Bruce McCarthy is Founder and Chief Product Person at UpUp Labs, where he and his team are at work on Reqqs - the smart roadmap tool for product people.


Roadmaps vs. Agile Development?

I've never felt there was an inherent conflict between using an agile approach to development and having a high-level roadmap. The latter sets out your destination, where the former is about figuring out the details of your path to that destination as you go.

I'll be leading a workshop on roadmapping with an agile bent at the MVP Conference in Arlington, VA May 18-19. I had a great conversation with Elliot Volkman about agile approaches to roadmapping, as a warm up to the conference.

Check out the podcast.


Fighting Shiny Object Syndrome

Brenda rushed over from her desk in the sales pit. She was clearly excited. She’d uncovered an opportunity to partner with a local firm that would distribute our free demo to a few thousand of their customers and she was convinced it would be an easy way to generate a lot of new business quickly. Printing demo discs was cheap and she just wanted my ok to get some co-branded materials made to package them with, and maybe we could do a seminar together, and dedicate some telesales resources to following up on the leads. It was nearly free marketing, right?

I said no. I also helped Brenda understand why this didn’t fit with our strategy, and where she could more profitably focus her sales efforts. The company had been using a free demo disc for a couple of years to bring in small business customers. We’d run the numbers and it really wasn’t a profitable go-to-market approach. We weren’t ready to phase out the SMB business all together, but it was clear we needed to go up-market.

Prioritization Anti-patterns

I work with a lot of companies that are, like this company was, just coming out of the startup phase. They’ve been acquired, or gotten funding, or reached profitability and are looking to add to their product line or expand their market. A lot of them suffer from a lack of focus. Either they have 100 number-one priorities that the CEO somehow magically thinks they can pursue in parallel, or the priorities shift from day to day, or even hour to hour. What the startup CEO sees as responding with agility to opportunity, the product team secretly refers to as “shiny object syndrome.”

They are both right, of course, but the crucial difference between a death spiral of increasingly desperate shifts in direction and a focused process of pivots in response to market needs is a disciplined approach to prioritization based on best-guess ROI.

Prioritizing solely on gut is one of the Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks I’ve been writing about recently. It’s a killer for team productivity and morale, and it usually results in high turnover, low productivity, and subpar results.

Bad ways to set priorities include:

  • Your CEO’s Gut (no longer in touch with the market)
  • Analyst Opinions (mostly backward-looking)
  • Popularity (most of your customers are small)
  • Sales Requests (change every week)

The Role of Product Management

I redirected Brenda’s efforts that day (and for the next year) by sitting down with her and showing her our prioritized list of initiatives and (this is the important part) the underlying strategic goals that informed it. Everything on the list was ranked as to how much we estimated (guessed) it would help with those goals vs. how much effort we estimated it would take.

I put her idea through this model and, although the effort was small, it didn’t contribute to our new strategic goal of capturing larger customers, it would probably hurt our conversion rate, and it was unlikely to make much of a dent in our overall revenue picture. Brenda seemed happy to be heard, but being a smart salesperson she also absorbed the changed goals of the company and refocused her prospecting efforts.

A year later, Brenda became our first national accounts salesperson and the highest-paid person in the company. Our move toward larger customers doubled the company’s revenue and improved the company’s eventual acquisition price not long after.

As the product manager, I felt it was a key part of my leadership role to communicate and get buy-in on these priorities. I once worked for a boss who called this part of the job "being the adult in the room." Brenda was just one example, but consistently applying these priorities across departments and initiatives is what drove our success as a company.

A Simple Formula

ROI is the basis for the simple formula I use for prioritization. You can’t do everything at once, so you should do the most leveraged things first, the things that have the most bang for the least buck. There’s room in this model to define both “bang” and “buck” however you like (see my piece on setting goals), but the math is simple and intuitive.

Value/Effort = Priority

I’ve used this model for years to set priorities based on relative ROI. I’ve used it successfully to prioritize features, projects, investments, lean experiments, acquisition candidates, OEM partners — even which car to buy. It never fails to support both the right decisions and (often just as important) the right conversations. (See my piece on getting buy-in on your roadmap.) And at the right time, it provides the necessary ammunition for your business case.

Companies that consistently prioritize and focus on a few highly-leveraged initiatives invariably learn faster, grow larger, and become successful by getting everyone pulling in the same direction.

Struggling to set priorities?

If your company suffers from shiny object syndrome, and you're struggling to set priorities for your product or business, grab a half-hour slot to chat with me. I'm happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamps in Boston, Washington DC, and Halifax; or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.


The Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks

A good product roadmap is one of the most important and influential documents an organization can develop, publish and continuously update. It’s the one document that steers the entire organization in delivering on the company strategy.

It's key to success, and yet many organizations struggle to produce effective roadmaps. In fact, many organizations don’t create one, even to publish internally. Or they do, but it is simply a collection of unrelated features and dates.

What Is a Product Roadmap?

A roadmap is your vision for how a product (or product line) will help achieve your organization's strategic goals. In that sense, it is literally a map of the steps involved in getting your business where you want it to go. To make it even more concrete, I also like to think of a product roadmap as a timeline view of your priorities.

A good roadmap inspires. It inspires buy-in from executives, inspires confidence from customers and salespeople, and inspires development teams to produce the groundbreaking products that drive significant growth.

A good roadmap keeps your organization on course toward its destination. Stating what you will do and when makes it easy to judge when you fall behind schedule or get detoured by good ideas that just don't fit your strategic vision.

The Dirty Dozen

In my experience, though, there are some specific areas where companies commonly break down in developing roadmaps, hitting roadblocks that often keep them from getting where they want to go. I call these roadmap roadblocks the "Dirty Dozen."

[Note: The header for each of the numbered red section headers below is a link to a more in-depth article on that particular roadblock. I am writing a new one every two weeks, so watch for the blue headers to turn red!]

1. No Strategic Goals

If a roadmap is the path toward your goals, you obviously need to set those goals before you start. Yet many companies fail to sit down and explicitly describe the destination they are driving toward.

Is your product roadmap aligned with your strategic goals? Have a conversation with your CEO or another exec in the know. It may clarify a lot of your prioritization dilemmas.

2. Focusing on Features

A lot of roadmaps are just a list of features in upcoming releases. This is meaningless to most people outside of the development team. A roadmap should make it obvious how things will improve for your customers, organization or shareholders. Like any good sales pitch, it should focus on delivering value.

Look at your roadmap from the point of view of a board member or a customer. Would they see their interests reflected?

3. Inside-out Thinking

Focusing on features can be a symptom of failing to understand your market. Yes, priorities should be driven by internal goals, but those goals must also respond to market reality.

Ask yourself whether your roadmap priorities are driven by the needs of the people and organizations you intend to serve. Strive to bring that message from the outside in.

4. One Size Fits All

You probably serve more than one market segment. When you are talking to customers or partners in one segment, the roadmap you show should focus on how you will address their needs.

Make sure your roadmap is not one-size-fits-all. If a customer sees their interests in only 1 of the next 6 releases, they’ll get the message that you are not focused on them.

5. Trying Too Hard to Please

That said, many roadmaps are simply lists of customer requests prioritized by number (or size) of customers requesting or voting for the feature. This may help with retention for a while, but will not drive your company into new markets or to invent anything new.

Rather than just taking requests, listening for unsolved problems in your market (and doing something about them) is the best way to avoid a roadmap that's really just a popularity contest.

6. Playing Catch-up

It's often a mistake to focus on matching your competition feature-for-feature. All this does is commoditize your market. Instead, focus on creating unique value by developing solutions your competition can't easily duplicate.

How many items on your roadmap are "me too" features designed to close perceived competitive gaps? How many of those have actually lost you business?

7. Not Getting Buy-in

The best-conceived roadmap won't get you where you need to go if you can't get anyone else to come along for the ride. You've got to get your development, sales, marketing, finance and other stakeholders involved early so it becomes their plan, not just yours.

If people use words like "intellectual," "cerebral," "theoretical," or "ivory tower" to describe you or your work, this is code for lack of buy-in.

8. Prioritizing on Instinct

Good product people develop good instincts for their market. As a company grows, though, it's hard to get the buy-in you need from all players based just on your instincts.

Can you tie everything on your roadmap back to your strategic goals? Can you show the ROI calculations that put priority 1 ahead of priority 2? A little data settles a lot of arguments.

9. Being Too Agile

Agile was developed as a response to lack of consistent direction from business execs. That doesn't mean it's incompatible with good direction. Yet many companies fear to map out a course thinking it's not allowed in Agile.

Don't let being agile become an excuse for indecision. You may choose to adjust course down the road, but you'll move a lot faster if you first take your best guess at a destination.

10. Being Too Secretive

Some organizations have a roadmap but shy away from sharing it with anyone. It might be fear of revenue recognition issues, lack of confidence in the company's direction, or just not wanting to look foolish if things change.

A good roadmap is not a contract. It can and should be designed as a statement of direction and intent, but customers and investors expect you to accept and act on feedback from the market. They expect your roadmap to change, so stop worrying.

11. No Buffer

One reason an organization might be reluctant to share is if their roadmap is too detailed. A roadmap consisting of 40 bulleted features in each of 10 precisely-dated releases is impossible to read, and can really constrain your options for adjusting course down the road.

Your roadmap should consist of problem-solving themes and broad time-frames. This gives you the leeway to cut or defer a specific feature without risking on-time arrival at your destination.

12. Over- or Underestimating

ROI is a critical consideration in prioritization, yet many product teams make the mistake of setting business priorities without considering development costs. Conversely, some teams spend months estimating every possible product initiative without first considering which are likely to be worth the time.

Approach your technical partner for a quick, high-level estimate of the work involved in your 10 most wanted. What if #4 turns out to be trivially easy compared to the 3 ahead of it? Wouldn't you like to know that up front?

An Invitation

If your organization’s progress toward its strategic goals is slowed by any of these roadmap roadblocks, feel free to set up a time to chat with me during my free office hours. You may also be interested my hugely popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamp Boston, or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.


A Roadmap to Product Peace

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in April 1975 (Source: Ford Library)At 6:15 am on October 6, 1973, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to US President Nixon, was abruptly awoken by Joseph Sisco, his Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. According to Kissinger’s new book, Crisis, The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises,

“As I forced myself awake, I heard Sisco’s gravelly voice insisting that Israel and two Arab countries, Egypt and Syria, were about to go to war. He was confident, however, that it was all a mistake; each side was really misreading the intentions of the other. If I set them right immediately and decisively, I could get matters under control before the shooting began.”

Ever feel like that as a product manager? Responsible for synthesizing a plan from the seemingly irreconcilable differences among sales, engineering, marketing, services, and the executive team?

This was the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war in the Middle East and, despite frantic diplomatic efforts that day, Kissinger was not able to stop the shooting from starting. Over the next 21 days, however, Kissinger was the key player in establishing a cease fire that actually enhanced the precarious security of Israel, a US ally; reduced the regional influence the Soviet Union, a US adversary during the Cold War; and opened up options for enhanced dialogue with the Arab world.

Ever wonder how he accomplsihed all that?

This is the seventh article in a series called The Dirty Dozen Roadmap Roadblocks. In this article, I will talk a little about what this controversial nobel peace prize winner can teach us about getting your stakeholders to buy into a practical plan and come together to make it happen.

Shuttle Diplomacy

“The action of an outside party in serving as an intermediary between (or among) principals in a dispute, without direct principal-to-principal contact.”

This is how Wikipedia defines shuttle diplomacy. The term was actually coined to describe Kissinger’s efforts in, during, and after this war.

Kissinger leveraged international toll lines, the White House’s hotline to Moscow, telegrams, couriers, recorded messages, transatlantic flights, and any other means of communication he could get his hands on. Because the parties could not or would not speak with each other, Kissinger spoke to and for each of them separately. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Kissinger could cut through the spite and the pride of each party and talk about things with them sympathetically and pragmatically. This would have been impossible with parties like Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, the Soviet Union, and others in the room.

Though the stakes are less dramatic, I have found the same dynamics in businesses of all kinds. It’s much easier to discuss priorities and roadmap items one-on-one with the head of sales, for example, than it is if the head of marketing is also in the room. So I make it a point to continuously “shuttle” between all my stakeholders gathering their input individually, discussing how the others might react, and trying out early versions of the plan on them en route to a final roadmap.

Set the Stage with Goals

One thing Kissinger did repeatedly was to reiterate the mutual goals of the parties in any conversation. Whether it was Nixon, Brezhnev, Sadat, or Meir, before getting into detailed proposals or relaying messages, this diplomat and strategist (not a bad description of a good product manager) would remind everyone what they were trying to achieve. This focused each conversation on problem solving and consensus rather than the latest provocation by another party.

This works well in product direction discussions, too. When someone comes into your office all fired up about a competitor or a new feature idea, reminding them of your strategic goals helps to ground the conversation and focus it objectively on whether the latest shiny object is really more important than something already on the roadmap.

Ask for Help

Kissinger never approached a world leader with a plan and said, “This is it. Take it or leave it.” He preferred to provide an update on the current situation and proposals on the table, then ask for help in crafting the best response consistent with their goals. Over time and with many such iterations, authorship of any given plan became difficult to determine. Everyone could claim it was their proposal, and this made it easier to get consensus without anyone losing face.

When Egypt and Israel finally met face-to-face after weeks of war and shuttle diplomacy, the outcome was nearly certain. Similarly, when you collaborate on your product roadmap with your key stakeholders, a powerful thing happens: “your” plan becomes their plan, too. This makes the big review meeting with the execs more of a formality because everyone around the table had a hand in putting together the plan. Do this right and you can say: “I’ll present our priorities to the executive team on Friday.”

Keep Lines of Communication Open

Even after the cease fire, Kissinger spent years shuttling between the major players. Whatever you think of the former Secretary, his efforts culminated in the 1979 Camp David Accords and the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? It is. I collaborated with the folks at Product Management Journal on a cartoon that places the product manager at the center of a group of very demanding characters. When I showed this cartoon to my wife, she said: “Why you still do this job I don’t know, but it does explain all the beer.” 

It’s worth it, though, when your development team makes uninterrupted progress toward enabling your company’s strategic goals.

Struggling to get buy-in on your roadmap?

If you're struggling to get buy-in on your product roadmap (or just need a beer and someone to talk to), pick a half-hour slot to chat with me. I'm happy to help.

You may also be interested my popular roadmapping presentation from ProductCamps in Boston, Washington DC, and Halifax; or in Reqqs, the smart roadmap tool for product people.

Use your product powers for good.


The Voice of Boston's Product People

I meet with product people all around Boston frequently. They are a savvy, experienced bunch with a lot to offer. Wouldn't it be great if there were a place where could all learn from that wisdom?

These same product people are, just as often, the unsung heroes of their organizations' success. Wouldn't it be great if there were a platform for them to talk about how they made a difference?


Sharing what we've learned is the core concept behind ProductHub, the Boston Product Management Association's new member-contributed blog. To quote BPMA President Mak Joshi:

The depth and breadth of product management and marketing expertise across a variety of industries is clearly an asset we as a community can leverage. We at BPMA are convinced that providing a medium for sharing techniques and ideas will facilitate a powerful cross-pollination of product best practices. This we firmly believe will yield professional development opportunities across the community.

The ProductHub Team

ProductHub was created in just a few weeks this summer by a tiny team of passionate product people. We owe these folks our thanks for creating this platform for all of us.

Hally Pinaud

Hally is a smart, energetic product marketer, currently contributing her talents to the resurgence of Aberdeen. She is our chief editor and author of our launch piece on content marketing. She's also about to get her MBA from Boston College.

Vanessa Ferranto

Vanessa is a savvy and technical senior product manager, currently driving product strategy forward at Kendall Square startup Leaf. She is ProductHub's WordPress wizard and created the entire blog from scratch in her spare time.

Rob Savitsky

Rob is working on his MBA at Babson. He'a also interned at the New York Times and (before bschool), he oversaw social media at record labels for artists such as Evanesence, Seether, Civil Twilight and more. Rob manages the blog's social media presence, getting the word out when there is new content.

I'd also like to thank ProductHub's first contributor:

Janet Lee

Janet serves as VP of Products at Lattice Engines on State Street in downtown Boston. She agreed to spend her free time creating an article on estimation for the community based on only the idea of a member-contributed blog.

Check out ProductHub and tune in to what the Boston product community is learning, as we learn it. Want to add your voice? All are welcome. Check out the contributor guidelines.