I recently started consulting for a client and decided to develop a RACI document to help ensure that everyone involved in the project understands who is doing what, who the key decision makers are and who needs to be involved along the way. I typically work in a very rapid, agile fashion so when initiating a new project, I find that getting everyone aligned about roles and responsibilities is one of the keys to a successful venture.
Like most of you, I am reluctant to re-invent the wheel, especially when it comes to creating new documents that are fairly standard and so I went in search of a RACI template for Google Sheets. I was surprised to come up empty-handed. I found RACI templates available in Excel format and various sites offering to make their template available if I provide them with my email address (no, thank you).
I ended up creating a template from scratch which I’m making available to anyone who’d like to use it. Enjoy and pay it forward!
I recently listened to an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s podcast “Supersoul Conversations” that featured Tom Brady. I’m not much of a football fan (college basketball is my jam), but I was interested in hearing what Tom had to say since he’s such an incredible athlete.
Tom spoke about how he had not always been the best football player. When he played for Michigan, he knew the areas he had to work on, but he also knew his strengths: he had a strong work ethic, he was a natural at leading people, and he had perseverance. Probably sounds like a great product manager you know, right?
He went on to talk about how he led his NFL team, the Patriots, when they were down by 25 points in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons. Rather than worrying about the huge gap and questioning if they could do it, they tackled (sorry, had to go there) each play one at a time and ensured they made the right move for that particular play: Score one touch down. Stop the defense and get the ball back quickly. Get to a first down… you get the picture. That 25-point comeback was the biggest in Super Bowl history.
As a product manager, you may aspire to be the greatest of all time (like Tom Brady is one of the greatest football players of all time). To get there, you must be able to lead your teams by identifying the key plays needed to win and focusing on those plays one at a time.
If you and your team are trying to deliver a monolithic release, you are setting yourself (and your company) up for failure.
The key to winning is to lead your team to focus on the right solution for the first opportunity you need to deliver before moving on to the second one, and the third one and so on. Prioritize and focus on incremental activities that put you closer to your goal (whether it’s delivering a more engaging experience for your customers, increasing revenue for your company, etc.).
In my 12 years as a software product manager for Sonos, I benefited from an established company vision and strategy, upon which we created innovative and highly successful products. The Sonos vision, which has stood the test of time, is very simple: to fill every home with music. From there, my fellow product managers and I developed a set of product strategies that allowed us to identify the products and initiatives that would translate to an executable 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.)
Tweet This: “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.
Tweet This: “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 road block 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 get 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.
Many companies provide a single career path up the proverbial corporate ladder where the only way to get ahead is by moving up in title, rung by rung. In product management, this usually takes the form of something like this:
I joined Spinner, the world’s first streaming music service, in 1998 as one of a dozen or so employees. This was my first job as a product manager and I was thrilled to have finally made the transition from marketing to product management. We were a small but mighty team that grew the business and the company rapidly. Within a year, we had grown to over one hundred employees. I managed a team of product managers, designers, and front-end developers. It was an exciting time leading a collaborative team, as we created numerous versions of our music player that was branded for a variety of partnerships.
In 1999, American Online acquired the company. As part of the transition process, AOL brought in a few executives whose job it was to evaluate their newly acquired staff in an attempt to integrate Spinner into their organization. I vividly remember the day I was called into a conference room with one of these individuals who asked a few questions about my role and responsibilities. At one point she said “Ah, you see, at AOL, you’re either an IC or a people manager. You can’t be both. You have to choose.” I felt like I was in the movie The Matrix, choosing between the red pill or the blue pill. I knew once I made my decision, there would be no turning back.
Based on what I had seen so far of the AOL culture, I did not think I was cut out for the politics that seemed to dominate daily corporate life. Although I loved finding and hiring talented people to join my team, the work I enjoyed the most was creating something from scratch. Creating a vision, solving problems, building products that people loved — that is what drove me each and every day. I chose to give up my reins as a manager and spent the remainder of my career at AOL as an individual contributor. Looking back, I think the decision was easy because I was fairly new to product management at that time. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what the career path of a product manager even looked like back then. What I did know is that I wanted to have a direct impact on products that would be used by millions of people.
I was eventually recruited away from AOL to join another music start-up called Musicmatch. Musicmatch was another pioneer in the digital music space with it’s CD ripping and burning software called the Musicmatch Jukebox. Similar to my experience at Spinner, I managed a small team while being hands-on with the product development process. One of the highlights from there was creating an in-house usability testing facility and hiring a UX researcher to help us better understand how customers were using our products and how we could make them better.
Shortly after leaving Musicmatch, I was asked to join another digital music start-up called Sonos. When I joined in 2005, I was the only software product manager. The team at Sonos sought me out because of my experience with streaming music services. I had a strong network built from my days at Spinner/AOL and was able to leverage those relationships to establish new partnerships for Sonos. I also had experience developing software for hardware, which was an uncommon thing back then, before there were smart phones and IoT products. I jumped right in, wearing a number of hats. One moment I would wear a business development hat, negotiating with Pandora. Another minute, I would be working with a designer, sketching design ideas for our remote control software. The minute after that, I would be working with our acoustics team to figure out how we could tweak the EQ settings of our speakers to deliver the optimum sound quality.
When I look back on those days, I’m honestly not sure how I did it all, but I loved every minute of it. At some point, however, it became clear that I was spreading myself too thin and we needed to expand the team. To organize the work, my boss and I decided to split music service integrations into its own work stream. I hired and managed two additional people — one who would be responsible for the music service partnerships and the other who would be responsible for our 3rd party developer APIs and website. In addition to managing those new employees, I was the hands-on product manager for all other aspects of Sonos software. Again, I reached a breaking point where I was not being the best manager I could be to my staff nor was I doing my best work as the PM for the Sonos software. I remember the CEO of Sonos telling me that one of the worst possible outcomes in promoting a great software engineer to being a manager is that you gain a mediocre manager and lose a talented engineer. The same could be said for product managers. My boss was extremely supportive and gave me a few weeks to do some much-needed soul searching to figure out what the best path forward would be for me.
Tweet This: “I remember the CEO of Sonos telling me that one of the worst possible outcomes in promoting a great software engineer to being a manager is that you gain a mediocre manager and lose a talented engineer.”
I am a deeply introspective person to begin with. Having the time and space to reflect on where I was at this particular stage of my career was such good fortune. I figured out the right path to take by asking myself one simple question:
What are you working on that gets you out of bed?
Looking back, I realized that I was focusing my energy on redesigning our apps and defining new features. Thinking about our customer needs, collaborating with designers and engineers, launching new products — these were the things that got me out of bed in the morning. At the same time, I was not spending enough time filling the open positions on my team. I would block out a few hours each week for phone screens and the occasional interview and then wonder why it was taking months to fill the position.
Again, I was faced with choosing between management and individual contribution. Even though I had made this decision once before, this time it wasn’t as easy. For one thing, Sonos didn’t have a 2-track career path for product managers at the time. They did offer a dual-career path for engineers, however. Another reason this was a difficult decision was my ego. At this point in my career, I had worked as a product manager for more than ten years and had some preconceived notions about my future that were based on the continuous climb up that invisible ladder. For me, this had less to do with power and more to do with money. The loftier the title, the higher the compensation.
Ultimately, I knew that money wouldn’t make me happy. What made me happy was thinking about, “How can I help people listen to more music every day?” Deciding to be an individual contributor (again!) was the best decision for me, because I was happiest having the most direct impact on the product. It was also the best decision for the company because they didn’t have to worry about further developing my management skills and, instead, they could unleash me on special projects, such as creating a ground-breaking retail experience for the flagship Sonos store in New York City.
As Shakespeare wrote,
“To thine own self be true.”
In order to know which path you should take, you need to be honest with yourself. Set aside a few days for some deep introspection. Grab a journal and a pen and ask yourself these three key questions:
1) What are your strengths as well as your blind spots?
Be open to the feedback you’ve been given, the good and the bad. Take a co-worker out for coffee and ask them for feedback. Review those performance reviews again. If you already manage people, provide them with a way to give feedback.
2) What do you enjoy doing the most?
Ask yourself what gets you out of bed every day. Is it thinking about how to help your newest team member grow? Or do you thrive when brainstorming ideas for helping your customers use your product more easily?
3) Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years?
Do you have dreams of becoming a CEO or starting your own company? If so, the manager track might be best for you. Perhaps you’d rather be a subject matter expert in a particular field, speaking at conferences and being sought after for your brilliant insights.
Whether you decide to focus on managing or would rather be an individual contributor, I encourage you to champion a dual-track path at your company, if it doesn’t already offer it.
Here’s what dual-track paths might look like based on my experience:
Having a track that rewards senior individual contributors helps retain a critical aspect of your company’s brain trust while ensuring people becoming managers are doing so because they want to.
In my particular case, Sonos did eventually develop a dual-track path for product managers and I was the archetype for the Principal Product Manager role. It was gratifying to be recognized and rewarded for my contributions as the most senior product manager at the company in terms of tenure and experience.
After leaving Sonos, I decided to pursue yet another career path by leveraging my extensive experience to start a consulting business. Being my own boss while having a direct impact on the success of my business offers me the best of both worlds.
Does your company offer different tracks for product managers? Have you ever faced the challenge of deciding if becoming a manager is right for you? What do you think?
When I joined Sonos in 2005, I was the only software product manager. The company, known for its wireless smart speakers, was founded 3 years earlier and had just recently launched its first product. At the time, Sonos had 3 offices in Santa Barbara, California, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Hilversum, Netherlands. When I left the company in 2017, the company had expanded to 12 locations worldwide, as well as a boutique retail store in SoHo, New York. During my tenure, the company grew from about 50 employees to nearly 1,500. Fortunately, the co-founders of Sonos started, led, and scaled the company successfully. Many leaders, however, have failed to scale their companies for reasons that can be explained by the following myths.
Myth #1: Scaling fast is the key to success.
Many people believe in the mantra “Go big or go home.” While this saying might make sense if you’re a professional athlete, this is usually not the best way to build a successful, long-lasting business. In fact, scaling too soon is often the cause of death for startups.
Zynga is often cited as the poster child for scaling too fast too soon. As part of their rapid growth as they sought to dominate the mobile gaming market, they hired a massive number of employees from competitor gaming company Electronic Arts while spending hundreds of millions on acquisitions such as OMGPop. The company didn’t compensate for scaling other parts of the business which became even more critical as the corporate culture tried to absorb thousands of employees from different companies.
Birchbox very recently sold a majority stake of their business because they were running out of cash. Birchbox’s co-founders have talked about how they quickly scaled the company by doubling in size each month and being relentless about feature changes. They were so focused on growth and change that they overlooked two very important factors: First, they failed to successfully diversify their revenue from selling full-size products (which was part of their original business plan). Second, they didn’t keep their eye on the competition and lost market share to newcomers such as Ipsy and Fabfitfun.
Generally speaking, growth cannot be forced. Sure, scaling is often an indicator of a company’s recent success, but be careful not to believe that a causal relationship exists between the two variables. The companies that scale effectively are patient, and they strike when the timing is right.
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Myth #2: More developers = fewer problems.
Somewhat related to myth number one, is a problem that I encountered during my early days at Sonos. It was one of the few times I saw the company struggle to scale. There was a point when the ratio of software developers to product managers at Sonos was 50:1. It was recognized that this was a problem and there were even jokes made about cloning me. The fact of the matter is that it was really hard to hire good software product managers who met the high quality bar that Sonos had established. When I asked the head of engineering to scale back on hiring until we could bring on more product managers, I was laughed out of his office. The ratio did improve over time, but it took a long time to get there.
A key lesson from my experience is that companies that are focused on doubling the number of employees month over month or year over year need to be careful not to overlook certain functions or departments. When you add more engineers to crank out more features, you’ll need more designers to create the user experiences for those features, you’ll need more marketing people to tell the stories behind why those features matter and you’ll probably need more customer success people to help your customers deal with changes.
Myth #3: Innovation slows down the more you scale.
As companies get larger, especially once they go public, their appetites for risk usually shrinks. Public companies become laser-focused on hitting their quarterly numbers and limiting risk is a big part of their strategy. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Just look at Google. Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have stayed closely involved in the management of the company while maintaining a commitment to innovation. They have done this by committing to research as well as fostering internal idea incubation.
When Apple announced the iPhone SDK in 2008, the Sonos product team quickly reacted to what would be a huge market change by making the bold decision to embrace mobile and launch a free mobile app despite selling its own remote control product for hundreds of dollars. By pivoting quickly and spinning up a product team that could design and develop for a completely new software platform, Sonos was able to ride the wave of innovation that was enabled by the iPhone. Sonos eventually phased out its hardware controller in 2011.
Myth #4: Money makes it easy to expand to new markets.
This myth is also similar to growing too big too fast. Often when companies receive an infusion of funding in their early years, they are tempted to spread themselves thin and introduce products and services to address adjacent markets. But when you are scaling your company, it’s best to stay true to your mission (and hopefully, your company has a clear mission) and stay focused.
Think about the great startups that have grown into huge businesses. Google was all about search. Amazon just sold books. When I was at Sonos, we would often be asked by customers, retailers and the press when we would have a product for video or for cars. This is when our leadership team really shined because we would always stay true to our mission of filling every home with music. That has allowed the company to successfully scale in a very intentional way.
The odds of being truly great at one thing are low. Don’t make it even harder by spreading yourself too thin.
Warby Parker is a great example of a scaling company leading with its mission statement. Since launching in 2010, Warby Parker’s founders stayed true to their roots by offering designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, all while leading the way for socially conscious businesses. They haven’t launched a shoe line and they don’t sell handbags. They just do one thing and they do it extremely well.
If you are a product manager at a startup, you are likely to see your company struggle with some of these myths. If you want to be a great product manager, use your skills of influence and critical thinking to identify these potential dangers before they arise, and help your leadership team understand these pitfalls. One way to do this is to create and share a well-planned roadmap that explicitly outlines your company’s core initiatives for the foreseeable future. While this is a great way to explain to your team what you will be working on, it also communicates what you will not be doing. For example, if you are a product manager at Warby Parker, you could explain “We’re not launching a shoe line” in the next 3 years. Letting your stakeholders know what is off the table can be just as helpful as letting them know what you do plan to build.
Another thing you can do is to be aware of your company’s hiring plans and speak up if you detect any imbalance in projections. There is no magic ratio of product managers to developers, but knowing the pitfalls of unbalanced teams will help you advocate for what is best.
Finally, be willing to let go. Be willing to let go of your ideas. Be willing to let go of your preconceived notions. Be willing to let go of that product that sustained the business, but will ultimately become an anchor that drags down your business. Stay focused and stop chasing unicorns and rainbows. Because the best way to scale like the Amazons and Googles of the world is by doubling down on what works, just like they did.