Roadmaps and the Tooth Fairy

If you still believe in the tooth fairy, please stop reading now.

I once thought like you: for a product team, the path to enlightenment is to generate a lengthy one to three year roadmap. This roadmap would start with a fantastic offsite meeting with some of the brightest people on the team. It would culminate with a presentation that is shared across your company, customers, and partners.

An executive once told me that long range roadmaps are a contract between the product and the business. Over the last five years, I have realized how wrong this process is. It is the equivalent of trying to convince your company, customers, and partners that the tooth fairy exists.

Yes, you do need to have a clear direction, and maintain focus is key to achieve your goals. But you do not need to worry about the long range nitty gritty details. Your focus should be on constant iteration and concentrating on the customer’s’ needs. It should be on the problem that you are solving.

During my time at my last two companies, we moved to a new model that I enjoyed and I wanted to share its concepts with others. It also offers some great starting points on how to shift away from long range roadmaps and to something much better. I’d like to share these points now:

1. Look to the North Star

You must start using a “North Star” approach for your vision. Instead of having a detailed roadmap, point to where you want to go in a general sense. For our Fons app, our statement is the following:

“To make it easier for teachers, tutors, and coaches to run a successful business without an MBA.”

We use this “North Star” statement for all product decisions. Within this, we set short term goals that align with this long term philosophy. For example, one goal is for the app to handle all scheduling and billing in a seamless way.

This goal was then broken down into an MVP feature set and executed against over three months. Once we launched it, we began to take customer feedback to see how we could improve on this idea for the next iteration. Every time we did an iteration, we validated it against the North Star statement.

2. Get customer feedback

Customer feedback is so important. It helps you understand what you can do to take your product from the ordinary to the extraordinary. It’s also a step that’s often overlooked in long term roadmaps.

Whether you like it or not, you and your team will be in a feature and process vacuum when you are building the product under a long term roadmap. You will not be able to understand what matters. Customers need to tell you what is important and what they need so you can adapt and drastically change what you are doing to meet their needs.

At CenturyLink Cloud and now at Fons, we work in one-week iteration cycles, where we take customer feedback at the end of an iteration and rank it with the ideas that we already have in the backlog. Many of those customer ideas make it into the product over the next couple weeks. It might not be directly what the customer asked for though, as we might have thought of a better way to solve the problem.

3. Rinse and Repeat

Rinse and Repeat to find your groove. In most cases, your backlog will effectively evolve into your roadmap. From there, you can start planning three months in advance. You can plan for the next big thing, while always keeping your focus fixed on your “North Star.”

Customer features will keep coming in, and you will keep seeing happy customers as you match your product to fulfill these needs. These happy customers will keep your ship steady with a constant revenue stream.

This Rinse and Repeat cycle can continue ad infinitum. It’s a self-fulfilling model and a win-win situation for your customers and your business.

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