There are 101 great ideas from all over the business, some processes that need fixing, a few bugs, a couple of senior management passion projects, and perhaps the company is pivoting to a new subscriptions model. How do you prioritise the roadmap and decide what to deliver with the resources you have available, as well as keep relationships intact when you can’t please everyone?
Product leaders are faced with these demands daily. Let’s break this down.
1. How do you decide?
Most leaders agree that prioritising the roadmap must be based on overall company objectives (we’ll go more into goal setting and measurement over the next few weeks).
Gannett, owner of USA Today and the largest local news business in the world, uses three things to set priorities. Kara Chiles, vice president/consumer products, summed this up nicely in a recent Product Initiative Meet-Up I hosted:
Level of effort: For this to be truly understood, great specs need to be written with clear deliverables in mind. Gannett did a lot of training around this in the early days.
Impact: It must work for the organisation as a whole and contribute to positive growth.
Timeliness: The nature of the business in news is prone to urgency. As Kara says, we can “blow up the roadmap if we think it’s worth it,” but it has to be intentional.
2. Who decides?
The short answer is everyone. OK, maybe not everyone, but each department that could have an impact on the product in question should be able to weigh in. Each department has different levers it can pull to help reach company objectives. Decisions cannot be made in isolation because they will inevitably have knock-on effects to other projects.
Of course the amount of people that can weigh into a decision is a spectrum. At one end, where dramatic changes are needed, the product lead will gather information, listen to requirements, and then make the decision. My favourite example of this recently is The Dallas Morning News, which “suspended democracy” until the launch of its new core products. Colleagues at the company recognised the need for change and respected the decision to (you can hear the explanation of this by Sylvia Borowski, director of digital products, around minute 28 of the Meet-Up, here).
The opposite end of the spectrum is where everyone gets involved and has a say in the ongoing product roadmap. At the Financial Times, an Investment board decides how funds are split up, sub councils look at the outcomes based on company OKRs, and then multi-disciplinary teams take the budget allocated, the OKRs, and resources available to decide the product roadmap. Every department is involved at different levels. This approach is framework-led, ensures all inputs are heard, and is results-oriented. But that also takes time and can have an overreliance on funding over other priorities.
If you are interested in the pros and cons of each of these approaches from an organisational perspective, Nine Media has been through both, which you can read about in an interview with their Head of Product Ben Haywood here.
We would be foolish to think that a consensus can be arrived at every time, even with most informed teams and best negotiators. So what happens then? Either the product owner makes the final call or, if people are loggerheads as to the best solution to a problem, possibilities can be A/B tested to find the best results.
3. How do you communicate?
Every product leader will tell you that communication and transparency are key. By people knowing and being part of the process, there are fewer questions about when things will be delivered. It also shows the bigger picture and can help people understand what others are doing.
However, how do you decide what to communicate to whom and how often?
Some organisations have tools that can be accessed by anyone. This allows full transparency (see Roadmapping tools below)
Again I’m going to use Gannett as an example as Kara Chiles put this succinctly:
4. How often are priorities set?
Most companies will have a combination of annual goals and objectives, quarterly executive/leadership meetings, monthly updates, and, when working to an Agile process, two week sprints.
Marek Kopec, group product director, at Axel Springer Polska took us through the company’s new workflow, which breaks down into two main areas:
Annual planning is strategic with the management board, C-Suite, and MDs. Here they look at company objectives and business prioritisation.
Quarterly planning is with business leads and product management teams. Here they focus on measurement, risk and business review of OKRs, all of which feed into sprint workflow.
Another example worth looking at is MediaNews Group. CJ Jacobs, head of product and technology, took us through her planning and communication in an interview here.
5. How often do you look back and review?
One thing to notice on the slide above is “continuously verify results.” This can be an overlooked part of product, especially where there is a focus on product development with an end date to the delivery. Looking back to see if the product did as well as expected, both after launch and after a period of time, will help hone the process and help teams recognise things as they gain traction/become successful. Decisions can then be made around whether they need more resources.
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