As a product manager, you’re fluent in creating short-term product roadmaps. You can put together a plan that defines what will be built, when, by which teams, and in what priority. You’re also skilled in identifying key metrics to make sure that your team is on the right path. However, without a clear long-term roadmap to guide the way, a product may quickly lose sight of the vision.
Long-term roadmaps tell the “why” of the product and are the narrative that describes the end goal of the product. Unlike a short-term roadmap, which is tactical in nature, long-term roadmaps tell a story of the vision and are focused on customers and user outcomes, not features and functions.
Though long-term roadmaps are often set by the leadership of an organization, understanding the mechanics of how they are formed will help every product leader to better align product initiatives to the vision of the organization. This in turn will equip you with the tools to become a more effective product manager.
Short-term VS Long-term Roadmaps
A short-term roadmap is a tactical plan that covers what the product team is planning in the next 3 to 6 months. Long-term roadmaps describe the product vision and connect it to the mission of the organization. It is less specific in nature but can inspire and unify the team into realizing the value of their work and the impact on the world.
While the distinction between the two may seem clear enough, when sitting down to actually create one, it is easy to get them confused or to mix the two into a single roadmap. This is understandable especially since they have a lot in common. For example, both long-term and short-term roadmaps:
- Is used to plan resource allocations
- Outlines potential risks to the plan
- Have key performance indicators that can be measured and monitored
However, because short-term roadmaps are forward-looking 3-6 months only, while long-term roadmaps plan years into the future, the level of detail and resolution is different and ultimately they serve two distinct functions. Let’s look at some other ways they are different:
|Short-term Roadmaps||Long-term Roadmaps|
|Tactically||Strategic (Vision and mission-driven)|
|Forward-looking 3 to 6 months||Forward-looking 2-5 years (or more)|
|May change frequently||Should not change frequently|
|Main audience: product team||Main audience: investors and leadership|
|Function: execution and project management||Function: motivation and funding|
The differences between the two justify creating and maintaining two distinct roadmaps and organizations that only focus on short-term roadmaps often find themselves misaligned across product offerings. This is especially true for companies that have built and launched their first successful product and are looking to expand. During this sensitive phase, having a long-term product roadmap is essential to guide and align the organization to the core identity of the company.
Why You Need a Long-Term Roadmap
Short-term roadmaps are an essential tactical tool for all of the stakeholders involved in the product development process (engineering, UX, customer service, sales, marketing, legal, etc). They depend on the plan to understand how to prioritize their tasks, allocate resources, and plan for the next action items.
Long-term roadmaps are primarily a tool used to communicate with executives, board, and investors to obtain funding and buy-in for new product initiatives and strategies. It is also used to set the entire organization to look to the same North Star.
As briefly mentioned before, this is especially important for companies that are in their growth phase. A company in this phase will have one successful product and is looking to expand its product offering to grow and establish itself as a market leader. But with this growth comes a lot of risk for division. Early members often feel deeply invested in the product and they may each have a vision for what it should be. Without a long-term roadmap that can guide and align the teams to the mission and vision, teams may quickly lose the momentum and focus that got them to the growth stage.
“Agile hates plans, but loves planning”Mary Poppendieck
If you are working in an Agile team, having a long-term roadmap may seem counterintuitive. In fact, Ken Schwaber (Scrum co-creator) writes, “the minimum plan necessary to start a Scrum project consists of a vision and a product backlog.” While there is no mention of short or long-term roadmaps as being a requirement, the most effective tools to communicate the vision and backlog are through the short and long-term roadmap. Mary Poppendieck adds a little more color when she said, “agile hates plans, but loves planning.”
A 2018 survey of over 500 product professionals shared that the main function of a product roadmap is to communicate strategy. A long-term product roadmap can be a focused medium to communicate the strategy, vision, and mission of your product.
Key Elements of Long-Term Roadmaps
The specific nature of roadmaps can vary depending on the industry and the maturity of the product and organization. However, having an understanding of the type of information that is valuable to include in long-term roadmaps can help guide you when creating one for your product.
The 10 elements above are focused on an investor-focused long-term roadmap but are a good benchmark to use.
- Reason for being: This is the single most important element to your long-term roadmap and the success of an organization as it grows requires clarity and alignment on the “why” it exists in the first place
- Core drivers of growth: Understanding the mechanics of the business model gives context for the strategy that is deployed to execute. It also gives context and justification for resource allocations and priorities.
- Market view: An explanation of the market is a key element in telling the story of why this is the correct vision. Without the market view, it is impossible to make a compelling argument for the roadmap.
- Competitive advantages: What are the assets that your team has that make it the best player in the game to realize the vision? What is unique about the team, access to information/resources, technology or timing?
- Long-term objectives: What are the specific milestones for the long-term roadmap? Even long-term roadmaps benefit from having concrete objectives to help anchor the vision.
- Strategic plan: A strategic plan describes the “how” to the “why” of long-term roadmaps. They are aligned to the long-term objectives, which are aligned to the vision/mission
- Capital allocation priorities: I’d like to expand and think of this category as “resource allocation” priorities. Resources are highly competitive even within organizations, and having a clear priority of how they will be allocated across the various functions and products is a key element to long-term roadmaps.
- Key performance indicators: The key metrics used for long-term roadmaps will depend highly on the strategy. Some companies in its growth stage may not be looking to have a profit for a 5 year horizon so active user metrics may be more relevant, while public companies may be better aligned to revenue driven KPIs.
- Risks: Displaying a comprehensive understanding of the risks involved will give confidence on the credibility of the roadmap, and will increase the likelihood of its success.
- Compensation: This is specific for an investor focused long-term roadmap, and most likely will be removed from the public version.
Long-term roadmaps focus on telling the story of the vision and are an essential tool to align internal and external stakeholders to the strategic initiatives. It can help build a sense of unity and mission, and bring clarity and justification to how resources and priorities are managed. Even in an agile environment, having distinct long-term roadmaps might be what your organization is missing to help grow momentum behind your products. It acts as the North Star and can give a greater sense of meaning to the work.