The problem with long-term roadmaps

Spanning up to 24 months of planned features and functionality, long-term roadmaps are a conventional staple in development offices.

They’re also inherently problematic.

But how can something that everyone uses not prove useful? You need to plan somehow — and roadmaps keep your software on track. At face value, they seem like a good idea.

Here, we explain the problem plaguing long-term roadmaps.

The logic behind long-term roadmaps

Planning is a good thing. It increases organisation and keeps you focused on both the tasks that need doing and the goals you’re working towards. You plan before you write, before you go on holiday, before you throw a wedding.  Why then, wouldn’t you plan your product?

This is the thinking behind the long-term roadmap. If you plan your features and functionality, you don’t waste time deciding what to develop next.

So, in theory, having long-term roadmaps for your software product is a good idea. They will boost efficiency and productivity and keep development on track. Unfortunately, reality has another idea.

The adverse reality

The truth is, long-term roadmaps rarely (if ever) prove true. They’re more like fiction — journal entries outlining your good intentions. You’ll look back on it after development and realise that it missed the mark. Why? Because things change.

‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’

– Mike Tyson

Technology is an eternally evolving field to work in. The tech that’s all the rage today becomes a relic of the past tomorrow. People change, making their needs and wants vastly different from months ago. Plans change when hurdles get in the way, or new information highlights a better path. And amidst all this change, long-term roadmaps get left behind.

You and your product need to adapt to the changes that happen over the course of your roadmap. What’s the point in planning something that’s undoubtedly going to change?

The problem

The problem with long-term roadmaps, then, is that they’re inflexible.

For a start, to write an effective long-term roadmap, you need to predict the future. You’ll need to know ahead of time what features your customers want and need. You’ll need to know what new tech might impact your choices, not to mention any setbacks your team or company might encounter.

Once you’ve tried your hand at divination, you end up with a roadmap of unrealistic or unhelpful expectations. As time goes on, some of your goals fail or change. As a result, you start spending more focus and productivity on updating your plan than on developing your software.

When you do meet the goals on your plan, meanwhile, you get a false sense of progress. ‘More features’ does not mean ‘better’. And, while you were working on the functionality you thought customers wanted a year ago, they’ve moved to new pain points. The features outlined on long-term roadmaps often end up unwanted or unsuccessful — you aren’t addressing the present customer needs.

Alternatives to long-term roadmaps

But you still need a timeline, some semblance of a plan to follow. If not long-term roadmaps, then what can you use? Here are a few alternative strategies.

  • Short-term roadmaps

Short-term roadmaps tend to span no more than six months, and often consist of smaller sprints. This means that you still have a plan to follow, but it doesn’t need the flexibility or prophesying of long-term roadmaps. This is a common strategy in agile development.

  • Outline goals, not features

Alternatively, set goals and plan to meet performance metrics, rather than tie yourself to specific features. This way, you can adapt to the customer want and technical ability, while still measuring your progress and hitting targets.

  • Outline why, not when

Roadmaps prescribe deadlines and features. But they often forget the ‘why’ behind them. So, rather than managing the dreaded ‘how long will it take’ on a long-term scale, think about the value of your product going forward. Plan development around why you need certain functionality. That way, the features can change, but you’ll still bring the value your customers seek.

The need to adapt

The problem with long-term roadmaps is that they consist entirely of wishful thinking. It’d be great if we could plan the future of anything to the last detail. But the nature of tech, the reality of change, and the difficulty of predictions make such plans impossible to make accurate.

Change is a fact of life. And you and your software need to react to the different opportunities that come along. So, ditch the long-term roadmaps, and bring flexibility to your development plans.

Useful links

Product planning: three things you should do before building your product

Yes to YAGNI

The logic behind “worse is better”