Last week, R., a product strategy consultant, called me for advice regarding one of his customers. The company he was working for was pivoting to a new direction and as part of the process needed to come up with a new roadmap quickly. R.’s question was how can they create a roadmap when they simply don’t know enough about the new direction.
I get this question a lot. On top of the lack of knowledge, the fact that a roadmap is a plan for the future, and the future cannot be fully predicted, makes it even more volatile. Almost every product leader I work with, asks me at some point what’s the point in creating a roadmap that is about to change? Isn’t it a waste of time for everyone?
My answer, of course, is no. It’s not a waste of your time, and here are a few reasons why:
“I Don’t Know for Sure” Doesn’t Mean “I Don’t Know”
It’s true – there are many things you don’t know about the future of your product. You may not know enough about the market and customer needs, there are product details that you can only get to when you dive much deeper into functionality, and of course, you don’t know what the world is going to bring in the future (COVID-19 anyone?).
But the fact that you don’t know enough, or don’t know for sure, doesn’t mean that you don’t know at all. So much is being said about doubting our assumptions, that we got used to not giving them any room at all. Opinions without reliable data are considered useless.
While this is a great practice for product management in an ideal world, in the real world you cannot always get the certainty you need before making a decision. In fact, you can almost never get 100% certainty for anything. And still, you must move forward and choose one alternative over another.
When you put aside the pipe dream of knowing for sure anything you need before making a decision (or putting up a plan for that matter), you must work with what you have. And the truth is that you usually have a lot of ammunition to work with. You have most likely been talking to customers, studying the space for a while. You understood a thing or two about what makes sense and what doesn’t. You probably looked at competitors and read market reports.
So while you for sure don’t know everything there is to know about your market or product, you do know a lot. You know enough to put up an “order-of-magnitude” plan, and that goes quite a long way.
To get the importance of it, think about the following situation: you ask your development team for an effort estimation for something. In many cases, especially if it involves algorithmic research, they would say “I don’t know, I can’t estimate it”, or “that’s a huge feature to develop”. But if you ask for an order of magnitude estimate – what does huge mean? Is it a month? A year? 5 years? – it’s much easier to get an answer. And that answer – despite knowing that it’s inaccurate – is most of the time very useful for you. As a product manager, you know so much more now – with this inaccurate answer – than you did before. You have set up a perimeter around your feature, now you can focus on what falls within this perimeter.
It’s the same when you use what you do know to create a roadmap. While the roadmap will surely change, it still gives you a ballpark of what the real roadmap would look like. Even if your perimeter is not very tight around what the actual roadmap will eventually be, it is still infinitely more accurate than saying nothing.
Planning Is a Great Tool for Learning
Another advantage of planning – even if the plan will eventually change – is that during this process you learn so much about your product, the strategy, and the priorities. Even the gaps that you find in the plan will give you so much insight into the things that matter most and the impact of various parts of your plan on each other and on your path towards success.
It might sound weird, but the purpose of planning is not (only) to build a plan. It is an exercise worth pursuing even if you are throwing the plan away as soon as you are done (of course that’s an extreme that I do not recommend, but you get the point).
Planning – when done right – forces you to turn every stone in your domain until everything makes sense and you understand how one step leads to another and eventually to meeting your goals. That’s an extremely valuable outcome of this process, perhaps the most valuable, even more than having the plan itself.
People Need a Plan
Years ago, when I was Head of Product at eBay, I attended an executive leadership training program. Part of the training was a business simulation, where we had to build a yearly plan for our “company” and present the plan to other teams. I was in charge of presenting the plan on behalf of my team. Knowing that the plan will surely change, I presented the end goals, the means to get there, and the first few steps. I felt good about it. But then, one of the people in the audience said: “wait, I don’t get it. What’s the plan?”.
It then hit me. Not all people are as comfortable as I was with flexible plans. In fact, it was even worse: this person didn’t understand what I presented as a plan at all. For him, to even be able to address the subject, he needed to see a more detailed plan.
Even if you feel comfortable with trial-and-error, people around you might not. Remember also that other people don’t necessarily have the context that you have. As a product leader, you are living and breathing the product, so you know – even if you don’t say it explicitly – more or less where the product is going. Other people are lacking this information, and if you don’t give them a plan they might be lost altogether. Use the plan – with the proper disclaimer saying it will surely change – as a tool to communicate your strategy and guide the entire company in the right direction.
You’ll be surprised how valuable this would be for everyone. Try it out and let me know how it went.