As Lewis Carroll famously said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” While this quote certainly wasn’t said in reference to digital products, it’s an accurate representation of the importance of product roadmaps.
A product roadmap is a high-level visual summary that maps out the vision and direction of a product over time, keeping teams out of the tactical weeds and focused on delivering business value.. It defines the the “why” and a little bit of the “what.” A living document, it should be continually updated as product managers gather feedback from users, the product team, and align with business objectives.. .But many product people get hung up on exactly what level of detail vs. ambiguity is best for their product.
So, exactly how far out should your roadmap go?
Well, it depends.
3 Factors that Determine the Length of Your Product Roadmap
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy and absolute answer to this question. Like most aspects of digital work, the length of a product roadmap depends on several variables. I find there are three main factors that determine the formation of a product roadmap: organizational culture, product complexity, and release management maturity.
However, if releasing software is hard, they’ll do so more seldomly. If releases are seldom, stakeholders will likely need a longer roadmap since they only have so many chances to see the shipped product. In this classic overview, Henrik Kniberg shares some approaches of mature release management.
Why you should organize your product roadmap by themes
The biggest risk in software is building the wrong thing. Therefore, the danger of building a roadmap too far out in advance with too many specifics is that you’ll tend to organize around what you promised you’d do, rather than around execution of what matters. In fact, I actually counsel product managers to be vague when building product roadmaps. To do so, we use broad themes, rather than promising specific features. Focus primarily on the “why” and leave the “what” and the “how” to the talented product development team.
Why? Because, as you know, software products tend to change rapidly over their life cycles. Organizing by themes gives roadmaps structure, but protects teams from overpromising and under-delivering.
Themes are a strategic guide or hook that convey your vision in a compelling way. When you communicate the strategic or financial value to the company—rather than immediately diving into individual features—is the best way to acquire buy-in from leadership and stakeholders alike. I encourage product managers to plan 1-2 quarters out at the most because, the farther you go, the more likely it is that your value proposition will change. Instead, be specific for the upcoming six weeks, leaving the what and the how to the innovative minds of your team. This strategy also works for the bosses who continue to request a six-month roadmap, as it suits their big-picture needs, while giving you the freedom to optimize and evolve alongside the product.
So, while there is no absolute answer as to the preferred length of a product roadmap, I recommend organizing by themes, avoid adding too many feature details, and commit to evolving throughout the product life cycle.