Written by Better product building, For new product folk

How to create a quarterly roadmap in sixty minutes

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Deciding what to work on is probably the most high-leverage task that product people can do. Spending 10 hours working on an important problem is far, far more impactful than 20 hours working on a non-important problem.

The trouble is, prioritising a list of work feels hard. There aren’t many how-to guides, and it’s a weird skill that you don’t truly learn through school or university. Unlike many product-building skills, you can’t passively learn it from playing with other products. You can see and Facebook’s design decisions, and be impressed by Snapchat’s speed, but that doesn’t give much visibility into how they make prioritisation decisions.

With quarterly planning, there’s the extra pressure of committing to work for the next 3 months. This can make the task of deciding what to build quite overwhelming.

There are two typical outcomes to this situation. Either product people hastily prioritise and carry on the path they were previously on (potentially missing bigger opportunities), or they are paralysed by the task and end up needing intervention from “higher up” (leading away from team autonomy).

I believe that the hardest part of making a plan for the quarter is getting a draft down. Getting (and implementing) feedback is straightforward, but can’t do that until you have something to show. I’m going to explain how it’s possible get to this first draft very quickly, to unblock your planning.

A quick fix can’t substitute a well-thought-out plan, and my aim is to unblock anyone that is stuck. But when you’re are stuck it’s useful to ask yourself – if the quarter started in 60 minutes, what would the plan be? The following steps will help you to answer that question.

The objective of planning

Before we start, I want to be clear on two things:

  1. What do we optimise for when planning?
  2. What is the target outcome of planning?

For (1), the objective of any product team is to have the biggest impact on the company that they can – therefore, they should prioritise to optimise for impact. As some work takes longer than others to have impact, the team should optimise for impact per unit of time. Let’s call this leverage. You can also think of this as “bang for your buck”.

For (2), the desired outcome is a list of work that the team will do in the quarter, in the order they’ll get to it. As above, this order should maximise the impact of the team over next several months.

For every item on their roadmap, the team should be able to answer two questions:

  1. How will this add value to the business?
  2. Why is this more important than other work?

If you can answer these two questions, you’re golden. 🏆

The 60-minute(ish) framework

To create your to-do list for the quarter, you need to answer five questions.

  1. What are the biggest opportunities for the company?
  2. What problems cause those opportunities?
  3. What can we do to solve those problems?
  4. In what order should we ship those solutions?
  5. What can we get done this quarter?

The first two questions help to generate ideas about what work will be impactful, and then guide how to prioritise. It’s often tempting to skip these steps, but they are crucial.

Like an egg in a hurry, let’s get cracking.

1. What are the biggest opportunities for the company?

Answering this question will help you identify the broad areas that need addressing. The biggest opportunities are the areas where – if you execute well – you’ll have the biggest impact. I’ve seen many teams work on things where they can ship fast, while missing something more important to the company.

To start, map out the company goals and current metrics. For most companies the broad goals are to grow faster, and grow cheaper.

You should be aware of your company metrics. For growth, these normally focus on either revenue or users (depending on the business); normally acquiring more and retaining existing. For profitability metrics, it’s often something like profit (revenue – cost) per customer/user/order.

For each of these goals and metrics, write down the current state of each. Just by eyeballing these numbers, you should get a feel for where they’re higher/lower than they could be. Does anything jump out as surprising?

Depending on the maturity of the company, these numbers may readily available for you, or you might have to dig in and get them yourselves. If you can’t find any numbers, then use your intuition about where those metrics are. It’s far from ideal, but if it’s all you’ve got then 🤷

Next, for each metric write down where you think it can possibly get to in the next few years, specifically by technological improvements. This could mean moving a metric to 100% (or 0%), but it’s normally impossible to totally maximise a metric. For example, churn will never be zero for a B2B company, because sometimes your customers go out of business.

The difference between where each headline metric is currently at, and where you think it can possibly get to, is the gap. The gap is broadly the size of the opportunity that you’ve got.

The graph above shows a company where there is a big opportunity to improve retention, but a relatively small opportunity to reduce costs per order.

The scale of the Y-axis on a graph like the one above, should be dictated by what the company values right now. For example, decreasing unit costs by 5% might be of huge value to a company that operates on tiny margins, and is optimising for profitability. In my example here it is lower, because my theoretical company is optimising for user growth, and is a high margin business.
Thanks to Matteo for point this out!

Write down the areas with the biggest gap between current state and potential future state. That gap is the ceiling (upper-limit) of the impact that you can have if you execute perfectly. It is impossible to have a bigger impact than the gap.

Happily, a large gap often signifies an area where a few small improvements can have an outsized impact. If a problem hasn’t been addressed for a long time, there are normally some simple things that go a long way to improving it. If you want everyone to hate you, you can call this low-hanging-fruit.

Combine the size of these gaps with strategy – what does your company really care about? Does it care more about growth, or saving money? Add appropriate weighting to the gap, to reflect which opportunities are most important in the next 3-12 months. This requires a bit of nuance with the trade-offs, but go with what feels right. Write down your assumptions about the weightings so that you can refer to it if asked.

Don’t worry about how long it would take to close the gap, we’ll get to that in a few stages.

You should end this step with: A list of high-level areas that represent the biggest opportunities for the coming quarter.

2. What problems cause those opportunities?

You’ve now got a list of opportunities which is useful, but it doesn’t tell you what you should build. For that, you need to understand what problems you have to solve.

For each area of opportunity, there are going to be things that cause them to be opportunities. This step is very similar to the one above, with the objective of finding out how to close the gap.

For each opportunity on your list, write down the things that influence the metric. For example, if I was looking at user retention, I might look at:

  • Activation (users that sign up and then get started)
  • 1-week retention (do they return a week after first visit?)
  • 1-month retention (do they return a month after first visit?)
  • 3-month retention (do they return three months after first visit?)

Look at the numbers for each of these metrics, and make a note of where you think they could get to. Again, they should show you areas with the biggest room for improvement.

For the areas with the greatest gaps, dig a little deeper if possible. If activation looks like a big opportunity ask the questions:

  • Are users receiving signup emails?
  • Are they opening and clicking them?
  • Are they staying once they land?

For retention, you might ask:

  • When are the biggest user drop offs? (first-visit, one week, one month)
  • Are users finding the value areas? (feature usage)
  • Are there situations that causes users to not come back? (errors, dead-ends, poor UX etc.)

When you answer these questions, typically data wins above all else. If you can prove the answer with strong numbers, then great.

If your user numbers are too small (or you don’t have monitoring set up), then you can rely on anecdotes from your users. Ask users what they think, and ask user-facing teams (sales, CS) what people have told them.

If that fails, then use your intuition. Intuition is a powerful muscle when combined with other data sources, but on it’s own it can break a deadlock.

Answering these questions will leave you with a series of problems to solve. Write these down.

For our example company, let’s say we’ve found that acquisition is the biggest opportunity, and the customers have told us are that some messages are going straight to spam, and some customers aren’t opening them anyway (because they don’t need to use our service at the time).

You should end this step with: A list of problems to solve, which (if solved) would have the biggest impact on the business.

3. What can we build to solve those problems?

Now comes the fun bit – ideas. Collect every idea that you can about how to solve these big problems.

Write down some ideas yourself, and speak to your team and other colleagues. This is a great opportunity to include the rest of the business, and let them know that you’re thinking about things they care about. If they repeat an idea you already had, chalk it up to them and take the collaboration win.

If you have time, investigate how other companies have solved these problems. This is optional for now because the aim here is to get to a draft list as quickly as possible. You should investigate competitors and other products, but you can do that later.

If you don’t know how you can solve these problems, plan for some time in the quarter to research and ideate what you could build, and just put down “Solution X for problem Y” into your ideas list. You don’t have an idea yet, but you know you will.

Now that you’ve got your ideas list, frame each one as an insight, hypothesis and metric. The insight should explain why you think this will solve the problem. The hypothesis is a statement that you want to test, to see if it will solve it. The metric shows how you expect to prove that your idea has worked.

Using the example we’ve had so far:

Insight: Customers aren’t receiving signup emails, they’re going straight to spam folders.
Hypothesis: If we change the subject line it will look less like spam, they’ll get through spam filters
Metric: Email open rate (that leads to greater activation rate)

Insight: Customers don’t immediately open our email, because they don’t need to use our service right away. This means that they forget about us, and the signup link expires.
Hypothesis: If we resend the email several times over the week, we can increase the likelihood of a user signing up.
Metric: Activation rate of users

Do this for every idea you have that you could work on. This format will help you to articulate your own thoughts clearly, and makes communication straightforward.

Putting everything in this format might feel like going through the motions. However, the mere act of working in this way will force you to think about the work you could do in a logical way which makes you less likely to work on something you shouldn’t. What are you unsure about, and need to test? What work doesn’t really move a meaningful metric? Should you be doing that work at all?

Sometimes can be overkill (things like compliance are often no brainers). For these, just consider that the company might not exist if you don’t do the actions, which makes the work highly impactful on all metrics.

If your company is at an earlier stage, then this exercise is especially powerful, and you should think as broadly as possible. If your company is more mature, your ideas might need to be constrained to the broad product surface area that you own (e.g. the iOS app). The exercise is still extremely useful though to help understand what the company cares about, and guide your work accordingly.

You should end this step with: A list of things that can be done that will solve problems that genuinely matter to the business.

4. What order should we do those in?

You now have a list of things that were value-positive. This means that if you do them (and they work), they’ll add value to the company. The job now is to list them in the order that you should do them in.

The order that you work in is super important. Getting the broad order right ensures you’re picking the right work for this quarter vs next quarter and beyond. The micro-order (e.g. exact position in the list) makes sure that you’re having maximum impact as quickly as possible. Getting this impact is important for team morale, gaining the confidence of the rest of the company, and getting the team used to thinking in terms of metrics (if they’re not already).

Ok, so the order is important. How do you order this list?

In answer is to look at everything in terms of leverage. As described earlier, leverage is the amount of impact that can be had for a given cost (in this case, cost is units of time).

To work out leverage, go through the benefit (business value) and ease (time/effort) per item on the list. A simple way to do this is to use a scale of 1-5.

For benefit you need to use your intuition to give 5 for most impactful work, and 1 for least. You should take into account size of the opportunity from the first few steps, and just how much you think it will solve those problems. The aim here is to get a rough idea, so don’t worry about making guesses.

For ease you can give 5 for the hardest work and 1 for the easiest. This scale should give a rough indication of the time required to ship the improvement if one person were working on it.

Some important work won’t have immediate value, and for these you can frame it in terms of future value. For example, paying back tech debt might help you to move faster in future – assign a value to the speed benefits that you’ll get (offset by how far in the future you think you’ll feel those benefits).

For compliance work (or anything else that you “just have” to do) – consider what happens if you don’t? If it’s a small fine, the benefit is doing it is pretty low. But if it’s compliance or a major legal issue, or risks destroying the company reputation, then it will keep the company alive and is more impactful than any other work you can do.

If you’re not sure the solution will work, write down for expected benefit. For example is a 5, and you think there’s a 50% chance it will work, bump it down to an 3. Or if there’s a 10% chance, put it at 1. Again, go with your intuition here, this isn’t hard science.

To work out the leverage, you can simply add up the scores.

  • 5 ease, 1 benefit = 6
  • 2 ease, 3 benefit = 5
  • 4 ease, 5 benefit = 9
  • 1 ease, 2 benefit = 3

To end this step, you simply put things in order of leverage. Put visually below, you want to do things in order of top-left to bottom right.

Wherever there’s a tie-break, you can optimise for high-benefit, or high-ease. If a team is relatively unsettled (e.g. new key people), then high-ease work is often the most sensible as it will let the team get a bit of momentum. If the team is established, then optimise for high-benefit work as these are going to be things that truly change the company and help create competitive moats.

A common question that comes up here is “how should we take other factors into account?”. For example, some work is strategically really important, or will be high cost if we don’t do it now?

For these, you can simply add these factors into the costs and benefits. If something is strategically important right now because it slows a competitor, then add nudge up business value. Or if the ease is currently 4 but will be 2 if you do it later, then nudge the ease up to a 5. Or if a piece of work unblocks another, add some benefit points so it gets done first. This will help make sure you take these factors into account, but still prioritise for impact.

There are no hard-and-fast rules here, it’s purely a framework to help get you to that first draft quickly.

You should end this step with: A list of things that will have the most impact on the business, in the order that you want to do them.

5. What can we get done this quarter?

This is the easiest step. Simply sit down with your team, and say “if we ship at a really good speed, what would we be able to get through?”. Find the last thing that you’d be able to get started on, and draw a line under it, and that’s your draft quarterly roadmap.

You should end this step with: A list of things that you will do in the next 3 months, that will have the most impact on the business.

There we have it – you’ve got your draft roadmap. I hope this helps you to create good plans, and have real impact with your team. Please do refine it, challenge it, break it, rebuild it as time permits.

It is, of course, harder than it sounds. But it’s definitely easier than it feels, so have a crack. Just get that first draft out, and then refine from there.

Last modified: April 16, 2019