Why Feature-Based Product Roadmaps Don’t Work – and How to Detour

Christopher Barcelona
Featured-based Roadmap Roadblock
Product roadmaps are necessary, but traditional feature-based roadmap methods do your teams, your clients and the end-users more harm than good. Let these all-too-common downfalls of feature-based product roadmaps convince you there's a better way.

Transitioning to outcome-based roadmaps empowers your teams to discover truly innovative solutions that solve real customer problems.

Let’s start with a story. A Product team gathers for an all-staff QBR, which concludes with the product leader presenting a quarterly calendar of prioritized features. Product Managers throughout the room see red flags – one’s single biggest support nightmare, another’s one-off request their biggest client said is a must have is missing and meanwhile, left off is the fix for a bug the Operations team has been working around.

Meetings like these are an all-too-common occurrence in organizations that rely on feature-based product roadmap techniques. They leave PMs discouraged and frustrated, struggling to manage their teams to effectively meet the expectations of both leadership and clients. But that’s not because a product roadmap isn’t a useful tool; it’s because the traditional approach has inherent shortfalls.

Product Roadmaps: Beneficial, But Often Broken

We can all agree that the concept of building a plan to align and manage expectations for work is essential, both internally and externally. Overarching benefits of roadmaps include coordinating internal development efforts, providing visibility into ongoing work to leadership, and managing customers’ expectations.

If roadmaps are helpful, why are they so controversial? The most common type of product roadmap used today is the feature-based roadmap, which is nothing more than a schedule of when detailed features should be delivered. Leadership seeks commitment, deadlines and checked boxes but this approach results in reinforcing waterfall practices that leaves little room for true customer-focused innovation.

Let’s dig deeper into why feature-based roadmaps often fail and how you can identify the path to a better way.

Why Feature-Based Roadmaps Fail

1. Top-Down Directive

In feature-based roadmaps, the list of prioritized deliverables often comes directly from the top. In most cases, leadership is too far removed from the actual customer feedback to prioritize features that solve meaningful problems for the end users. In his “Alternative to Roadmaps,” Marty Cagan refers to this typical process as a “centralized command-and-control model,” where stakeholders determine projects for the next set period, then disseminate this information to teams.

With marching orders to execute, the product team lacks the empowerment to discover solutions to their customers’ problems. Cagan’s recommendation? Equip teams with both an overall product vision as well as specific business objectives and allow them to find the best ways to solve their assigned problems.

2. Resourcing Roadblocks

Perhaps the most common reason feature-based roadmaps consistently fail is because the approach creates a delivery forecast but overlooks everyday operational challenges. One such issue is Product team resourcing. Roadmaps typically assume the team is adequately staffed for the work they are required to accomplish, though this often involves individuals with specific skill sets being stretched across teams with competing needs.

While a person’s time may be easily divisible on paper, say Project A is assigned Developer X for 0.25 of the time, Developer Y for 0.5 of the time, and Developer Z full-time assuming they’re not needed for support duty, it can be difficult for a PM to effectively manage various schedules predictably as one change in the plan dominoes into the next. In most cases, you will not know what skills you will need six weeks down the road. Ultimately, these considerations render feature-based roadmaps as empty promises long before the quarter ends.

‍3. Inter-team Dependencies

Roadmaps rarely account for dependencies such as reliance on a Security team to approve all work before deployment or, as a more specific example, the Product team could develop tools to clean, standardize, and transform all the incoming data, but without the Data orchestration team ready to receive the feeds, the process stalls. Furthermore, Product teams are often called upon to support externally facing departments, such as Customer Support teams with issues they cannot solve themselves. These pivots turn into missed deadlines and demoralized teams.‍

4. Testing, Iteration and Maintenance

Another flaw in feature-based roadmaps is a tendency to overlook planning for testing, iteration, and regular maintenance needs. Problems arise from all three of these areas when the focus is on the feature itself vs the desired, customer-focused outcome. All ongoing work is derailed when your product is deployed with multiple “showstopper” bugs that weren’t found due to testing that was skipped to hit a deadline. Or when customers inform you that your MVP wasn’t as valuable as you thought, or when the Operation team’s tools came to a grinding halt due to the long-neglected tech debt that never made it onto the roadmap.‍

5. Outputs Over Outcomes

Feature-based roadmaps fail because they are too narrowly focused to address customer problems, skipping over your desired outcomes in favor of “quick fixes.” Features lead you to build a bridge even if your customers really need a maneuverable boat. That means that most often, the deployed feature misses the mark completely. At best, it is a feature most users never try. At worst, it introduces a pain to your customers’ workflows, leaving your product farther from your desired outcomes, not closer. Feature-based roadmaps take your eyes off the prize, elevating tasks above the innovative work that will provide real benefit to your customers.

When these considerations are overlooked, delivery dates slip causing this quarter’s features to get pushed into the next, a pattern that often repeats itself. This cycle affects the morale of the Product team, causes leadership to question why they can’t execute and eventually, drives customers to lose confidence in the organization as a partner.

So, if feature-based roadmaps can’t produce the results your team and clients are searching for, what can?  

At G2O, we look to outcome-based product roadmaps to ensure alignment of the team’s efforts with the client’s needs and leadership’s overall product vision, all while empowering innovation of our Product teams to solve the right problems.

Empower Your Team with an Outcome-based Product Roadmap

Success begins when teams shift their focus to understanding which problems to solve instead of walking through a never-ending to-do list. Where feature-based roadmaps consistently fail usually results in broken trust from stakeholders. Outcome-based roadmap benefits are the antidote because they prioritize customer centricity over top-down directives, are problem focused vs features focused and proactive vs. reactive.

Adopting an outcomes-based approach may require some retraining when it comes to stakeholder understanding, though ultimately, they still tie back to measurable results and timeframes. Trading some rigidity for real value allows the team to solve the right problem, keeps them engaged and provides space for innovative thinking. Providing this context creates an understanding of priority, but also connects work to objectives and the outcomes intended to drive meaningful business results for both the company and its customers.

Need a guide to the transition? Use our step-by-step guide to learn how to shift towards creating outcome-based roadmaps that service your teams, your stakeholders and your customers.  ‍

Ready to get started now?

Learn how to move from outputs to outcomes and develop a shared understanding of objectives across the team in our one-day Roadmap Revamp Workshop.

Teams provide G2O with business objectives, a product overview, product vision and an export of your current feature-based roadmap​ and then engage in an interactive workshop driving towards establishing defined outcomes by applying the outcomes-based roadmap methodology.

‍Contact us to learn more about how the Roadmap Revamp Workshop can benefit your organization.