A roadmap provides a time-focused view of product development priorities in the coming months or years. Both product managers and product owners use these visual tools for many purposes, but the content of their roadmaps will be quite different.
Product managers focus on business outcomes, customer engagement, and market needs, so product life cycle, market trends, marketing activities, product messaging, and profitability will figure strongly in their outlook. Product owners usually come from a technical background and focus on turning business requirements into functional and technical specifications to direct engineering teams. Their roadmaps focus on releases, features, fixes, and updates.
In short, product managers’ roadmaps are strategic, while those developed by product owners are tactical.
In my career, employers have often called on me to perform the roles of product manager and product owner simultaneously—and the same is true for many of my colleagues. When this happens, it can be tempting to save time and effort by combining strategic and tactical product roadmaps into one. Effective product professionals should resist this urge: As the two sample roadmaps discussed here will show, some overlapping deliverables may seem the same but are actually quite different. And while the work of creating separate roadmaps may require more effort upfront, in the end, the paths will converge again in the form of a successfully deployed product.
Product Strategy and Tactics
To illustrate how strategic and tactical roadmaps should differ from one another, let’s say you’re working on a project that addresses product modernization, customer experience, market expansion, and customer acquisition. A strategically focused roadmap might look something like this:
In this roadmap, the goals presented are high-level objectives. They reflect a strategy for progress—milestones to be reached and a timeline to reach them.
A tactical roadmap approaches the same topics from a different perspective. Rather than reflecting a strategy for the future, it presents actionable items the development team needs to complete in order to achieve larger, strategic goals:
These two roadmaps lay out the strategic and tactical journeys of a product throughout its development. Each roadmap sets the course the product will take over time, but the product manager’s strategic roadmap lays out what will be achieved, whereas the product owner’s tactical roadmap details how. Both are necessary for effective product development.
The Lure of Tactics
As a product professional who has worked as both product manager and product owner simultaneously, I’ve found that tactical goals often command more immediate attention than strategic goals. A product owner practicing Agile is constantly revising tactics and priorities according to changing circumstances: Constant updates in short iterations mean there will always be another security update, OS patch, integration update, or feature to develop.
So, if you’re a product manager who’s also acting as a product owner, tactical Agile responsibilities will always pull at your attention and leave you with less time to focus on acquiring new markets, honing your value proposition for marketing and sales, or refining your personas. Producing a strategic roadmap requires research, interviews, data analysis, and approval meetings. It’s hard, time-consuming work that is tempting to put off. But make no mistake: Tactics and strategy are both vital to the success of a product.
The Value of Strategy
One large, global survey found that 97% of executives say strategic thinking is the most important feature for leaders to have. But in another study, 96% of 500 managers surveyed say daily demands on their time leave no room for strategy.
A product manager’s responsibilities focus on problems of broad scope, like growth, pricing, market penetration, and how the team’s strategy aligns with that of the organization. There are real consequences for ignoring these concerns. Pragmatic Institute identifies several critical business areas that can be compromised when a product manager’s duties are neglected:
Organizational strategy: The organization has a larger strategy than one product. A strategic roadmap will communicate the needs of other departments, like marketing and sales, so cross-promotions and sales can be taken into account.
Market penetration: The customers you deal with on a day-to-day basis are not the whole market, and a single market doesn’t give you the whole picture of potential sales. Looking at future markets is as important as understanding the one you are in.
Pricing: Meeting the immediate needs of customers is good and essential but doing so should be in service of driving revenue. Pricing your product well requires market research, competitor analysis, and, importantly, takes long-term growth into account. Every new feature is an opportunity to reassess your product’s growth, and ignoring that opportunity can cost your organization money.
Architecture: 58% of companies have no process in place to address technical debt. Internal system requirements, architecture, and other matters that aren’t immediately visible to the customer can fall by the wayside when the focus is always on what needs to be done right now. And the longer technical debt is left in place, the more it costs to fix.
Product managers don’t make the final decision whether, for instance, to raise the price of the product. But a good price analysis will make use of insights from a product manager’s strategic research. A product manager is the team member with a view into several realms—they understand the needs of management, development, customers, and sales—and when they have the space to plan strategically, they’re best positioned to help the organization make informed business decisions.
A well-constructed strategic roadmap is how that information is conveyed to the appropriate departments—and every area of the business suffers when the product manager’s roadmap is neglected or rushed.
The Flow of Communication
A product roadmap isn’t just a to-do list; it’s used as a communication tool for a number of different ideas. A roadmap aligns goals with the vision and mission of the organization, provides updates on the progress of upcoming phases, and lays out time frames for product growth and feature fixes.
Once your tactical and strategic goals are set, they need to be tailored to specific situations. What a roadmap communicates can vary depending on the audience, each of which will have its own interests and require different information. The sample roadmaps we use in this article cover a flow of information from management to the development team.
Notice that in our samples, the development team has no requirements under “Customer Acquisition.” If you’re presenting a roadmap to the team that establishes milestones for day-to-day work, they don’t need to know about British market research because it’s not relevant to their roadmap. Similarly, executive leadership may not be interested in hearing the details of localization and integration; they just want to know that customer navigation is being made faster. In this context, the tactical roadmap is used to communicate how the development team’s milestones are supporting the organization’s mission and vision. The product manager doesn’t personally select which integration module will be used to convert currency—that’s a development choice. But that choice is informed by requirements set by accounting, legal, and IT, all of which find their way to the development team via the product manager, the product owner, and their respective roadmaps.
If the only reason for the strategic roadmap to exist were for the product manager to communicate with the product owner, it would be tempting for someone filling both roles to skip the step entirely. But these aren’t the only people who will use your roadmaps. Sales will want to know how your tactical achievements are supporting marketing efforts: what benefits and features can be used in promotions and which are delivering on promises sales has made. An external, customer-facing roadmap could be used to advertise upcoming features or releases.
The Right Roadmap for the Product Journey
If you come from a product owner background, you probably have plenty of experience presenting a tactical roadmap to a development team. If you’re a product manager, you are likely very familiar with strategic roadmapping. Understanding the value of both will help you no matter your role. If you’re one of the many product professionals who are called on to do both jobs simultaneously, resist the urge to collapse strategic and tactical roadmaps into one. The extra effort will pay off in the form of a clear path ahead for organizational strategy and long-term product success—and that will make all the difference.