To Manage a Roadmap, You Must Be a Diplomat, Strategist, and Defender

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Bain Public blog.

It takes commitment to maintain the high level of trust required for company-wide buy-in and follow-through. Here are the three roles product managers must perform to achieve roadmap leadership:

The Diplomat

It’s not our role to dictate through authority where the product should go. Instead, we need to listen to all voices pulling in various directions, then negotiate priorities with clarity and transparency.

First, we must lead with our ears and not with our mouth. By leaning on empathy, we can build an open-minded work culture that encourages collaboration, opinions, and feedback, allowing us to gain a variety of perspectives from the people on our teams and beyond.

We have to encourage them to talk about their product ideas, making sure all voices are heard, not just the loudest:

  • Where does marketing expect us to go?
  • What gaps are being uncovered in sales?
  • What walls are getting hit by customer success?
  • What problems can we solve for the customer?
  • How big is our technical debt?
  • What does the CEO envision?

Everyone’s opinion matters, and when they trust that we’re listening, a culture of respect develops. We learn to embrace discourse, which brings issues to the surface. It can be difficult to work in an environment with clashing opinions; this is a constraint we often have to deal with. That’s why it’s important to find a way to build consensus. It comes down to how you approach each individual and understand what they need. This is the humble approach of listening before persuading.

With open communication comes finding common ground with our teams and customers so we can develop successful products. Maintaining this open collaboration becomes essential when we realize that as product managers, we accomplish everything through others.

That’s why we recommend doing quarterly 1:1 product sessions with as many people as possible. The ultimate goal is to connect with everyone. Ask them what they think is important and where they see opportunity. Ask them for their bold ideas and biggest fears.

One of our favorites is to ask them what embarrasses them about the product.

Every time we do this, we are reminded that this inclusive process isn’t just a feel-good exercise. The insightful interactions gained from these interviews are for everyone’s benefit, and the product will undoubtedly benefit the most.

The Strategist

When all stakeholders have had their input, we always end up with too many priorities. To this day, prioritization often remains the most difficult part of the product.

To make the final cut of green-lit initiatives, we can’t just go with our gut. We need reasoning. We need to shape a process that leads to clarity and consensus. We do this by putting all of the facts forward and creating space for the right conversations to happen.

We hold quarterly high-level prioritization meetings to help the company’s leadership define the roadmap priorities. First and foremost, this is our opportunity to remind everyone of the guiding vision.

vision statement allows you to create a mechanism for developing, communicating, and tracking what the company is trying to achieve.

Then, when we’re discussing initiatives, they need to know exactly what they’re evaluating.

  • What problem or opportunity are these initiatives addressing?
  • What is the strategic importance? (KPI to be affected)
  • How will we know if the project is successful? (a measurable goal)
  • How much effort could be required to design, deliver & support?

Project scope must also be discussed. Within the initiatives, we need to make sure there’s clarity and agreement on what is considered a must-have, nice-to-have, or wish list item. Clear communication and consensus on this point early on are vital to avoid future backlash with the dreaded exclamation: “How can the feature have gotten this far without “X?!” That’s the whole reason we’re working on it.” With a well-documented project scope and diligent communication, these situations can be avoided.

And finally, it’s our job to make sure everyone is clear on how much or how little the initiatives support the product’s value proposition and the company’s current strategic focus.

We get the group to rate the top contenders with a series of criteria. Then, once the dust settles, and a consensus has been reached, we’ve got our roadmap’s quarterly initiatives.

The Defender

When it comes to delivering on those promises, communication is key. Over-communicating is a good thing because people forget. In sharing the roadmap and the quarterly objectives, it’s our job to be the chief repeating officers. And it all starts as soon as we leave that high-level prioritization session.

We immediately share the results back to the meeting’s participants. This serves as shared documentation of what was agreed upon, and also an opportunity for someone to raise a red flag. You want those to come up as early as possible.

As product managers, it’s our responsibility to communicate, but also to protect the quarterly objectives. The company’s trust in the roadmap’s integrity depends on us. We owe it to the leadership. We owe it to sales, marketing, and customer success. We also owe it to our developers. But most of all, we owe it to our customers and the product they’re paying for.

One of the hardest things you have to do as a product manager is to say no. As difficult as it may be, this is an essential term in our everyday vocabulary, as it provides focus around what is most important.

We have to say “no” to make those tough product decisions. However, we won’t get anywhere by being confrontational. Shutting people down only leads to friction and making the other person feel inadequate. As leaders, we understand how important it is to feel heard. That’s why successful product managers learn to do so in a way that is both strategic and constructive.

Saying ‘no’ is also one of the best ways to develop trust with your developers. We can’t do this by constantly asking them to shift their focus, replace their priorities, and relentlessly fight fire after fire. We can build trust and engagement by creating a space where they can focus on their projects.

When something comes out of left field, it’s not that we’re too rigid to field it. We just make sure everyone recognizes the distraction for what it is, and that the right conversations are had to assess if it’s worth derailing our objectives.

We have to ask the question: “If we’re saying yes to this, what are we now saying no to?”

Resources for further reading