Product Strategy: Why your product roadmap fails to deliver remarkable value

A review of 8 common challenges

product strategy

In my day to day work with business software vendors I see and review many roadmaps and the result of introducing it to the market. Any vendor carefully prepares its roadmap with the goal to deliver something remarkable – sometimes big and revolutionary, often smaller, but not less important.
When I was responsible for the product strategy of the international flagship products at Unit4, I’ve experienced first hand how hard it is to carve out a product strategy that delivers

growth. And the question is ‘what makes it so hard, and what can you do to have the highest chance to overdeliver on expectations?’

That’s what this blog will address. I assess eight challenges CPOs and product managers are challenged with in delivering roadmaps that drive steep adoption amongst customers and desire to buy amongst prospects. I’ll provide a simple, but effective framework to concur this challenge.

1) The power of segmentation

Too often I see product managers struggle with prioritization because ‘everything is important.’ The main reason for this is unc

larity around strategic segmentation, i.e. the definition of your ideal customer. Product roadmap decisions become a lot easier if you tune your investment around the specific needs of ‘midsized professional services organizations that aim to deliver top-tier results’ v.s ‘any professional service organization.’ You could challenge me and say ‘every Professional Service organization wants to deliver top-tier results.’ But that’s not the point. It’s about having 100% clear what drives the agenda of your ideal customer. That gives focus to what you target and provides direction to what you need to do to exceed expectations to grow your competitive advantage.

2) The challenge with bottom up

Another common habit I see is the way the product roadmap gets filled. Too often its filled with ‘interesting ideas,’ ‘backlog,’ and ‘hobby horses.’ The big challenge with that is that your capacity will always fill up to a point hardly any resources are left to make the investments required to stay ahead in your category. Your roadmap will feel overwhelming with all the ‘stuff’ you believe you need to do – resulting in weak arguments like ‘there’s no time for this in the coming release – let’s push it to the next release.’

But this immediately puts pressure on your next release as well – so you are chasing an target you’re never going to achieve. I’m not saying everything should be directed ‘top down’, however, providing a framework that sets direction and spurs critical thinking makes a difference.

3) Shiny objects

Typical to the tech industry! We need a mobile! We need Social! We need Analytics! We need AI! Etcetera. Every year there’s the flavor of the month – and it’s very tempting to jump on it.  Fact is, the hype is created and will always be around – however let it be fueled by buyer enthusiasm rather than that of the vendors. Buyer hype is what we want – they’re raving about a new capability because it solves a need and it exceeds expectation.

The Gartner Hype Curve was not created out of thin air. The Through of Disillusion is real because too often we, the vendors, jump on a feature to ‘tick the box’ and be part of ‘the gang’ – delivering technology looking for a problem, rather than the other way around. Challenge yourself and aim to be the one that utilizes the new capabilities in a way that solves some of your customers’ most significant problems. That will give you credits.


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4) Contracts

A widespread issue that illustrates a strong signal you’re losing track with your ideal customer. Too often new deals are closed with organizations that ‘almost’ fit. I have seen development capacity evaporate by +50% just because of customer contracts. It starts with the celebration by Sales. They closed this magnificent €1.000.000 contract with this lighthouse name – to then discover one of the clauses states they need ‘some’ additional features in the next release. What’s planned as one release becomes 2, 3, etcetera. You know the gist.

I realize that sometimes customer contracts help you to finance the development of your solution. And that’s all OK – as long as the contract extension is 100% focused and in line with delivering upon your big idea (an advise I often hear from pioneering CEOs in my weekly podcast). The problem is, too often it’s not. This goes back to point number one – you’re unclear about what defines your ideal customer and the way you stand out in your category. And as such customer contracts drive you into the alley of ‘average’ and ultimately irrelevance. To avoid this, top-management should give a firm ‘no!’ to contracts that take you ‘off track’. Tough to do in the moment, but extremely valuable over the long-run.

That leads me to the next, very related challenge.

5) The ‘Short-term’

A very dangerous one. No matter if you’re a startup or an established vendor, prioritizing for short-term gains, will give you long-term failure. I have seen it over and over again. I am not talking about being agile and rapidly delivering new capabilities that aid to delivering upon your big idea of solving a critical problem in the market. I am talking about sales and short-term profit gains taking over priority. Yes, ‘the long-term is about a lot of short-terms’ (where have I heard that before J), but the problem that’s often there is that the objectives are not aligned. No matter what you ask a sales person, the thing that gets him/her to close that next deal, this quarter will always take priority. Same for the shareholder side. I’ve seen this first hand in my efforts to deliver roadmaps in a stock-listed company. EBITDA rules – nothing else. If top-line grows exponentially, bottom-line will follow. That’s what we need to keep front and center. And to deliver exponential top-line growth we need to deliver the value our customers and prospects expect – they are the measure of what ‘excellent’ looks like. That drives them to adopt it, to commit more by growing their subscription, or to make the risky shift from our competitor to us. Only then….

6) You’re delivering ‘vapor’ value

This challenge is related to bottom-up planning but worth addressing in isolation. I have seen significant % of development budget and resources wasted on features provide ‘vapor value’ – not significant to you or your customer – nice to have if you will (which is what you don’t want). It’s often coming from blindly following customer specs to change this here and change that there. The problem with this is it rapidly drains your limited capacity, and nobody wins. Just analyze it: You’re customers won’t plan their migration from On-premise to your Spring ’19 Cloud solutions just because you added this little feature. They also won’t buy/subscribe to this new capability either. They’re happy with where they are; they will only migrate or invest if the value they get is substantial, i.e. worth the pain, worth investment (money & time), and most importantly – bringing them an advantage.

7) Output vs. Outcome

Every week I see at least five product release announcements from the vendors I follow. Big press releases about releasing the next generation of SaaS applications and capabilities, and prominent space on their companies homepage to introduce 389 new features in the latest 2019 version. To the vendor 389 new features might sound impressive (primarily if you have invested 250.000 hours in it with your production team), but to the customer, it looks overwhelming. The only thing customers want to know is ‘what’s in it for me.’ How is this release going to solve some of my pressing challenges? Here’s where the mismatch is. The focus from the vendor has been on output – where the customer expects an outcome.

8) Apples & something else

That brings me to the last challenge CPOs and product owners have to deal with in making the right investment decisions. “How do you compare the value of a maintenance item, to adding a new feature that solves a gap in a current function, to extending your solution with a potentially complete new functional area to grow wallet share amongst your customers, etcetera. It’s comparing Apples & Something else.

In the end, it all boils down to the big question: Which of these investment items will add the most value to delivering on your big idea – your vision. That’s what your customers bought into. That’s your promise to them. To every business, there are always multiple opportunities that you could invest in – but it’s your choice to go ‘wide and shallow,’ vs. ‘narrow and deep.’ I can assure you – no vendor has the capacity, nor the budget to go wide and deep – at least not to the extent that they will also exceed market expectations. So it’s about being very clear what’s your edge, what’s your niche where you can dominate – and with that clarity, decision making becomes a lot easier. You only have 100% to allocate – so for every item that’s a yes, you have to decide ‘what will have to fall off the table because of this.’

Three simple steps to increase impact of your roadmap

  1. Filter 1) Challenge every item on the roadmap with these three questions: Is it valuable (to your customer) and why? Is it urgent, i.e., how high is this on your customers’/prospects’ priority list (and why)? And will you be able to exceed expectations?
  2. Filter 2) For which items on your product roadmap could you proudly write a press-release – and if so, write it now as it will create the necessary clarity on value, urgency and how it will exceed expectation amongst your ideal customers/prospects to your Development team. Now challenge the items on your roadmap that are not press-release worthy. Why should they stay?
  3. Filter 3) Create buckets and assign investment % to them – We all know software products and platforms require maintenance, and tender love and care. However, you also need to deliver new product development to grow lifetime value of your customers and to ensure you are fit enough to ride the next big wave ahead of you.. By assigning buckets you get clarity about the balance of your development investment, and most importantly you avoid drifting off into complacency, and ultimately irrelevancy – as the easy route is always maintenance, TLC and customer contracts.

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About the author

Sales Pitch

Ton Dobbe is a former B2B software product marketer who's on a mission to save mission-driven SaaS CEOs from the stress of 'not enough' traction. He's the author of The Remarkable Effect, the host of the Tech-Entrepreneur on a Mission podcast, and writes a daily newsletter on the secrets to mastering predictable traction.