Experimentation has options, not roadmaps

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A roadmap can be many things.

More than once, roadmaps for traveling helped me reach my final destination. A roadmap is also a statement of intent and direction in product management. It contains organized and prioritized problems underpinned by whatever horizon you choose. The product roadmap does not contain the features and experiments. They belong to a release plan which tracks output, rather than outcomes.

In a previous post we shared the view that products are the result of experiments.

Experimentation is not about creating the right solution. Experimentation is about striving for a better solution. In a culture of experimentation we are never “done”. We embrace constant change around us.

During experimentation we have lots of ideas about what we want to do next. The urge to visualize a direction feels natural. We need a North Star to bring clarity and focus to realize our business and product vision.

A release plan is not the right tool to track experiments. The focus is not about when things go live.

Instead, a repurposed product roadmap is a sensible approach. It is a guiding strategic document.

Should the roadmap be solution-based or problem-based? Right away we can discount solution-based. It is not realistic to display problems back-to-back on a roadmap. Problem A may need more time to iterate than we already anticipated.

We are left with a problem-based roadmap.

Let’s revisit again what a product roadmap is. Fundamentally it is a commitment to a given horizon. However, during experimentation it is challenging to answer: “how much learning time per problem do we give ourselves?”

By now you may be thinking about roadmaps as planning versus a plan. Eisenhower reminds us that: “Plans Are Worthless, But Planning Is Everything”. It appears that we can mitigate uncertainty around problem learning time by updating the roadmap on a need basis. Doing this often offers many challenges.

First, if we do this it is going to be hard to manage expectations internally and externally. That is why product managers often complain about spending more time with stakeholders than customers. The remedy is a strong culture of experimentation that prioritizes learning over predictability. Second, as a team we build stress because we can not hold to our old promises. New ideas, requests and problems are coming up. It is not a sustainable way of working.

We need to embrace a new mindset. Experimentation is about options. And experimentation needs to be supported by (1) an adaptable strategy, (2) an organisation that accurately senses and interprets relevant shifts in the market, (3) and agile implementation routines across structures, operations and systems.

When we work with options we no longer have a commitment. If we consider a problem-based roadmap composed of three horizon columns – “now”, “next” and “future” – options can only appear on the “now” column. Having options in “next” and “future” columns signal an anticipation of expected customer behaviors. Maybe you have a crystal ball!

The history of the bicycle is a great example of how we can manage options. For about 200 years bicycles have tried to solve the problem of moving us faster powered by our legs. There was never a roadmap shared across generations. The development was truly incremental, iterative and customer centric. Key emergent options included changing the size of wheels, positioning of the pedals, the introduction of the rear wheel drive, and the modern bicycle drivetrain around 1900.

To build a product incrementally and iteratively using the lens of experimentation we need:

  • A business and product vision
  • Clear objectives and key results
  • List of problems

We have intentionally dropped any reference to timeframes as a guidance on timing. Conversations are framed around learning outcomes. We can still manage time by asking “how long do we want to invest in this problem?”. Strategically we may decide that x months is the time we have to realize x outcome(s). This approach is inevitably more efficient than managing expectations that frequently change.

The rise of experimentation demands a new lens. It is not enough to track time. The future is uncertain and product development is non-linear. Being adaptable is more important. We need options, rather than roadmaps.

Instead of time, progress and learning compose the new reference frame. Both play a critical role in experimentation.

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How can we stay in touch with reality to allow for infinite possibilities? I aim to inspire, think differently and challenge traditional ideas. [read more]