Roadmaps are a Lie - Design Your Thinking

Roadmaps are a Lie

roadmaps are a lieThanks for your attention! The title “Roadmaps are a Lie” are the words of Laura Klein in this episode of The Design Your Thinking Podcast. This was her answer to one of the questions in the interview. This one line brought back haunting memories from the past.

My job in the next 10 minutes is to convince you to not spend time on roadmaps from today. If I’ve at least got you thinking in that direction, I’ll take that as a step closer to success 🙂 . I will end this article by suggesting you practical, creative alternatives to a roadmap that work better than roadmaps.

Let me begin by telling you a quick personal story to explain the psychology (yes!!) of lying.

The Psychology of Lying

I have personally used roadmaps for a very, very long time. They seemed magical for a long time. I loved roadmaps. They gave me a chance to talk about the future of my product. And I must admit that many a time, roadmaps did come to my rescue. More importantly customers seemed happy when I presented them with my product roadmap 😆

roadmaps are promising

First, a Personal Story…

It was the fall of 2015 and I was supposed to be meeting this big multi-million dollar banking customer for a product review. I scheduled a meeting with my Sales Account Manager whose name was Mike (name changed) for a quick update the day before. He had been in a meeting with the customer just a month before. It was the time in the year when this customer got together with their existing technology vendors to review their products. It so happened that they also invited new vendors to their campus in downtown San Francisco to put up stalls and also pitch them their products and services.

Enter, the Roadmap..

Mike described this meeting with the heads of vertical businesses in the bank that also had the IT head. He told me that he presented them our product roadmap, and that got me excited. In the enterprise software business, roadmaps are very common and I did create and maintain a roadmap for my product too. Curious enough, I asked him how did it go. Mike was all excited and leaned forward to tell me that the meeting went off really well. I asked him to explain.

He told me that he showed them the roadmap and they were clearly excited. I was, frankly, confused. I knew our roadmap did not have a few of the key features (oh yes, features!) they had requested. I had given a thematic roadmap to Mike that did not talk about features. I asked Mike to explain which part of the roadmap got them excited, and he told me the following…

Controlling the response!!

Mike told me that he told the customer that a feature they’d been wanting in the product is going to be in the product in the next 1 year. I was shocked and told him that we were doing a variation of that and not exactly what they were asking for – it did not fit our product’s mission. He told me that he told them the half-truth and didn’t explain the details about how ours was different from their expectations. He essentially tried controlling the customers’ response by telling them what they wanted to hear. What he told was a lie. His version of the roadmap was a lie.

exaggeration and roadmaps

He Exaggerated…

Mike also told me that they liked the new feature we were launching in a couple of months. He said they loved it and looked forward to upgrading to the new version. I asked him what he told them, only to realize that he exaggerated a feature well beyond what it was planned to be. Even worse, the product had technology limitations in being able to deliver the exaggerated reality even a year from then!  🙄

Like how Lisa Firestone explains in this article Why We Lie and How to Stop1, intentional omission of facts and wearing a self-protective sheath are couple of other ways we humans lie. But why do we do this? It goes back to our lizard brain or the limbic brain.

Lizard Brain makes you Lie

The lizard brain, as it’s called, is the oldest part of the brain that existed in the homo sapiens back when we were monkeys. All this part of the brain cares or thinks about is:

  1. Is there a threat? (fight)
  2. Should I run and hide? (flight)
  3. I am hungry and I need food! (feeding)
  4. Am I in danger? (fear)
  5. Do I feel shameful? (freeze-up)
  6. Does this lead to instant pleasure I can get? (fornication)

But why do we lie? It’s because of these behaviors triggered by the lizard brain. According to Dawson McAllister2, lying can broadly be attributed to three things:

1. Fear

Mike perhaps didn’t want to be put on the spot for us not being able to do exactly what this customer wanted us to do. He perhaps wanted to put the unpleasantness.

2. Manipulation

Mike was perhaps looking to manipulate the customers’ reaction by telling them something, even if it amounted to sharing what’s not completely true or half-truth.

3. Pride

Mike was someone who was hired into this role just a few months back, and he was perhaps looking to get a good name as someone who kept the customer happy. After all, one of his goals was to keep the customer happy!

What does Lying have to do with Roadmaps?

As you’ve seen with my example above, Mike used a roadmap to engage with a customer. He used it in a way that the customer was happy, even when he knew that he was sitting on a landmine! He presented a version of the roadmap that was factually wrong. He was lying. Worse, he used the roadmap as a tool to lie.

If you are in the business of making roadmaps, you are out of the business of making products.

Products are a thing of reality. Products change from the time they are conceived to the time they actually get made. Using roadmaps to talk to customers is like pretending to be a soothsayer with a crystal ball. By using roadmaps to sell your product or build a relationship with customers, you are losing sight of the product.

Roadmaps are a lie. But I have to make this point…

Tool that has Zero Value

Roadmaps is a tool that focuses your conversation around everything but the product. As I sight above, roadmaps help you cover up your fears, manipulate conversations and take false pride simply because you are talking about everything that your product is not.

roadmap is a plan or a dreamWhat is the Alternative to Roadmaps?

Focus your time and energy on speaking the truth. In other words, focus on your product. The future you need to focus on is your next iteration, at best. If I have been successful in convincing you that roadmaps are a lie, what is the alternative? Customers still need to know what’s coming 6 months from now, right? Product teams still need to know how and what they are going to add value to the product and its business over the next 6 months, right? Your executive management needs to know what commitments to make, right?

Here are the alternatives…

Let’s do this inside-out. Starting with your Executive Management…

Alternative to Roadmaps for Executive Management

It all starts with the ‘Why’. Simon Sinek talks about this in his book, Start With Why. For starters, learn your why3 and have an open and candid discussion with your executive management. Understanding the purpose of your company and your product’s mission is key. Here is a simple set of steps that I recommend you try –

  1. Write down the purpose and mission very clearly
  2. Jot down the personas whose problem your product solves
  3. Articulate the unique value proposition of your product and how it addresses the needs of each of your persona(s) (listen to Roger Cauvin4 talk about Prioritizing based on Unique Value Proposition)
  4. Put down a timeline and mark points (product drops/releases) in the timeline that’s most meaningful for your personas and customers to try your product
  5. Write down one or two goals (that address the needs of your persona(s)) that your product will address for each of the product drop

Use this timeline as a way to have meaningful conversations with your executive management.

roadmaps and general pattonAlternative to Roadmaps for Product Teams

In his article The Alternative to Roadmaps5, Marty Cagan argues against the use of roadmaps and advocates the use of systems like OKR and high-integrity commitments. He positions roadmaps as a tool that works against empowering product teams, and it’s one of the most common problems I’ve seen.

OKRs are a great way of focusing your product teams on the outcome, rather than the output.

Focusing on output is like counting beans. Instead, focusing on outcome gets you the best coffee!

Marty’s article is a great resource when it comes to working with your product teams. I have found great value in using posters that outline the ‘Why’, ‘How’ and ‘What’ resonate really well with teams too. Keep it simple and prune out all jargon words. No one likes jargon words and engineers / developers hate them!

Alternative to Roadmaps for Customers

“But, my customer is asking for a roadmap!!” – I hear you. Let me tell you something? They are not looking for a roadmap! They are looking to hear what your product team is up to. That’s it. Let me put it this way. Would your customers be happy if you kept showing them the roadmap that always painted a nice picture when your product hardly lived up to it?

Customers are always trying to connect the dots to the priced dream your sales team once sold them on. They chose to pay money to your company because they believed in your company’s purpose and your product’s mission. In other words, they are looking to see their priced dream (your product’s mission) unfold in every meeting they have with you.

Making software products isn’t easy. Technology gets better by the day. The complexity of putting together a ton of code, into a piece of software product by bringing together people is not easy. In other words, you are not going to make anyone happy by trying to improve your soothsaying skills. Instead, focus on your product. Here are 2 ways you can do this –

1. Tell a Story

I had earlier written down my thoughts on why your Product Roadmap Is a Story where I talk about how you can connect with your audience better by telling stories. I have used this to great success and I strongly recommend you try this with your customers (and internal teams too).

2. Use a Trail-map

I must admit – this is one of my favorites. The reason is simply that a Trail Map gives me a lot of confidence and my customers are the happiest at the end of it. It’s really simple to do. Instead of talking about the future, you talk about the past. You describe the trail you took to get to where you are today. While you use the earlier method of telling a story to talk about the destination, the Trail Map helps you connect with your customers. Here is what you do –

  1. Start by telling the story of your product (reiterate quickly if you are revisiting your customer)
  2. Describe (preferably with a nice picture – no essays!) the last two or three releases (if you have an existing product) or iterations (if its a new product) by talking about 4 things –
    • Plan – What was planned?
    • Action – What you actually did?
    • Learn – What were the learnings?
  3. Describe your plan of action (not features!) for the next release or iteration, and with all honesty and a conservative mindset –
    • describe the goal(s)
    • outline open questions with your plan to test them
  4. Finally, invite your customers for inputs and get their help to poke holes and give constructive feedback / inputs

focus on outcome not outputConclusion

That was quiet a ride, wasn’t it? We started with Mike’s story to understand the psychology of lying. We later delved into how lying is connected to roadmaps. We later took a look at practical alternatives to roadmaps and how you can put them to practice. However short I tried to keep this article, it took me a couple of thousand words. Nevertheless I hope this article has got you thinking deeply about roadmaps, and convinced you to try the alternatives I suggest.

I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences too. Leave a comment or send me an email. If you liked this article, do subscribe to my newsletter by signing up below. You can also listen to The Design Your Thinking Podcast on iTunes6 and Stitcher7 or my website.

External Links Referred to in this article

  1. Why We Lie and How to Stop –
  2. What is Lying and Why We Do It? –
  3. Learn Your Why –
  4. Why Spreadsheets Suck for Prioritizing by Roger Cauvin –
  5. The Alternative to Roadmaps –
  6. The Design Your Thinking Podcast on iTunes –
  7. Design Your Thinking Podcast on Stitcher –
  • […] one story of your product that gets communicated clearly across internal functions and customers, you no longer will be asked for a feature roadmap. In fact, you can now start to focus on your how to realize your product’s purpose and then […]

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