When I work on a product, I think about it all day long.
I obsess over it.
I love exploring the long view. What will this product look like next year? Five years from now? Ten years from now?
I love the challenge of identifying the very next step on that path. What should the engineers build this week?
I love how the path wanders and evolves and the vision gets stronger over time.
I bet you do too. It’s what makes building products so much fun.
It’s impossible to know which way the path will wind and that’s exciting.
Not Everyone Is On That Path With You
For many of us, even if the path ahead is shrouded in clouds, we know which direction we are headed and what the next few steps are. We know how to keep moving.
But for many of the people that we work with, that’s not the case. To them, it’s not even clear there is a path, let alone a direction or a next step. It can feel like you are stumbling in the dark.
I’m talking about your sales team, your customer service team, your account management team. And sometimes your management and marketing teams.
They don’t think about the product all day, everyday. Nor should they. They need to think about their own jobs and their own responsibilities.
When it comes to product, it’s our job to make it clear which direction we are going and how we plan to get there.
As product leaders, we need to manage the uncertainty and the unknowns for our team. – Tweet This
They need to know what’s coming, when, and why. They need to be able to make their own plans, set expectations with customers, and adjust and respond as we make product changes.
But how do we do this when nothing about building products is certain?
I can’t tell you when we will release something. Estimates aren’t reliable. Problems grow in scope.
I can’t tell you what will work and what won’t before we test it.
I can’t predict when someone will have a genius idea that dramatically simplifies the problem at a hand.
How can anybody working in a startup expect certainty and clear answers? – Tweet This
You Do Need To Provide a Map
But if I’ve learned anything about managing product expectations in startups, it’s this. It’s our job to deal with the uncertainty. It’s our job to find the right path.
And it’s also our job to help our teammates feel like we are on a path that will lead to success. They have their own uncertainty to manage. They don’t need ours as well.
We need to provide them with a map. A map that clearly communicates this is where we are going and this is how we will get there.
Some of you might be thinking, of course, this is why we create product roadmaps. But I’ve been on record saying that I hate roadmaps. Am I now contradicting that?
Drop Feature-Based Product Roadmaps
A product roadmap typically refers to a document created annually that outlines what will get built when. It’s more or less a list of features with release dates.
This type of roadmap does more harm than good.
Yes, it does create a sense of certainty. It does tell the rest of the team what you are releasing and when, allowing them to plan their activities and set expectations with customers.
But it does this based on a foundation of lies. (See what Buddy the Elf has to say about this.)
How often do you actually release features on the dates indicated on your roadmap? If you are like most teams, not very often.
Rather than creating certainty for the rest of your team, you are creating chaos. You are setting expectations and then trampling all over them.
Roadmaps are exercises in futility. Teams put time and energy into a document that is immediately out of date and often ignored.
The creation process is often a political game that allows stakeholders to argue over their own interests, rather than putting customers or users first.
At best, it’s a waste of time. At worst, it sets the wrong expectations and puts the product team in a position of having to always defend their deviations from the plan.
Stop putting features on your roadmap. Building products isn’t about features anyway. – Tweet This
We need to let go of the idea that we can enumerate a list of features that represents what we’ll do in the future. This idea is absurd.
Communicate Your Vision and Your Process
Rather than sharing feature lists with the rest of the company, we should be communicating how we will make decisions.
Everyone in the company needs to understand what it takes to drive success for your user or customer, as defined by your success funnel.
Everyone in the company needs to understand how you are driving growth, as defined by your growth funnel.
Everyone needs to understand the trade-offs of improving one step of the funnel versus another and where your current point of leverage is. They need to know how much progress you have made towards your goal and what else you are doing to get there. These are the conversations we should be having with our teams.
Some of you might be thinking, what do we tell our customers? Don’t they need to know what features are coming when?
It depends. Most teams err on the side of telling their customers way too much about what is coming and when.
Stop talking to your customers about features and start talking to them about benefits instead. – Tweet This
You’ll have much better conversations. You’ll learn more. And you’ll do a better job of setting expectations that you can actually deliver on.
You do need to tell your team and your customers what is coming next. As in your next release. But you don’t need to tell them what’s coming next quarter or the quarter after that. Most of the time they won’t care. And the times when they do, if you set wrong expectations, you’ll do far more harm than good.
Remember, you think about your product all day every day. Both your team and your customers only think about your product to the extent that it helps them get done what they need to get done. Their view of the future when it comes to your product is much shorter than yours. That’s a good thing. Use it to your advantage and stop setting expectations that you can’t keep.
Up next, we’ll explore how to communicate what’s happening in the near future: upcoming release announcements, educating your internal team and your customers about what is changing. Don’t miss it. Subscribe to the Product Talk mailing list.