Four Steps to Creating a Successful Product Roadmap

When I was a software product manager for Sonos, our company vision statement helped us create innovative and highly successful products. Our simple goal is to fill every home with music; from there, my fellow managers and I developed a set of product strategies that allowed us to identify the products and initiatives that we translated into a product roadmap.

Creating a great product roadmap is simple, but not easy. In this article, I’ll share with you the four steps I’ve used to create a successful product roadmap.

A vision statement illustrates why the company exists. From the vision statement, product managers can derive specific strategies that cover different areas of the product. For example, at Sonos, one of our product strategies was focused specifically on apps, and we used it to help determine which platforms to support. Keep in mind this was before the days of iOS and Android.

It was a strategy that served us well for many years; however, after the emergence of smartphones, we floundered a bit because that strategy no longer helped us effectively prioritize the problems that our customers were having. It was incumbent upon us to replace that outdated strategy with something that would serve us for the next few years. This is no small feat, by the way. (If you need help defining or redefining your strategy, I highly recommend using Matthew May’s Playing-to-Win framework as a starting point.)

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“Grounding your roadmap in strategy can help you grow your team by showing the value each person can add.”

To better illustrate how Sonos’ roadmap was guided by strategy, we structured our roadmap based on the strategies themselves. This allowed us to tell a compelling story about the roadmap in a way that was clearly tied to the company vision and resonated more easily with our stakeholders.

When I first joined Sonos, I was the only software product manager, and I was responsible for the entire software roadmap. I managed everything from the software running on the speakers, to the apps that controlled the music, to securing music partnerships and leading them through API implementations.

Over time, we grew the team and decided to hire product managers who would specialize in specific areas, such as music partnerships. Because we grounded our roadmap based on our product strategies, it was easy to show the value that each new hire would bring to the team. They would be responsible for a dedicated set of initiatives within our roadmap.

4 Steps to Creating a Strategy-Based Roadmap

1. Lead with your vision and strategies.

Have you ever seen a group of tourists following a tour guide waving a brightly colored flag? As a product manager, you need to be like that guide. It’s your job to make sure a) everyone following you knows the right direction and b) that you’re all moving together as a team.

In every single presentation you give, don’t show even a glimpse of your roadmap until you’ve reminded everyone of your company’s vision and product strategies. Yes, this may seem very repetitive, but if you work at a company that is growing rapidly, for example, you need to use these meetings to educate everyone about why you are here. This is crucial for making sure everyone is moving in the same direction.

2. Tell your story thematically.

Let’s use an imaginary example and pretend we work at a company that is creating the next generation of car stereos that will be connected to the internet. The company’s vision is “Enjoy your favorite music, everywhere you go.” In order to achieve this ultimate end result, we’ve come up with the following product strategies:

  • “Enjoy easy access to all streaming audio services”
  • “Superior sound quality”
  • “Smart displays for a better experience”

As you contemplate how to construct your roadmap, remember that it should not be a long list of product features. The roadmap should be high-level, and it should help you to tell your product’s story.

Consider breaking the phases of your roadmap into themes. As ProductPlan co-founder Jim Semick explains, “…by grouping initiatives together into themes, you can organize your roadmap in a way that describes the value to customers and other stakeholders. Themes can help you put together a roadmap that creates a story–the why behind what you’re proposing.”

Themes also allow you to present what your team will deliver. This could enable your marketing team, for example, to plan their stories for driving customer acquisition and user retention.

Have you ever had a conversation with your counterpart in product marketing about some shiny new object your team is building, only to see their eyes start to glaze over as they try to understand why what you’re describing will matter to your customers? Socializing your roadmap based on themes allows your stakeholders to quickly understand the value your team (and company) will deliver. Boil your strategies down to their very essence to create a set of themes.

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“Boil your strategies down to their very essence to create a set of themes.”

In our example, this could look something like this:

Tips for Creating Themes:

  • Limit the number of themes you have. Two is probably too few, seven is probably too many. Keeping it simple and concise allows you to capture what really matters and focus on the higher-level goals. Details such as mock-ups belong in your backlog.
  • Involve stakeholders in the process. Of course, you should involve your stakeholders in the roadmapping process but start earlier by including them in the theme identification process. I recommend doing this by first identifying key parts of your product’s experience, such as set-up and onboarding. Include people from your customer success team, too. Often, they can help identify pain points that may otherwise be overlooked.
  • Themes should be directly tied to clear outcomes. What are the KPIs you will measure? For example, if your company measures success based on a Net Promoter Score, can you tie one or more themes to that?
  • Based on the themes and KPIs, you and your team can work together to identify the tactics. Your tactics could map to your team’s backlog.
  • Include a description of your themes to avoid any possible ambiguity. For example, the theme ‘Voice Control’ from above may mean different things to different people. Provide a brief description that helps your stakeholders understand what you mean.

3. Focus on problems, not solutions.

Another easy trap to fall into, especially if your company is used to shiny-object syndrome feature-based roadmaps, is to focus on the solution, not the problem. Here’s another example of why being a product manager at Sonos was so awesome: we clearly defined the role of the product manager as the one who defines what needs to be solved and why. Our UX team and our software developers were responsible for defining how those problems were solved. Together, we were able to create great products our customers love.

4. For every strategy, a swim lane.

Continuing with our example of smart car stereos, you could create a roadmap that has each of the three strategies in its own row (or swim lane, as I like to call them). It could look something like this:

Click here to download the strategy-based product roadmap template.

So, back to the tour guide.

Every now and then, a tour guide sees something of interest or encounters a roadblock and decides to change direction. As a product manager, one of your many responsibilities is to lead teams through those moments of ambiguity and change. Although your company’s vision should be evergreen and serve as the anchor that holds everything together, your roadmap needs to be a living document that reflects current conditions. Things change. Priorities will shift. You need to be out in front, leading the way.

Themes that are strategically focused allow you to more effectively obtain buy-in from your stakeholders. Just remember, feature-specific roadmaps can get you into trouble by focusing on tactical solutions rather than strategically focused outcomes. So keep your eyes focused on the bigger, strategic picture, wave your flag proudly, and make sure everyone is following you on your path to success.

Originally published at on April 3, 2018.

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