How to Create a Strategic Product Roadmap

Written by

Chris Benthien

How do you create a strategic roadmap for your product?

By this, we mean something more than just a Gantt chart or backlog of product features. How do you use a simple method that starts with the customer problems and challenges you are trying to solve, and ensures your roadmap is optimized and prioritized to deliver your value proposition?

What is a strategic product roadmap?

Traditional product roadmaps, or static roadmaps, are flawed for many reasons, as outlined in this excellent product manager’s guide to flexible roadmaps. They tend to be either put on a shelf and forgotten, or followed so rigorously that they fail to adapt to changing customer needs, risking a sub-optimal product.

Roadmaps need to be flexible, and they should hold a strategic lens to the customer problem(s) at all times. Our favored roadmap type is a strategic product roadmap, which is far more than just a backlog of major product features mapped on a Gantt Chart. It is a strategy that anchors your planned feature roadmap to the problems you are solving for your customers and your core value proposition.

A strategic product roadmap articulates:

  • Customer challenges you are solving.
  • Capabilities you are seeking to provide for your customers.
  • Features and components that make up your product.
  • A timeline of when to deliver those features to market.

Creating a strategic product roadmap the Jibility way

My fellow co-founder, Chuen, has talked before about creating product portfolio roadmaps. Taking this one step further, how do you go about creating the strategic roadmap for a particular product in your portfolio?

Here, I’ll outline a systematic approach to developing a product roadmap that anchors it in the core value proposition for your customers.

The tried-and-tested method that we follow (dubbed the Jibility Steps®) is often used to create business and digital strategy roadmaps, but can equally be used to create strategic roadmaps for all sorts of applications, including products.

We are big believers in keeping it simple. Methodologies or approaches that are too complex or take too long result in strategic roadmaps that don’t stay alive. A successful strategic roadmap is constantly updated and tweaked as market and customer demands change and new insights emerge.

Our approach to product roadmaps consists of a few simple steps:

  1. Determine the key customer problems, challenges and pain points that we seek to solve.
  2. Define what value we aim to deliver to our customers.
  3. Identify the capabilities that our product must have to deliver this value to our customers and solve the problems.
  4. Identify the features needed in our product to deliver those capabilities.
  5. Group these features into logical product releases.
  6. Determine the priority and sequence of these feature releases and plot them on a roadmap.

The diagram below summarizes these steps.

Product Roadmap Planning Steps

This approach can be applied to products that you are taking to an external market, as well as products that you are taking to an internal customer base within your organization. We have equally applied the above approach to both scenarios: we’ve helped start-up customers envisage and plan products they are seeking to commercialize, as well as large multi-nationals that are implementing digital transformation for an existing part of their business (systems, people, culture and processes).

Step 1: Customer challenges and problems

Successful products solve customer problems. To use the words of businessman and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, “any big problem is a big opportunity”.

A strategic product roadmap that is not anchored to the core customer value proposition runs the downstream risk of expending valuable capital on product features that don’t necessarily enhance its value proposition. Even worse, the product could drift away from solving the primary customer challenge for which it was intended.

You should start by articulating the highest priority challenges or problems that your product will solve for your customers. Make sure you keep it tight and focused; whilst your product may solve a lot of problems, it’s all about focus. Identify a maximum of 4–6 key customer challenges or problems (and perhaps even only 1 or 2).

Step 2: Objectives

Looking at your customer challenges, you should now try and quantify the customer value.

For example:

  • Reduce production costs by 50%
  • Increase customer retention by 20%
  • Increase customer acquisition ten-fold

It’s all about being clear what value you seek to deliver to your customers; measuring it; and building the feedback loops to constantly test the value proposition.

This ensures that all downstream features (and the associated cost and resources to build these features) are better aligned to further drive the customer value proposition.

Step 3: Capabilities

The next step is to define the capabilities that your product must have to deliver against your core customer value proposition. Capabilities are the bridge between the value proposition and the detailed product features. These are the things that your customers must be able to do to solve their challenges and realize value. Some examples could be:

  • Intelligent production forecasting
  • Customer drop-off prediction
  • Support request fulfillment

You can also include supporting capabilities that are necessary to support the delivery of core capabilities, e.g. Security Management.

At this stage, you can identify which capabilities directly deliver against your customer value proposition identified in the previous steps, i.e. which capabilities deliver to your objectives and therefore meet the challenges. These are logically the capabilities to prioritize.

You can also determine which capabilities require the most amount of investment or effort. This assists with further clarifying where you need to focus and drive priorities that are always aligned to your customer value proposition.

For further information on capabilities, check out our articles on capability-based planning and capability mapping.

Step 4: Features (actions)

Now that you have defined the key capabilities that your product needs to deliver, you should identify what features your product will have.

For each of your prioritized capabilities, identify the features that will be required to deliver it. At this stage, sequencing and prioritizing don’t matter (that comes later). Just identify all of the product features needed for each major capability.

You can also allocate a ballpark or ROM (Rough Order of Magnitude) cost against each feature. This will help with prioritization and budgeting downstream.

(Note: if you are using the Jibility tool to create your product roadmap, use the Actions step to create your backlog of features for each capability).

Step 5: Releases (initiatives)

At this point, you are clear on what customer challenges you are solving and your core value proposition objectives. You also have a prioritized list of product capabilities and an initial backlog of product features.

This next step is about bringing it all together into a prioritized strategic roadmap for execution.

But before we dive into creating the roadmap, let’s do a very quick recap on MVP and other lean startup techniques popularized by Eric Ries (see Minimum Viable Product: A Guide).

The essence of the lean startup approach is a continuous loop that goes through build, measure and learn. Instead of spending copious amounts of effort and cost defining and building your utopian product, the concept is to get moving.

Develop a minimum feature set that you can take to your customer base to get feedback and test your value hypothesis. With each MVP iteration, you collect feedback, reassess the customer challenges you are solving for, revisit the value proposition, and readjust your product roadmap (capabilities, features and release sequences).

After several cycles, you get close to problem/solution fit and eventually product/market fit. Then you can start scaling. This is essentially the macro approach to creating a product roadmap.

For the moment, to keep it simple, start grouping your features into product releases, e.g. MVP1, MVP2 or Release 1.1, Release 1.2. This grouping of features and the sequencing is informed by the priorities you set in previous steps.

In addition to the core customer releases, you might like to create special releases that focus on a particular theme, e.g. a security hardening release.

Step 6: Product roadmap

Now that you have defined your product increments, map out your timeline on a simple grid. Across the top, as column headers, map out your horizons, e.g. months, quarters, product stages. On the horizontal axis, I often like to put the key customer challenges or objectives we are solving for. If that doesn’t make sense, then I use the major product capabilities we are delivering against. It’s whatever makes sense for you and your product.

Plot each of your initiatives on the grid in an executable sequence. Identify dependencies between initiatives at this stage. Be wary of trying to do too much too quick. Keep your product releases tight. Make sure you keep focused on delivering and testing customer value.

So, bringing it all together, using the Jibility steps to create a strategic product roadmap looks a bit like this:

Measuring value and business outcomes

Once you have created your strategic product roadmap as above, you can then elaborate on each of the features and manage the delivery using your favorite execution tools, such as StoriesOnBoard, Trello, Asana or Jira.

External vs internal customers and products

This approach can be equally applied to products that you will be selling to external customers and to corporate initiatives that you are delivering to internal customers.

In regards the latter, we often like to reframe major internal transformation initiatives or new systems as “products” instead of “projects”. This ensures that execution is anchored to the value you seek to bring to your customers, and a lean thinking approach can be brought to the table. This can side-step large, long-winded “waterfall” style approaches that are sometimes slow to test and realize customer value (see this excellent article from Sriram Narayan on Products over Projects).

Keeping your strategic product roadmap alive

As previously highlighted, the key is to keep iterating your product. Keep testing your core customer value proposition (customer challenges and objectives) and the customer experience with your product (capabilities and features).

The best strategic product roadmaps undergo constant change.

It’s a sign that customer feedback loops are alive and that the product is always evolving to achieve product/market fit. Product roadmaps are not meant to be done once and then sit on the shelf. They are living, breathing artefacts that should be driven by the incremental delivery and proving of customer value.

Your free tool for creating a strategic product roadmap

And there you have it – a simple but effective approach to creating your strategic product roadmap. You can follow the steps outlined above manually, but to quickly iterate and see your strategic product roadmap evolve, get started with a free Jibility account.