My customer wants a roadmap with dates

Another question from Oredev, one comes up a lot:

Q: What do I do when a customer wants to see a roadmap showing features with dates?

Selling features by the pound

First note, even getting into this position in the first place suggests problems. You are selling features rather than solving customer problems. While many software companies have found this a profitable line of business it is self-limiting and reduces long term ability to create value and generate revenue.

Working like this is akin to a vegetable shop selling potatoes. Customers come in with money and leave with potatoes. Every-time a customer walks in you need to have potatoes in stock. What happens is someone else offers potatoes for less? Or customers want rice?

Contrast this with the subscription model of meals companies like Hello Fresh. These companies don’t just sell potatoes, they solve a problem: how do I feed my family?

When you are selling features by the pound you are at the low end of the market. You have to keep selling features which means your product is destined to end up feature rich and unusable. You are always playing catch up with where the customer wants to be.

When you sell solutions you get ahead of your customers and show them how they can be better. Instead of selling them a hypothetical future sell them the quality product you have now.

This is also better for the engineering team. Sales are based on never ending feature requests everyone is on a treadmill.

So: stop selling features, sell solutions. To do this understand your customers, understand their problems, aim to sell solutions and get ahead of customers. Become their trusted partner with fees to match.

Let the customer drive

Back to today: you are probably following some form of backlog driven development (BLDD). So let us accept your organization could be better. What do you do in the meantime?

I would turn the question around. First ask the customers what they want to see, then ask them when they would like to have these things. Make this prioritisation conversation, A or B first? I might extend that conversation to value (“What benefit will this feature bring you? How much money will this save?”). Right after the prioritisation conversation or I might postpone value till later and I might use value poker to get handle on value.

Next I want to know their dates. Laugh when they say “Yesterday.” If need be explain you don’t have a time machine but recover and get them serious. If they keep insisting yesterday, now, tomorrow start slicing the work down. “We can’t give everything but maybe we can give you something small.”

More on, do you need this in the next 3 months? the next 6? next year? More specifically, what is the time-value profile? when is a feature worth the most money? and when does it become worthless?

Notice, I don’t want to suggest anything at this stage, I want to hear what they want.

Neither do I want to talk about dates based on effort estimates. The only thing that is certain about estimates is that they are wrong. Remember there is always more than one way to solve a problem. You now have their perfect roadmap.

Back at the office I would talk to engineering about what might be possible in the time frame the customer is asking for. See, I’m prepared to change the solution to meet the time scales.

Lean roadmap

All the time this is a “what if exercise.” There are only thing you can say for certain: what you are working on now and what you think you will work on next.

Some people call this a Lean Roadmap. This has 3 parts: what we are doing now, what we plan to do next and everything else.

Now if you have just one customer you can iterate on this process and effectively co-create a “what if” plan with the customer. But I still wouldn’t want to go further than now, next and everything else.

In contrast, if you have multiple customers you can still iterate but at some point you have to accept that you are going to upset them. The question is: how long do you wait before you break the bad news?

Now, you might be thinking “This is unrealistic, my management won’t buy this so I have no chance with my customers.”

In this answer I am being brutally honest: no schedule based on effort estimate dates will work – read Dear Customer. Putting out such a “roadmap” only delays reality and means people will be unhappy when dates are missed so let’s find a better way.

The Lean Roadmap (now, next, everything else) is one option.

What we really want are rich conversations with ourselves and our customers. From those conversations we can build understanding. We can say things like “In Q3 we plan to build a solution to the mobility problem.” You might even stand a chance of delivering such a plan. What you cannot say with any confidence is “In Q3 we plan to build epics 1234, 1249 and 2734.”

Creating those rich conversation means enriching the communication between engineering and customers, reducing intervening proxies (BA, Product Manager, Sales) and focusing on solutions and the benefits.

If that still sounds impossible then by all means list your features, write some random dates against them – don’t waste your time on pretending you can estimate unless you have the statistics to prove it. Hand that to your sales people, make sure you are paid regularly and accept you are working in a feature factory.


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