Product Roadmaps: Just One Damn Thing After Another?

Dostoyevsky once wrote (paraphrasing) that every man needs both a place to be, and a place to go. Others very cleverly talk about the difference between roots and routes, arguing that in order for humans to reach their full potential, they need to know both who they are, and have a vision for what they wish to become.

The same applies to products.

Unfortunately, product managers and humans alike rarely think deeply about either being or becoming. They think of life (that of the themselves or their products) as simply the cumulative effect of adding one thing after another. True, this may be life in the strictest and barest sense, but would anyone call this ‘flourishing?’ I think not.

Let’s talk about product roadmaps.

A product roadmap is NOT a list of features on a timeline. A roadmap is not a prioritized list of feature requests. A product roadmap, insofar as it IS a roadmap, MUST begin with a clear idea of what the product is, and what it aspires to become. It must have roots and routes.

Of course, the way that a product thinks of its roots and routes is always subject to change in the same way as a human being may change their self-conception and aspirations. What is VITAL, however, is that they HAVE a self-conception and a vision for the future.

You can’t steer a parked car.

It’s incredibly easy for product managers to fall into the same trap as humans in general, thinking of their roadmaps in terms of ‘what’

  • WHAT am I going to do?
  • WHAT am I going to do next?
  • WHAT are my product gaps?
  • WHAT are my customers requesting?

But a product roadmap should NOT first and foremost be concerned with ‘what’ questions. It needs to instead be laser focused on the ‘how.’

The ‘what’ is fundamentally about vision.

  • What is it?
  • What should it become?

Only once these questions are asked and answered can a product manager start thinking about creating and prioritizing specific features and enhancements. A clear vision gives a product a ‘why,’ and makes it possible to frame a roadmap as the ‘how.’

In the absence of this vision work (which is hard to do), however, there is no roadmap. There is no beginning. There is no end. Without a clear vision framed in terms of what a product is, and what it aspires to become, a ‘product roadmap’ is simply one damn thing after another.