Don’t get too attached to your roadmap.
Planning for the future and uncertainty
One of the main responsibilities of a Product Manager is to set direction for your team and product. But the responsibility is far greater than understanding where your product is at and planning it’s evolution. Your product represents a solution that solves a specific problem. Obsessing over that problem and problem space is the first step. From your problem obsession you do research. From that research you form a hypothesis on a plausible diagnosis for the problem. From that diagnosis you break it down and start to think about how it could be solved. This research and thought exercise forms the foundation for the direction which you set.
Solving this problem becomes your mission. All products you build, all efforts you prioritise for your team should be motivated and linked in one way or another to solving this problem. It is the guiding star for your team, or your North Star Goal.
And based on the hypothesis that forms your diagnosis, you come up with a Product Vision. The Product Vision is a high level solution which based on your research and understanding of the problem, represents a future world where that problem is solved. It might be in the form of a single product or more likely a set of products that work together to solve the problem. They might be as tangible as something that you build, or intangible like a process or a culture. It should be lofty and aspirational, without worrying about the details of what is pragmatic or easy to do.
Once you’ve painted the picture of the perfect world with this problem solved and described the products which you believe will solve it, it’s time to break it down. This breakdown starts a Product Strategy which, according to your research and hypotheses, should achieve your vision. The Product Strategy doesn’t break down all the different steps needed to go from now to the Product Vision, and it is not prescriptive on the details or implementation. Instead it represents high level coherent action in the right direction. The Product Strategy may seem to go in different directions, but it should still be easy to link a recommended action to eventually achieving part of your vision and solving the North Star Goal.
But it’s also expected for the Product Strategy to be wrong, often! It’s all based on hypotheses and a coherent action can absolutely be to run an experiment to validate or invalidate your hypotheses. The Product Strategy should be somewhat time constrained. The level of uncertainty and the infinite time horizon of your Product Vision mean there is diminishing returns on how far you plan into the future. I recommend a time horizon of roughly 2 years for a strategy, although this is definitely not rigid.
Now, with your Product Strategy in one hand and the current state of the product in the other, it’s time to play the prioritisation game to determine what the team should actually be working on for the next little while. Now is when the details matter, although the Product Manager should not be prescriptive on these either. Work together with your engineers and other members of your product team to break down the coherent actions in your strategy into a roadmap. The roadmap is time constrained (I recommend around 6 months) and has less uncertainty, so it should be usable to set expectations with stakeholders. Now you are ready to go!
To anchor this with an example, if the problem you are obsessing over is the climate crisis, your North Star Goal probably is to have a sustainable society. The product vision would likely be formed by several products which tackle the problem from different perspectives, such as climate friendly consumption, renewable energy, and maybe something outside of the box like space exploration. The strategy then represents the coherent actions we should take (based on our hypotheses) that are in the direction of achieving this, like advancements in electric cars, increasing the energy yield of wind turbines, and validating or invalidating our hypothesis that commoditising space travel is possible today. The roadmap is broken down into the details of one or multiple of the strategic actions which can be executed over the next 6 months to a year (and I won’t embarrass myself by trying to think of what that might look like).
And this way of planning for multiple different time horizons with multiple levels of uncertainty may give the illusion that you have reached a higher level of confidence in what you will be working on. But it’s really the opposite. The real benefit of being problem obsessed, making a hypothesis that diagnoses the problem and suggesting ways to solve it (based on more hypotheses), is recognising all the different places where you could be wrong, and therefore have uncertainty that needs to be investigated. Stating your hypothesis, proving yourself wrong, and changing course is arguably the biggest responsibility a Product Manager has.
If the world around you changes, the verdict on the hypotheses and assumptions you’ve been working under might change too. Your plans might become obsolete or insignificant. In our industry where we live and die on the opportunity that new technology provides, our intuition and data informed plans will be wrong a lot. A well planned roadmap can be incredibly useful for productivity and a well researched strategy is super helpful to align your team on the link to the big picture. But don’t get too attached. Be ready to make the hard decision to toss the roadmap, change strategy, or even pivot to solving the right problem.