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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 1/30/2003

This is your bi-weekly e-Newsletter from Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.


A Poor Product Roadmap Gets Everyone Lost
  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

A few years ago, I had to make a trip from Boston to a company in Eufaula, AL.  Eufaula is a pretty little town in Alabama, but it’s one of those places that “you can’t get there from here”.  I had to fly from Boston to Atlanta, and then get a connecting flight to one of two small regional airports (Columbus, GA or Dothan, AL).  From there I had to travel by car for about an hour over a variety of highways and back roads to reach the company in Eufaula.  I would have become hopelessly lost without a good roadmap.

The situation is very much the same for a company.  The company may have a company vision that states what the company wants to be in the future (see eN-010203 – Poor Company Vision Clouds Everyone’s View), and a product vision that states the high level perspective of where the company wants to go with its products (see eN-011603 – Poor Product Vision Blinds Engineering), but without a product roadmap with some specific milestones and timeframes, everyone is moving into unfamiliar and often uncharted territory without directions of how to get there.  In order for the company to succeed, all of the people in the company, and particularly engineering, have to know where the company is going, how and when the company plans to get there, and what their specific role is in making that happen.  Without such a roadmap, people will attempt to do their jobs, but they won’t be moving in the same direction.  The result is often chaos and frustration, and a failing company.

What is a product roadmap?  It can come in many different forms, and can cover different levels of detail, but basically it is a written document (or presentation or spreadsheet or project plan) that lays out, for a reasonable timeframe (e.g. for the next few years), what products (and/or services) are planned to be developed and released in what timeframes.  It also indicates key milestones along the way (e.g. key project review dates, key sub-project deadlines) so that progress can be measured, and corrective action can be taken when problems are encountered to keep projects and products on track.  Further, it shows the dependencies of specific products on other products.  This helps to assess how problems in one area will affect other areas, and to determine what can be done to correct those problems.

How is a product roadmap developed?  A product roadmap is developed as a cooperative effort between numbers of functions in the company.  At a minimum this includes marketing, product management, and engineering, but it should generally also include manufacturing, customer support, and finance.  These folks evaluate customer needs, company business needs, and product development and manufacturing realities.  They then develop these often conflicting and contradictory elements into a workable plan that delivers products customers will want, that meet company business objectives, and that can really be developed and delivered in a suitable timeframe.  Easy, huh?

How are key milestones and schedule dates determined?  The determination of key milestones and schedule dates generally come from hard experience, and can be the source of either glee or grief depending on how well it is done (see eN-112102 – Late Projects Kill Companies!).  Estimates of the many individual sub-projects must be developed.  These are collected and consolidated by managers, often through a number of levels.  Some level of contingency planning is done to reflect the unforeseen problems that always arise.  Key milestones and target dates that are indicative of success or failure are identified.  Phase review milestones and target dates are assigned that enable various phases of the projects to be evaluated (part of the “To conquer, divide” philosophy).  This is greatly simplified here, but is really one of the most challenging parts of this critical activity.  I will address this further in greater detail in future e-Newsletters.

If done right, what kind of motivation does a product roadmap provide?  A good product roadmap that everyone buys into enables everyone, particularly engineering, to understand what is to be done when, and also helps make clear what job each individual must perform to make it happen (if it’s not clear to them, their manager can help make it clear).  If things start to go off track (off-road), then people are empowered to speak up and make it evident that corrective action must be taken.  With more eyes to see that the roadmap directions are being followed, it is much more difficult to become lost.

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