How do you manage a roadmap when company leadership cannot or will not provide guidance? (e.g. the C-team is all newly hired and don't know enough about the product or customers)
Thanks for the question! You, my friend, are in a coveted position. I would encourage you to shift your mindset and look at it as an opportunity to influence and educate your leadership team on what you know about your customers and create a vision and strategy for your product to share with them. Since the leadership team is new, you have the opportunity to show them that you are proactively thinking about the product direction and execution versus waiting for direction. So take a shot and give it your best.
Managing a product without guidance from company leadership can be intimidating, but it also presents a valuable opportunity for a PM to establish themselves as a trusted leader. Below are some steps to work through this challenging yet exciting situation.
- Understand your customers and market: If you don't have a strong grasp on your customers or market, seek out stakeholders across the company you can learn from. Bounce ideas off them and get feedback to help you craft a comprehensive vision about the problems your customers face, the market and competitive landscape, and how your product will address these holistically.
- Validate your roadmap with customers: Before finalizing your roadmap, validate it with customers to ensure it aligns with their needs and expectations and use their feedback to refine it further.
- Work with stakeholders to educate leadership: Once you have a clear and validated product roadmap, work with your stakeholders to help educate leadership. Gather feedback and alignment from them and enable them to drive the company's vision and strategy in the long term.
I know it's a cliche, but as PM you are CEO of the product. You shouldn't need guidance from the e-group. Their perspective can be useful, and they will bring knowledge and insights that can help you get to the right market driven insights. But you shouldn't outsource your job to them by relying on their guidance.
If you're at a company with a new e-group that doesn't want to provide input into the roadmap, consider yourself lucky! This is your time to shine and show yourself as the market and customer expert as they come up to speed. They will contribute soon enough.
In these situations it's important for product to lead with a customer-backed, strategic product opinion. If you aren't already an expert in what your customers want, and the strategic landscape your product is operating in, gather those insights and facilitate a conversation with leadership about a few options – with the potential benefits and tradeoffs of each. Even if the C-team is new, they'll have a sense of the business metrics they want to drive, and you can drive connecting the dots from those outcomes to the "how" in product.
My strategy would be to either
Give them enough context and try again for guidance
Change the question
So how do you do either of those? Instead of asking for guidance on the roadmap, you can try one or more of the following
Is the roadmap too detailed for your C-team? Instead can you get feedback on strategy vs roadmap?
Setup sessions with the C Staff where you can present qualitative/quantitative data and the resulting strategy. Encourage discussion and feedback. Then go back to the C-team for an endorsement for your strategy
Do you need guidance on the roadmap or the tradeoffs that you have to consider? The C-team maybe new but they are usually excellent at pattern matching and can help with tradeoff decisions
Specifically talk about the tradeoffs you are weighing against and your recommendation as well as the rationale for it. Seek feedback and endorsement
Limit the discussion to "big rocks"
This is the best scenario in my opinion. Reason being, as a product leader you can both help define the future of your product as well as develop confidence and guide your leadership, which will help your career prospects as well.
Again, having the confidence in your conviction and guiding leadership with rationale is the key here. Lean into your cross-functional partners like data science and design to plan roadmap and then guide your C-suite towards that direction.
These are prime scenarios for a Product Leader, as they can use their own research and perspectives to help C-Suite understand the most beneficial bets to place. With a new leadership group, teams have the opportunity to reset on the legacy items that plagued them in the past.
For example, upon taking over our Product Area in my current role, the first step that I took was to present a clear perspective on where our team could go. Because there was no leadership team from which I was taking the reigns, the company needed a point of view to be presented and owned. Painting the picture of what our team could be, the steps we would need to take to get there, and outlining how that would directly benefit each of them allowed C-Suite to provide support around an informed perspective.
Since this question implies that there is already an existing product and customers that are using it, talk to your customers. Ask them what problems they have. Do research into the market you are in and see where the issues are with competitive products. Do what product managers do best! Understand the problems and customers, then create solutions. If leadership doesn't have a vision for where the product should go as an essential part of the company's vision, create one yourself. If you do have a vision, but you don't know what to prioritize, using a framework like the RICE scoring model will help you to figure out what needs to be done in what order to help achieve that vision.
Expanding a bit more on if the issue in this case is prioritization of the roadmap, in my opinion, company leadership helps product managers the most by establishing a vision for the company as a whole. Coming up with a strategy and prioritizing features to fulfill the vision are essential parts of being a product manager. I believe that the C-suite is not there to make tactical decisions like that, you are. If you are relying on them to prioritize your roadmap, take the opportunity to learn strategies for prioritizing and make your own decisions. It will only help you in your future career.
Back to the question of vision, if you are the product manager responsible for this product, you should already have an idea of what needs to happen to improve the quality of the product, expand the feature set to be more competitive, or solve new problems in the industry. It has been said that product managers are the CEOs of their product. I don't really agree with that, for several reasons; but, when it comes to creating a vision for where a product should go, there is definitely some similarity. You are the one who should be out there talking with people, reading industry news, going to conferences, and doing competitive intelligence.
Engaged company leadership is usually going to make for a better product (although...this can also cause problems, depending on the company and the personalities in leadership), but take the initiative and come up with something for yourself while they are ramping up. If they want to learn (I sincerely hope they do!), you can also see if they would be open to meeting with you and your customers to learn more in a short period of time. As the PM, you are the subject matter expert and are in a unique position to help them understand the product, your industry, and your company's customers. Of course, whether they would be open to this is going to vary depending on the size of the company, the number of products, the number of customers for the product, etc. But, it's worth a try. If they don't, then you have a great opportunity to build your own skills creating a vision and strategy. Just remember to always use objective research and data as much as possible, not your own assumptions.
This is the role of the product managers to bring up what the users want to see built.
This is usually not good practice to have the executive giving too much guidance. The executive should give the vision, and the product managers should determine the features on the roadmap based on the prioritization they determined with the users to achieve the vision.
It could be an advantage when the leadership doesn't provide guidance as it prevents the bad top-down approach of product management. The executives keep an open-minded approach and fairly evaluate the proposals made by the product management.
The best scenario! This is your moment to shine.
Build a concise view and communicate it succinctly using data. Include both how it aligns to a long term strategy and also what are the most important items to work on now. Critically include what we are not going to execute on. Before you know it you will be driving the entire company.
Im a big fan of a narrative approach (6 pager) to accompany roadmap materials as this drives consistent alignment and lays out a logical approach to why roadmap decisions were taken, especially when communicating with stakeholders who are not experts in product roadmaps.
side note: I very much like the book good strategy, bad strategy for helping with the 6 pager.