Saeed Khan on NNL product roadmaps, PMs as change agents, and bouncing back after a job loss
EC: You’ve pointed out that Now/Next/Later roadmaps are a twist on Kanban boards. How do you approach roadmapping, and what you think are the key pieces to an effective roadmap?
SK: Let’s take a step back. A roadmap doesn’t exist on its own. It’s not something we create and simply add things to or remove things from. Roadmaps are the output of a strategy process, and those strategies are defined to achieve specific goals and objectives.
An objective consists of a what — by when. Here are some examples:
Increase revenue in Europe — by 40% next year.
Reduce churn for new customers — by at least 20% within 6 months.
Be able to onboard new enterprise customers within 14 days after contract signing — by end of next quarter.
Objectives come in many forms, but they need both a what, and a when. Think of any of the above-mentioned objectives without the when. They’re no longer objectives, but statements without context. E.g Increase revenue — by 40% in Europe.
So, any strategies developed to help achieve these objectives must also need to have a timeframe (a when) associated with them. For instance, whatever process and actions taken to onboard new enterprise customers within 14 days after contract signing has to be done very soon, because the objective is to be able to do it ‘by end of next quarter.’
And, keep in mind that needed product enhancements to support those strategies occur in the context of other business activities to achieve those objectives.
For example, the objective to increase revenue in Europe by 40% might require product enhancements (e.g. localization, addition of country-specific functionality, compliance with local privacy and security regulations etc.) to be completed in coordination with other activities — such as hiring and staffing European offices so staff can be trained properly etc.
So again, timeframes are a definite requirement.
So when it comes to product roadmaps, there needs to be some reference to timeframes (not specifically dates). This quarter, next quarter, next year etc. The roadmap maps out the important action items tied to those objectives and strategies in a visual, chronological way. It’s a sense-making and organizational tool for people and teams.
So, getting to ‘Now/Next/Later’ (NNL) organization for roadmaps; I find that NNL is a good starting point for macro-level prioritization of related items. It’s easy to put items in relative order of priority when it comes to which should come first etc.
But when I ask the question, ‘When does Now end and when does Next begin,?’ the answer isn’t ‘in 3 months’ or some kind of timeframe.
The answer is: Now is what we’re working on Now, Next is what’s coming down the pipe, and Later is what we might work on, but we need more discovery or other pre-work for those items.
There is nothing wrong with this way of working, but it comes across to me as very Kanban-like, and there is not a lot of talk about strategy and objectives in this mode of working.
The purpose of a roadmap is to articulate the most important items — that are truly part of your strategies — to achieve objectives.
You can’t think of one without the others.
Yes, there is uncertainty that must be understood, but strategies are not guaranteed. They are uncertain. They are bets we make that we believe will help us achieve those objectives. The assumptions in those strategies and of course, how well we execute on them determine whether they are successful or not.
Given that a roadmap is a representation of strategy, it’s important to document and share the objectives and strategies as a prelude to sharing a roadmap. This will provide the needed context for people to understand the why before seeing the what and how.
Roadmaps should tell a story that people can understand and relate to. It should provide a clear picture of the projected path forward with clear understanding of risks or uncertainties — so there are no surprises later on.
EC: PMs sometimes go out of their way to be ‘change agents’ within their organizations. What’s your take on PMs actively doing this?
SK: Product Managers often have a unique cross-functional view of how the different orgs in a company work in relation to their products. And while each group - Engineering, Sales, Marketing, Support, Services etc - is focused on their silo and their connection to adjacent silos, PMs can look holistically across them all — and see where there is friction or bottlenecks or gaps etc.
Sometimes Product Managers are described as a ‘glue’ or ‘gap-filler’ — two terms I really don’t like — but there is some truth in them. i.e. Product Managers can see and sometimes fill in those organizational gaps in service to their products. And while there may be a need to fill the gaps in the short-term, Product Managers should look at the system. When they see gaps, and inefficiencies across team, they should raise the visibility of them with managers and advocate for change.
One example in my own career was when I went to visit the UK, French and German sales offices of a company I worked for. I joined them on a number of sales calls. One thing I noticed is that the sales decks they used were VERY different from the ones created at HQ and sent out to field offices. And while there were some similarities between the 3 offices, they were not all the same.
When I asked why they didn’t use the ones from head office, they said that ‘their world’ was different than in North America. They worked a lot more with Channel partners and had a heavier services component. Also the market in the UK, France and Germany were lagging in adoption to our product category relative to North America. All of these factors made the North America created decks not very useful, so they created their own.
This all was a revelation to me and when I got back to HQ, I shared this with Product Management and Marketing. One thing that Marketing did was spend time learning more about the differences in Europe and actually assigned a couple of people to spend some percent of their time focussed on European needs. They also adapted some of the messaging on the corporate website to better reflect the reality of the European market.
In Product Management, we agreed to not assume European needs are the same as North American ones — and became much more conscious of including European customers in our discovery work. Overall, while this was not a huge change, it was meaningful. I could have returned from my Europe trip and not mentioned anything because the European office were doing fine and they didn’t seem to have too much of a problem creating their own sales materials, etc. But I felt that we needed to be aware of the issues and make whatever changes were necessary to better improve the operations of the company.
EC: With so many tech product people suddenly finding themselves out of a job, what advice would you share for them to bounce back?
SK: This is a tough one because everyone’s experience will be different. I’ve been laid off 3 times in my career. Once after the dot-com bust in 2000, once the financial crisis of 2009 and the most recent in 2015.
The first thing I’d say is don’t take it personally. It’s them and not you. And while we put a lot of ourselves into our work, we have to leave that behind if we are laid off. Depending on your financial situation, being laid off may be a huge stressor or an opportunity to take a short break (e.g. a few months) and rest, and think about next steps. You may want to change your career trajectory, take a course or two — or do anything you haven’t been able to do in the last few years before you start your next role.
The next thing is to leverage your network. Whether via LinkedIn or other social media or reaching out directly to people you know, leverage your network. People are so willing to help each other and will absolutely be a force multiplier in your search for your next role.
Also, look at Product communities - live or virtual - and again reach out to people. Pre-pandemic I once saw someone at a meetup stand up and let people know he had recently been laid off and was looking for work. A month later, at the next meetup, he stood up, huge smile on his face, and announced that he had found a job and was starting in a week — and it was someone from the meeting who had heard him and ended up hiring him.
You’ll never know where your next role will come from, so leverage all your connections and connection possibilities, and you never know what will come out of them.
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