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How to Set Up a Bi-Directional Roadmap

Collaboration
Roadmap

19 October, 2020

Fei Xu
Fei Xu

Engineering Manager at Square, Inc.

Fei Xu, Engineering Manager at Square, Inc., explains what are the advantages of a bi-directional roadmap and how to set it up right.

Problem

Setting up a product roadmap should never be a one-direction process. However, more often than not a product roadmap is created by a Product Manager and pushed top-down to the engineering team without any or much consultation with the team. Engineers are typically left with any channel of communication that would allow them to share their feedback. As a result, the team feels frustrated and believe that their influence on the business and products is curtailed.

Actions taken

To ensure the participation of the engineering team I would create a bi-directional process of setting up a product roadmap. The process itself would take place during our annual and quarterly meetings. For example, we would do the annual planning at the end of Q4 and quarterly planning would take place before the upcoming quarter. During the planning process, I would make sure that the engineering team would be included. I would particularly encourage every team member to create their own backlog. More specifically, they should be able to create a plan, and if an opportunity arises, to work on something they find important and exciting to work on. Their own backlog could contain ideas from different sources -- it could address tech debt (refactoring, migration,etc.), customers' pain points, CS issues, etc.

I had also helped establish a feedback loop. During the planning, engineers would be given an opportunity to share their feedback but also to include some wiggle room for their own ideas. Only once their proposals would be collected we would start finalizing the planning process, not before. We would create the final version of the roadmap based on priorities, times, and resources available.

How to balance priorities, time and resources is something people tend to assess from their own perspective. Engineers, who are often focused on the particularities of a specific project, lack the whole picture of the problem. The misalignment -- and misunderstanding -- most frequently happens due to these different perspectives between PMs and engineers. Also, engineers rarely know how to sell their ideas, and working on a product roadmap can help them develop this skill. However, if their proposals are repeatedly disregarded that can give rise to frustration and demotivation, and eventually churn.

Lessons learned

  • If you don’t ensure a bi-directional approach to developing a product roadmap, engineers could feel left out and thus frustrated. Only when people are included in the process and are part of the decision-making they will go above and beyond to deliver and deliver fast.
  • The perspective ICs and PMs have can be hugely different in terms of priorities, time, and resources and both sides have to make an effort to understand each other. Both need to put themselves into another person’s shoes and then answer the question if something is important or not and should it be included in the roadmap.
  • Having ideas is entirely different from selling them. Most ICs lack this skill and while have great ideas are struggling to secure buy-in from their superiors.

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