
  • For each product pillar: review goals, KPIs and main features. Make sure to clearly identify risks and TBDs.
  • Leave time to solicit feedback – especially make sure to call out tradeoffs (“we can only do X or Y — what do you think?”) and list items that were left out from the plan.

A simple product review template I found useful in the past can be found here.

Mid Release Progress Review

A lot can happen in a quarter and even if you don’t expect huge shifts in your plan, it’s a good idea to have a checkpoint 6-7 weeks into the quarter and evaluate your progress and the direction you decided to take. Even if there’s no reason to change course, it’s a great opportunity to realign with your CEO and other members on the management team and ensure you’re all on the same page.

Use a similar template to review release status and the updated plan. Demo features that were already released and ones that are about to be released, communicate progress and challenges, and discuss what changes were made to the plan and why.

Long Term Roadmap?

Should you have longer term plans beyond the next quarter? I definitely think that product leaders and the company’s leadership team should buy into the same long term vision, but that does not necessarily mean you need a more detailed long term roadmap.

My rule of thumb: review the items that didn’t make the cut the previous quarter – are they now on the top of your list? If less than 50% of them will make the cut this time around, you’re not ready for long term planning.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

Creating a culture that supports this dual-track process of high level roadmap planning with agile execution is key to finding a balance that would allow you to ensure you’re driving your product to focus on your core business goals while allowing your team to move fast, adapt and innovate.

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