A few years ago, an image began making the rounds of the internet—a piece of notebook paper in landscape orientation, marked up heavily in blue ballpoint ink. The thirteen rows and ten columns laid out critical plot points and interconnections for a portion of one of the highest-selling books of all time—Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
I remember people being floored that a book so full of tight references and characters could be managed on one page, let alone that it represented a transformative point in the book series. While outlining is a common approach in writing, mapping out something so simple to create such impactful storytelling reinforced the simple point—product planning works.
Great plot twist, isn’t it?
As a founder, so much time is spent on critical outward facing concepts like identity, value proposition, financials, pitch, etc. While a product roadmap is often shared in a pitch, it’s not something that most people put front and center in their early efforts. I’d argue that a lot of people don’t understand how critical the product roadmap is to creating major critical facets of a business that span all development and go to market activities. Instead of focusing on the details of mapping out a great plan to drive a brilliant story, they simply start building, with no clear plan of where they are going. While there are some out there who can pull off such a feat, the norm is more along the lines of that simple plan. Whether you are writing a book, building an app, or developing a Data as a Service (DaaS) offering, the logic still holds.
To build a great product roadmap, there are 5 key sections you must consider as part of your plan:
Describe exactly what you are offering—if it’s a piece of hardware plus an app, describe both. The key is to be detailed in your description, as you are laying a foundation for the rest of the document.
In project management, a theme is a high-level goal. By clearly articulating what that strategic theme is and why it’s important to solve it, you’ll help create the linear path of steps to take to address the theme.
Simply stated, epics are how the steps relate to each other. You can have multiple epics in a theme, which ultimately connects each step in the path back to the overall strategy you are trying to accomplish. The epic breaks down the tasks in a way like directions on a map, getting you from point A to point B, leveraging stories (see next bullet) to reach the desired outcome.
This is where you get detailed, describing the steps that it takes to reach a theme. There can be multiple stories in a theme, which ultimately tell you how something is done. If you were to go back and look at that Harry Potter graphic, there are plot points identified in each chapter that tie the narrative to the overall arch. This is another way to think about how the story ties to the theme.
Also known as tasks, features are very specific granular details that support your overarching theme, story, etc. The features provide the detail, but not the overarching strategic end.
Now that you understand the components, I want you to take a breath, clear your head. Then clear some time on your schedule where you can think and sit down with a blank sheet of paper (digital or tangible) and start to think about your product and theme. As you write them out, you will begin to see where you can tease out additional details in your epic and story in a way that actions start to identify themselves. There are a host of different software tools that can help build visual roadmaps, but don’t let that overwhelm you to start. Smartsheet has a great overview of how to use a spreadsheet (whether it’s their solution, Excel, Google Sheets, an AirTable, etc.) to build an initial roadmap.
Most importantly, your roadmap is a dynamic, living document that will take on different layers based on who is using it. By starting with the theme and drilling down all the way to the feature level, you’ve created an asset that can manage development, create a workflow timeline, as well as create a summary level visual strategy of your product that can be used to communicate capabilities to marketing or value to investors. It’s the most important document you can build (once you’ve validated your idea and market, of course) because it drives absolutely everything you do.