A product roadmap is a statement of what you plan to produce in the coming months or years. Your product roadmap is also an essential communication and expectation-setting tool as it frames what you plan on accomplishing, and serves as a vehicle for getting buy-in across the organization.
In most companies, before anyone acts on the roadmap, it must be vetted and blessed by company leadership. As a product manager, you are the product spokesperson and as such are responsible for convincing stakeholders that your product roadmap, faithfully executed, will help meet company objectives.
So, what should you do before presenting your roadmap to your executive team?
There are two points when you will most likely seek executive buy-in on your roadmap:
- During the planning phase when you are initially laying out the high level product strategy and directional themes.
- During periodic reviews covering results of past releases and course corrections for upcoming ones.
I’ll focus on the planning and product strategy phase in this post, since it requires more upfront work. Product roadmap presentations are the end result of your efforts to assemble a plan which has input from key stakeholders both outside and within your organization.
Preparing for a Product Roadmap or Strategy Presentation? Remember “SOAPBOX”
The SOAPBOX framework is a list of essential concepts, questions and tasks which you should walk through when preparing for an executive level product roadmap presentation. These are the steps you take before presenting to the executive team. This framework will ensure you are ready to present the product roadmap in a way that your audience can digest so that you get the positive feedback you need to move forward.
There are 7 topics to keep in mind when preparing your roadmap presentation:
Subject – What is the topic of your presentation?
Occasion – What is the context for the presentation? When and where will it occur? What is the larger context within which the presentation is being given?
Audience – To whom will you be presenting the roadmap? How do you need to present it so they will understand it? How much detail should you include?
Purpose – What are your goals for the presentation? Will you be looking for sign-off, feedback, or simply to keep key stakeholders informed?
Before – What legwork should you do before assembling the final presentation? How can you build consensus before the actual presentation?
Objection Handling – What are the key objections you need to be prepared to address before or during the presentation?
eXecute – How can you create and deliver the most compelling presentation?
Subject: Be the Product Expert
There are a two key parts of a Product Roadmap: the Product and the Roadmap. (I know, I’m brilliant.) As the product manager, you had better be the product expert, understanding your market and users, their key problems, and how your product can and will address them.
But…being the product expert does not automatically make you the roadmap expert. A roadmap is a statement of where the product needs to go and should be aligned with market needs and longer term business objectives.
- Know your subject deeply: the product, market, users, problems.
- Arm yourself with relevant data, customer feedback, feature requests, thematic goals.
- Identify the intersection of business’s needs and customers’ desires.
- Articulate a defensible solution that addresses the wants of both sides.
- What is the corporate vision? (Red flag: There is no vision.)
- How does my product / product line fit into the vision?
- What does the product need to become in order to make the vision a reality?
- What are the key product themes we need to execute on in the next X quarters?
- Why are those the right bets?
Occasion: Understand the Context of your Presentation
Make your presentation more relevant by tailoring it to the context in which it will be given. Also, save yourself the grief of being surprised when you go to give the presentation… take a moment to consider where you will be giving the presentation, and the broader context surrounding it.
- Gather information about the context of the presentation, including who you will be presenting to, how meetings like this are typically run, how the presentation will be used, the evaluation process (if any).
- Scope out the room before giving the presentation. If virtual or via conference call, test drive the technology before you are scheduled to do the presentation.
- Understand what else might be happening in the company on the day you give the presentation. Will the company be releasing earnings, announcing an IPO, launching a different product? Is your presentation the only thing standing between your executives leaving for Davos or Burning Man? This will help you gauge the level of interest and engagement you should expect from your audience.
- When will I be giving the presentation (date and time)?
- Are there any notable events that will be happening before or after I give it?
- How much time will I have for the presentation?
- What is the agenda? Where am I in the agenda, and what’s the likelihood I’ll either get bumped or have less time than scheduled?
- Who will be present for the presentation?
- What format does the presentation need to be in, e.g. corporate powerpoint template, keynote, pdf, whiteboard, hardcopy (I’m looking at you, highly-secure-bunker-mentality-organizations), pantomime?
- Will there be Q&A during or after the presentation?
- Will I be standing, sitting, on stage, outdoors? Will I be mic’ed?
- Is the meeting private, public, recorded, will it be shared with a broader audience or rebroadcast?
- What else is happening in the world which might be relevant (global economics, political considerations, industry events, major conferences or tradeshows, competitive announcements, etc.)? Absurd presidential politics?
Audience: Know Your Audience
To whom will you be presenting? Know your audience, whether it is the executive team, your direct managers, or your colleagues, and tailor the content in your roadmap presentation to them.
- Understand your audience.
- Identify to whom you will be presenting and their role in the process of reviewing and approving the roadmap. Remember the RACI matrix.
- Position the content of your presentation so it is at the right level for your audience. For example, if presenting to C-level executives present high level themes, how they map to corporate vision and be prepared with backup material which addresses likely questions or objections. Skip the gantt chart and list of features. Andre Theus of ProductPlan writes, “In executive-facing roadmaps, focus on high-level themes and strategic goals. Your discussion should be around the market space, customer data, and potential return on investment for new projects.”
- Beware the need for consensus. As Seth Godin says (h/t Marty Cagan), “Nothing is what happens when everyone has to agree.”
- Who will be attending the presentation? What are their roles and responsibilities?
- Why are they attending? (Do they want to be there?)
- Who will need to approve or provide feedback? Will a (or the) decision-maker be present?
- What level of detail do they need to make a decision?
- What are they primarily interested in?
- Who are the troublemakers? I mean… who might you expect to ask difficult questions or create other obstacles during the presentation?
- Depending on how political your organization is: Who are your allies? Who may be trying to undermine you? Who is the most influential person in the room? (Aside: Want to learn the fine art of power and politics? Study President Lyndon Johnson, who, according to one biographer, is “the man who used political power better than any president from the second half of the 20th century.”)
Purpose: Begin with the End in Mind
As always, when creating an impactful presentation, begin with the end in mind and work backwards. What do you want the audience to think or do as a result of hearing your presentation? What is the goal of the presentation? What is your desired outcome?
- Articulate the purpose of your presentation: gather feedback, inform stakeholders of progress on the roadmap, get a plan approved, secure funding for the roadmap, etc. Use this stated purpose as a lighthouse when creating the roadmap presentation.
- Validate that your perception of the purpose is aligned with the stakeholders to whom you will be presenting. If you think that they will be making a go-no go funding decision, but they expect to only be informed of possible plans, the result may be some unpleasantness.
- As in negotiation, remember BATNA, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Understand the starting point, and don’t leave in a worse position than you entered. For example, if your roadmap was already provisionally approved and this presentation was supposed to be the final rubber stamp, don’t do something which might lead to loss of funding and project termination.
- What are the goals for the presentation?
- What do you want to have accomplished at the end of it?
- What do you want the audience to think or do as a result of the presentation?
- Are you asking for project funding or increased staffing in addition to general approval of the roadmap?
Before: Involve Internal Stakeholders from the Start
What’s the not-so-secret secret to creating an effective product roadmap? According to Brian de Haaff of Aha!, “[T]he key is that executive stakeholders and your cross-functional peers need to be involved from the beginning. This takes the pressure off of the actual presentation because the entire team is in sync with the key product strategy and drivers.”
- Identify and meet with the key executive stakeholders and cross-functional peers after you have a working draft of the roadmap.
- Work closely with these key stakeholders to refine the roadmap and the messaging around it.
- Create background and supporting material, handouts, etc. based on these discussions.
- Consider providing this background information to all attendees before the actual presentation if it enhances what you will be presenting, but be prepared to cover it as part of the presentation if it is clear that the key people did not read it (which is always the case).
- Figure out the storyline. “Your product roadmap should tell a coherent story about the likely growth of your product,” writes Roman Pichler. “Each release should build on the previous one and move you closer towards your vision. Your roadmap should be convincing and realistic: Don’t speculate or oversell your product.”
- Look for ways to get buy-in. Jim Semick of Product Plan suggests sticking to the facts, tying the vision back to customer value and establishing metrics and KPIs.
- Yet, when it comes to buy-in, Roman Pichler points out, you should “have the courage to say no.” He goes on to explain, “While you want to get buy-in to from the key stakeholders, you should not say yes to every idea and request. This would turn your roadmap into a feature soup, a random collection of features.
- What do key stakeholders expect to see on the product roadmap? Why?
- What is their reaction when you unveil the roadmap and tell the story around it?
- How can the roadmap or story be improved to better align it with the vision and make the presentation more compelling?
Objection Handling: Dealing with Pushback
Most salespeople are familiar with objection handling; prospects come up with all kinds of excuses and reasons why they will not, can not, or should not buy a particular product. Experienced and exceptional sales professionals are prepared to handle any and all objections. They consider why someone might not want to close the sale, and prepare a solid rebuttal ahead of time. In order to get management buy in on your product roadmap, you may need to think like a salesperson when facing pushback from executives on your plan.
An example of a common objection you may face: Stakeholders want your roadmap to include precise dates and want you to commit to hitting those dates. (It’s a trap!) Janna Barstow offers some sage advice on this topic at the end of her excellent talk on product roadmapping.
Tips for Handling Objections from Stakeholders:
- Listen carefully when you meet with stakeholders to get buy-in on the roadmap. Are there objections which come up frequently? Listen to their objections, anticipate them, prepare a rebuttal (if appropriate) which can be used the next time this objection comes up.
- Think about the reason behind the objection, the root cause, and prepare a response that addresses not only the expressed concern, but also the deeper underlying one.
- Write out the most common objections and consider working them into your presentation as a way to address possible objections before they are asked.
- There is usually someone sitting in on a presentation who just must object…. they have to find something to object to. So, to appease such a person and prevent them from torpedoing the rest of your presentation, consider including a throw-away item which they are likely to object to and concede the point when it comes up. Consider it part of the negotiation and act of garnering buy-in.
- There are a lot of resources related to objection handling. If you anticipate that you’ll be facing a skeptical or hostile audience, spend some time mastering a few objection handling techniques.
- A great way to handle objections? Use facts. Back up your statements with customer evidence wherever possible.
- What, if any, are the major areas, themes, goals, concepts or approaches that someone might object to?
- How can you frame a response which acknowledges the objection while also either deflecting or rebutting it?
eXecute: Presenting your Roadmap to Stakeholders
You’ve put in the time to create a solid product roadmap, spoken with as many key stakeholders as you could, and now all that is left is to actually present it. Here are a few tips related to creating the presentation itself and presenting it:
- Create the Product Roadmap presentation. Need a starting point? Borrow a template like this one or this one. Notice how they use words sparingly and have plenty of visuals. True story: I have done product roadmap presentations where the first 15 slides had no words – only pictures of happy people using the product in different ways juxtaposed with unhappy people who were clearly not using the product. I provided the narrative and used the visuals to supplement the story. The beginning of the presentation is your chance to get people engaged and define the narrative.
- Present the information using a standard framework. Consider the 3 Horizons Model, Kano Model or Technology S-Curve. The Cleverism blog has a rundown of frameworks, and Folding Burritos’ excellent post on prioritization techniques is worth bookmarking.
- Practice your presentation. Of course everyone who is listening to your spiel is focused on what you are saying, not how you are saying it… NOT. The reality is that substance and style both matter. Brian de Haaff has a fantastic write-up titled “How to NOT suck at product roadmap presentations.” Great title, even better tips within the post itself, including: start with the why; share what’s essential; stories first, facts second.
- Think about how your audience will process and understand your presentation, and choose your words carefully. Khalid Halim discusses how the language you use needs to be targeted to the type of person you are speaking with. A fascinating read that touches on the four meta models that underpin effective communication: toward vs away from; internal-referencing vs. external-referencing; specific vs general; and see, hear, read, do.
Need more pointers? Check out Rand Fishkin’s post “How to Cheat at Creating Great Presentations for Tech & Marketing Audiences”. Want more? How about 15 Research tools and resources for presentations?
Creating a compelling roadmap is only one step in obtaining Executive buy-in and sign-off to your product’s plan. You need to be able to articulate that plan so others can understand it. Remember these tasks when preparing for an executive level briefing:
- The act of assembling and defending a roadmap is the end result of strong opinions, loosely held.
- Product Managers are perfectly situated to identify the intersection of the business’s needs and the customers’ desires, then articulate a defensible solution that addresses the wants of both sides.
- Involve key stakeholders and cross-functional peers in the process of creating the roadmap and also in determining how best to present it to the executive team for sign-off.
- If you do the legwork and upfront preparation, the product roadmap presentation itself should be nothing more than formal signoff.
- Use the SOAPBOX framework as your guide.