06/23/2015 09:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Goal First" -- A Product Roadmapping How-To


The best boss I ever worked for (who was also one of my early mentors) beat into me the following "she with a plan wins." I hold on to that lesson today and typically am the first in a meeting to ask the 'wet blanket' question "why are we doing this?"

An answer of "because I said so" might work for kids, but should not fly at work. If you are a product or business leader, you probably find yourself in the same position asking similar annoying questions like "what problem are we trying to solve?" or "what are we trying to achieve?"

In this post we are going to focus on the importance of a "goal first" approach and how setting a strategy and following a product vision are central to product roadmapping. These skills and not your technical acumen are ultimately what drive your company's success.

We often ask questions about the driving goals before taking action because we know in our gut that "she with a plan wins." Even if we have not intellectually thought about why we push for the big ideas first, we instinctively know that they need to be answered before the details are aligned. Unfortunately, most meetings and most organizations do not start with this "goal first" approach.

How many meetings have you left asking yourself "what did that relate to?" or "what was that decision based on?" Aligning the "whats" and "hows" of business to the "whys" is critical to team motivation and success. And when this does not happen startups fail and larger companies struggle to keep up. Larger companies have more girth to survive, but by the time they are talking about "failing faster" or "change management" they have already lost.

Focusing on "goal first" is important in every business but fundamental in software companies.

This is because the software that is produced by the team is the product that customer's buy and thus the product is the company. Build the wrong product and you kill the company. Build the right product, define a market, and be loved.

While behemoth group-think processes, bureaucratic gating, and trickle-down-development destroy innovation and make it hard to define any product goals, blind obsession with agile methods of development carry their own risks. I have seen failures in both waterfall and agile development organizations.

It's no secret that agile development emphasizes a heads-down, incremental approach, where major decisions are delayed. The methodology focuses on "sprinting" and "burning down" features to eliminate risk and increase predictability. No matter what development framework you prefer, a clear strategy for product success must come first.

Building great software is hard, but it should not be excruciating.

Product roadmapping is simply the process of setting a product roadmap. And a product roadmap is nothing more than a plan for how the product is going to meet a set of business objectives.

A great roadmap starts with a clear product vision and a canvas that explains the customer and market forces that will shape the product's direction. I call this plan a strategy and a strategy has many components which cover: customer needs, market size, company strengths, sales channels, positioning, competition, partners, etc.

As a great product manager you must establish a "goal first" approach and a true north for your product based on the best information you have. Reaffirm your strategy and tweak it as a necessary, but stay grounded in what you are trying to achieve.

Explain to the company and product team where you are headed and the value new releases and features will deliver to customers and the business. If you do, your company and team will follow. Lose your direction or whip-saw the team back and forth and the complaints will smack you down.

Breakthrough strategy is always built on insight and a series of assumptions that have been validated.

Set your base assumptions, track them as you prove or invalidate them and record your findings for everyone to see. Your strategy can then be set, product elevator pitch written, and positioning defined for every relevant function in your organization to grok and use.

Starting with a "goal first" mindset separates great product managers and companies from their competitors and can lead to disruptive innovation.

Leveraging a product roadmapping tool like Aha! can provide a framework and make it easy to set and share the product strategy.