How to Align Teams Behind a Product Roadmap

Janey Zitomer
May 15, 2020

It’s a mantra for product development as well as a dictum for life: The only constant is change.

That’s why product roadmaps must be flexible, even treated as “living, breathing things,” said Narguess Noshirvani, a group director of product management at Work & Co.

While changes in a product roadmap are an inevitable part of the production process, the consequences of swapping priorities mid-development can be significant in terms of lost time and workflow interruption. With that in mind, aligning teams from the start — especially with distributed remote stakeholders — matters.  

The following eight tech professionals strive to ensure their teams are on the same page when it comes to business objectives and measurable group goals long before major shifts are necessary. That way, if and when priorities change, PMs can easily communicate to all stakeholders how and why their team will be course correcting.  

“Roadmaps can — and should — change,” Noshirvani said. “But the vision itself must remain consistent.”

 

squarespace
squarespace
Narguess Noshirvani
Group Director, Product Management

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go? 

At the start of each project, stakeholders need to be fundamentally aligned around the vision for a product. Without clarity from the beginning, it’s impossible to create alignment around a roadmap. While Work & Co partners with our clients to both evolve and iterate existing products, we’re also often creating net new digital products from scratch. Start by articulating the vision for the product and the value it brings to users. Share this information with key stakeholders and get buy-in from different parts of the business. Roadmaps can (and should!) change. But the vision itself must remain consistent. 

Being transparent and explicit about the strategic foundations for a roadmap makes alignment easier. Most importantly, be realistic about how detailed a roadmap can and should get. The further out we’re looking, the less feature-level definition there will be. Our ultimate goal is to ensure a product is both high quality and actually launches. A roadmap that everyone can rally around helps us stay focused on achieving that goal. 

Without clarity from the beginning, it’s impossible to create alignment around a roadmap.’’  

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle? 

Our teams work cross-functionally across design, product, engineering and QA. Each discipline is actively involved throughout the development cycle. This involvement allows for greater alignment across key components of our product delivery process. It also makes our end result smarter. We involve our clients in daily meetings and demos, which provides visibility into how we’re tracking against short-term sprint and release goals.  

As unknowns come up during the development cycle, which could mean a feature is taking more effort to implement than originally estimated or feedback from users requires a change in the interface, we’re able to iterate on the roadmap in real time. Of course, once a decision is made to adjust the roadmap, it’s vital to clearly communicate those changes to stakeholders. Even a small adjustment can have an impact across sales, marketing or other parts of the business. 

 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned? 

Transparent, clear and cross-functional communication is key here. Over the past several weeks, in light of the pandemic and resulting changes in consumer behavior, we’re working with a lot of our clients to pivot and adjust roadmaps. Especially when things are moving so fast, it’s easy to get bogged down in specific feature-level details and discussions. But it’s even more critical to carve out time to take a holistic view across the product and organization so that you can align your teams around the larger strategy, the dependencies and how priorities are changing. 

Roadmaps should be treated as living and breathing things. You should be able to tweak them to reflect evolving customer needs, behaviors and the general market conditions. Regularly incorporate input from analytics, testing and customer feedback into feature-level adjustments. As product managers, it’s easy to assume that the rest of your team understands the decisions behind certain changes as well as you do. But building alignment around a roadmap in flux means taking the time to explain why priorities have changed. Make sure your teams, from the executives to the designers and developers, understand what you’re all working toward both in the short and long term. 

 

Jennifer Fragale
Senior Product Consultant

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go?

Take time to go through a discovery phase. Explore customer needs, market fit, business goals and the competition. Begin to think about metrics by which the product’s success will be measured. Too many times, this phase is minimized or skipped altogether, which will inevitably create conflict down the road. 

At Kin + Carta, we distill, synthesize and package this information for all the stakeholders across teams so that we can foster alignment through collaborative discussions. The resulting output is a succinct, focused, product north star statement. Only then do we create a product plan and roadmap to get us there. 

Take time to go through a discovery phase.’’ 

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle? 

Our process consists of development cycles that are quick iteration loops continuously being deployed. During each phase of the roadmap, the iteration cycles provide a renewed sense of heading in the right direction. Discover, design, develop, test, repeat, repeat, repeat. This iterative approach also allows for incremental pivots as we respond to changing business needs. 

Occasionally, a major route alteration needs to be made to accommodate a changing market landscape or macroeconomic trends. Take COVID-19 as an example. A healthcare product we are currently developing was scheduled to launch in July. However, in response to the current pandemic, my team pivoted and launched a slimmed-down version of the application within three weeks, a full three months ahead of schedule. Our backlog and roadmap shifted immediately as features were introduced to accommodate the new business requirements. But all the teams stayed in sync because the underlying foundation was designed for agility. 

 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

Evaluating the new priorities against those originally plotted is essential to fully understand and measure the implications of the change. In the example above, priorities shifted in ways no one could have predicted three of four months ago. But, because we had outlined a north star early on, we could confidently make this change and keep teams on board. 

We quickly created a new roadmap to make side-by-side comparisons with the original to understand the implications in depth. The new scope, updated timeline and impacts on the budget were made clear. The redirection, while dramatic, was made smoother because it stayed true to the overarching business goals, values and vision we aligned on at the beginning of the project.

 

Shireen Truetzel
Director, Product Management at ResyOS

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go? 

When developing a roadmap, getting input and feedback from teams across the organization is necessary to ensure it reflects the overall business priorities. The roadmapping process begins months before a roadmap is delivered. Our product managers ask business units across the company to submit their top priorities or asks. Then, the teams meet to go into detail on each one and ensure that the PMs understand the problems each team is trying to solve and why. Product then meets with engineering to discuss possible solutions and the complexity involved with implementing them. 

The next step is sort of like putting a puzzle together: the PMs assess the backlog of requests against the size and effort required to put together a picture of what is actually possible. This draft is then circulated back to the business leads, who have an opportunity to share additional feedback and ask questions before the roadmap is finalized. Because stakeholders across the business are involved in the roadmapping process from the start, they are able to better understand the final product. 

 

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle? 

Communication is key. Once a project kicks off, the team should hold regular, cross-functional stand-ups to proactively raise any questions or blockers that could jeopardize a project’s success. Slack channels for each project team or squad also help foster continued communication. 

We applied these processes when building Resy’s live waitlist feature, which allows guests to add themselves to a restaurant’s waitlist remotely. The stand-ups and Slack chats were helpful in identifying when parts of the functionality were ready for testing and when assumptions needed to be clarified to ensure features were implemented properly. 

The only constant in product management at a fast-paced company is change.’’ 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

The only constant in product management at a fast-paced company is change. You can try your best to protect the team from shifting priorities, but unforeseen circumstances will inevitably require plans to be altered. 

Make sure you have a well-groomed backlog of items to pull from. Elongated timelines or widened scope will most likely jeopardize another upcoming, pre-planned initiative. Pulling a different project from the top of the backlog ensures that you will still be able to deliver high-impact work without creating too many downstream effects on the overall roadmap. Developers and designers should have a good sense of items at the top of the backlog so they can get up to speed quickly and help deliver on the new plan.

 

Matt Zambelli 
Director of Product

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go?

Roadmap alignment is the most critical and high-leverage step in the product development lifecycle. 

At Neustar, we think of our product roadmap not as a list of features, but as a collection of initiatives that align with the business’ strategic priorities. A great deal of pre-work goes into roadmap creation leading up to an alignment meeting with the wider cross-functional team. Forming a coherent story based on the initiatives, gathering research and writing user stories to justify client value can make the alignment session go smoothly. We also get one-on-one buy-in from key stakeholders before the meeting even happens. 

 

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle?

As product leaders, we can’t take that initial alignment phase for granted, especially in our new remote workplace reality. It is far too easy for team members to find a new, off-roadmap problem to solve as a result of a seemingly innocuous Zoom call or Slack message.

To maintain alignment, I do my best to be the product roadmap’s biggest evangelist. During status check-ins, I make sure to reinforce the assumptions and real user stories that led to the initiative’s place on the roadmap. There’s a good chance that current customers are still feeling the pain from a yet-to-be-released feature or fix. Bringing these real, recent stories to the rest of the team keeps everyone motivated and focused on the overall goal.

To maintain alignment, I do my best to be the product roadmap’s biggest evangelist.’’ 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

Wouldn’t it be great if priorities never changed? We all know this is not reality. Internal and external forces can drastically change the direction of a product development cycle overnight. High-performing development teams stay focused on the goal but must understand that sudden, agile changes are simply part of the territory. In a rapidly evolving industry like ours, the ability to adapt quickly is often more valuable than designing the perfect roadmap.

Product leaders all have the same tools in our tool belts. But changing course too often and without care can affect a team’s morale and make the team feel like their time and resources have been wasted.

Resilience is a core value at Neustar. We plan for the unplanned. Product and engineering leaders frequently meet one-on-one to discuss forthcoming changes that may disrupt the roadmap to better prepare for broader team communication. The cross-functional team has a standing monthly meeting to review the roadmap, discuss priority changes and shift resources and timelines to react to the new normal.

 

Forrest Smith
Director of Product Management

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go?

Everything at Neverware starts with transparency. Roadmaps can become something of a sacred cow if teams aren’t transparent. At Neverware, we humble the product roadmap by sharing the thinking behind the plan. This includes noting where assumptions, hunches and other subjective interpretations exist. 

It’s scary to ask colleagues to commit to something while admitting that it may be flawed. But doing so has been the key to alignment for us. It lets our team feel confident in contributing to the roadmap with questions, suggestions or concerns.

Roadmaps can become something of a sacred cow if teams aren’t transparent.’’ 

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle? 

Transparency also means admitting that we’re all learning as we go along. No matter what you’re building, the right minimal viable product is imperfect. So as we build, we maintain alignment by playing our own devil’s advocate. Missing functionality and newly recognized risks are shared as they’re recognized.

Very early on, when we first decided to build CloudReady’s free home edition, software that helps users transform old PCs or Macs into high-performing Chrome devices, we knew that expanding outside of schools and workplaces might put our license sales at risk. Instead of sticking our head in the sand, we acknowledged the hesitation. This honesty spurred action for a new product: our first major effort into metrics, so we could keep an eye on that problem. Transparency kept us aligned.

 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

In the end, nobody can see the future. Plans will change. When they do, you learn one of the most important lessons about transparency: your customers need it too.

No company wants to look disorganized or sloppy in a way that will undermine their customer relationships. So it can often be tempting to promise releases, new features or fixes on absolute timelines. However, if the reality inside the company isn’t as concrete, over-promising and under-delivering can be much worse. 

When the earth shifts under us at Neverware, we take it head-on and go beyond internal updates. Product works with our sales, support, and marketing departments to craft direct customer communication plans that set honest expectations about how things are changing and why. In the era of COVID-19, we’ve made some major changes to our update cycle, and the guiding principle of transparency made it obvious –– though not easy –– to see what needed to be done.    

 

Navni Garg
Senior Director of Product Management

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go?

Before we start building, we get alignment on why the product matters to each team and broad goals. Usually, if we can get early buy-in on the “why,” we can focus the rest of the process on the product itself. We then determine and clearly articulate what is needed from each team to make the project successful. Finally, we work with stakeholders to determine if that investment is justified given their priorities. When we get clarity on these issues, we know early on whether there is a high likelihood of a product reaching its finish line.

A lot can change between a concept and a functional product.’’ 

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle? 

Keep channels of communication open and consistent throughout the project. A lot can change between a concept and a functional product. Make sure all team members are consistently aligned and work with the latest information. For example, on our physical products team, we do a daily check-in with industrial design to evaluate progress and iterate on the product design. After each check-in, the PM will list out key decisions and next steps for the group in our Slack channel. We also do bi-weekly check-ins with key stakeholders to review new decisions and make sure we have end-to-end alignment. Finally, it’s critical to have empathy toward other team members and respect priorities. Create a collaborative work environment where everyone is striving to find the best solution possible.

 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

At CLEAR, we break this problem down into two steps. First, we identify the next best step and work with our teams to get alignment on what needs to change. We rely on first principles here: what we know and what we can reasonably assume. As we propose a solution, we communicate why we made the change and what we believe will be different and why. From there, we assess the impact of each team and member and decide if we want to proceed.  

 

Vinny Pizzimenti
Senior Product Manager 

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go? 

Understand the holistic vision before any planning begins. If you set the landscape for the problem you’re trying to solve and get buy-in for where you want to go, aligning on the specific roadmaps becomes significantly easier. As a team, we all need to fully understand the importance of working together to bring the vision to life. The way I see it, at Squarespace, we are a single unit attempting to achieve something significant. 

 

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle?

Alignment can be tricky at times, especially when it comes to the details. A product owner should spend a good portion of their time continuously assessing all of the details  to maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle. If a requirement is missed or a design task or development story gets booted to a later sprint, the roadmap can easily go awry. To mitigate this risk, a product owner should over-communicate progress and needs. Hold regular meetings with stakeholders. It’s important to focus your energy on prioritizing these conversations to ensure the team is aligned and set up to successfully execute against the roadmap.

Alignment can be tricky at times, especially when it comes to the details.’’

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

Project needs may change. Be transparent about why things are changing and get your ducks in a row as quickly as possible. Do the research, understand the gap between where you are and where you need to be and revisit the planning and scoping process. You may have prioritized the wrong tasks or have underestimated what success looks like. If that’s the case, share these learnings to restart the alignment process and approach the new or modified vision with these priorities in mind. 

 

Josh Aziz
Head of Product, Americas

When developing a product roadmap, what steps do you take to ensure there’s alignment across teams from the get-go?

I ensure alignment across the team by making the ultimate goal and vision of the project abundantly clear to everyone. I then outline how we’ll measure achieving that vision.

It’s important to set a clear vision from the get-go so that people not only know the desired outcome but also how it aligns with the company’s overall mission. It’s equally important to make sure you have measurable and specific goals to guide your progress. 

Goals should be relevant and attainable within a realistic timeframe. For example, at TransferWise, our vision is to make cross-border payments instant, easy and eventually free for customers. So we set time-bound goals tied to lowering prices and increasing instant transactions.

Goals should be relevant and attainable within a realistic timeframe.’’  

How do you maintain that alignment throughout the development cycle? 

It’s all about communication and transparency. Once you’ve aligned on your vision and measurable goals, communicate them clearly, concisely and often. As product managers, effective and transparent communication better empowers our teams to problem-solve and make product decisions independently. 

At the start of every development sprint, we collectively review a dashboard of the team’s vision and goals. We discuss and reflect on what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and whether we should pivot our priorities. This meeting provides the type of clarity the team needs to see the forest through the trees. Following this meeting, I then share shortened updates in Slack and craft blog posts on our wiki to keep the wider department in the loop.

We also have a daily open Zoom call so teams can join at their convenience, collaborate with our community and remain closely aligned.

 

As project needs change, how do you re-prioritize the product roadmap and keep teams aligned?

Communication and documentation of re-prioritization are key, especially in today’s remote work environment. We’ve adopted new tactics to ramp up documentation so that plans are as transparent and accessible as possible. Rather than posting in Slack, we encourage our team to write a blog post when we have a change in direction. This method helps our entire team better understand the reasoning behind a product change or update and serves as an archive for us to refer back to in the future.

In light of COVID-19, we’ve also created automatic data dashboards that allow us to recognize when it’s time to pivot. Rather than manual lookups, we’ve made it easy for teams to have visibility into product usage data to better spot emerging trends (or problems) and act on them. 

For example, in Italy, a few months back, we started seeing an increase in customer complaints regarding how long it took to receive their physical debit cards. We now know this was directly related to COVID-19. But because we saw the data early and knew our goals, we were able to notify our customers with an update on their order more efficiently.

 

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