Roadmap vs. Road Trip

A recent episode of Under the Radar (#182) with Marco Arment and David Smith got me thinking some more about planning for the 2020 year as a Product Manager and how to approach that when you have different challenges.

We’re really short on resources at the moment for various reasons, and that has a significant impact on my ability to plan out the year. We also depend a lot on teams across other areas in the bigger company which means I have little or no control over when (and even if) related blocker work gets done that allows us to do our work.

Sounds awesome, right? It’s not.

A lot of PMs and companies have a roadmap for the next few months and probably as long as a year or more. I can’t think that way as there’s no real solid way that we can get on a journey and get there thanks to the various challenges outlined above.

So instead of a roadmap, I’ve come to think in terms of a road trip. The difference is that a road trip is more of a general idea of where we’d like to head, than a real defined plan of where we are going.

When you embark on a road trip, you might have a theme or themes that guide you to what the whole point of it might be. Perhaps you plan to camp in various State Parks in NY and PA, visiting gorges and glens and other natural wonders.

The theme of that road trip is one of seeing nature’s wonders, specifically those around rivers. You might have a side theme of “small town America” and perhaps even something like a plan to hit tourist traps like scenic caves or other tacky “wonders” as you see them.

With a road map, you tend to stick to highways an have a path from A to B. With a road trip, the plan is less defined, but over the course of the next few months or a year, you know generally where you’d like to go and what you’d like to see.

As a PM, that means we might have themes like “better serve our large customers” or “add tools to make managing DNS easier” or “reduce support costs with better inline help”.

Throughout the year you can be opportunistic and tackle some things that relate to each theme as they come up. Just like in a road trip, you might be “freestyling” a bit here and there. Perhaps you get the resources to do a specific task for a week or three and you can jump on it and get it (or part of it) done.

Maybe a series of small bits of work can be bundled over time to equal one big piece.

The key is to have a big picture in mind, to be flexible and agile, and to always know how each bit of work that you get done can fit into the bigger set of goals to keep things moving forward.

James Koole @jameskoole