The Stuff in the Middle

I was having lunch with one of the other UW Software Product Management program instructors earlier this week, and the topic turned to roadmaps.  I was curious to know how his firm approached creating roadmaps.

Start/Finish, High/Low Are Covered

Like one of the firms we recently worked with, roadmapping is not a regular activity.  Both firms were working against a roadmap created 12-15 months ago.  They had pretty much executed everything, and realized that it’s time to do a new one.

And how to set priorities?  “Well,” my friend said, “there are some pretty obvious things that have to be included.  And there are some pretty obvious things that shouldn’t be included.  And then there’s the stuff in the middle.”  I asked how they parsed those items.  “We don’t have a great method, we just kind of argue until we fill up the development bandwidth,” he said.

Sound familiar?  Both issues – the freqency of roadmapping efforts and the method of determining the content of the roadmap – somehow address the extremes but leave the stuff in the middle to opinion and politics, or completely unattended.

A Strategic Process, Not an Event

Initiating a roadmapping effort takes strong leadership.  Key stakeholders in the process, those with strong influence, often don’t want a formal process.  They want the ability to change strategy and plan to meet their specific goals (watch those MBO’s, folks) and feel that a roadmap gets in the way of being ‘nimble’.

So to get those folks on board, we’ve found it effective to revisit the roadmap quarterly and review any changes in the market that might need to be taken into account.  Up front, agree on what factors or metrics you’ll monitor that would cause you to reconsider.

Prioritizing the actual product enhancements/inititatives can be a bit more complex.  It’s always a trade-off between business value and cost.  How you define business value is situational.  Sometimes competitive concerns drive it, sometimes customer retention or acquisition; sometimes cost savings.

Using a formal scoring process doesn’t make the process totally objective, even though it may seem that assigning numeric values would be objective.  The real value in a scoring process is the conversation it enables, in which underlying assumptions and motivations can often be brought to the surface.  Data or the lack of data can be examined, and addressed.  But we also recommend that the “pretty obvious includes” be included in the scoring process – you may be surprised at the results.

How do you deal with the “stuff in the middle”?  Leave us a comment!

OK, it’s not a coincidence that we’re offering our half-day Roadmapping Workshop later this month and again in October.  If it’s time for your organization to start or improve your roadmapping process, come join us!

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