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The Difference Between Roadmaps and Release Plans

February 16, 2022

7 minute read

Product roadmap discussions should not involve release planning. There should be no deadlines, no due dates, no commitments around resources or rollouts

Why?

The roadmap is not a timeline of deliveries! The product roadmap is a visual communication tool for product strategy and direction. It prioritizes problems and opportunities facing the business, and helps your team identify the best solutions.

Delivery schedules belong on a release plan, and as a product manager, that’s not your domain. Your primary job is to decide on the best move forward – not to define how or when that move is made. Release plans belong in the realm of project managers or the development team.

The difference between a product roadmap and a release plan

The roadmap and the release plan are two different tools, one used after the other. The first is exploratory and informative (strategy), the second is practical and applicable (execution).

A product roadmap shows what is coming up (Now, Next and Later) and what is being worked on at this moment. This allows teams other than product and engineering to see what’s coming down the pipeline and plan their own work as needed.

The release plan is about coordinating the launch of what’s already been built, particularly with the efforts of other teams in relation to the launch. This includes marketing campaigns, sales campaigns, closing the customer loop, measuring the success of the release, etc. All of these activities are put on a timeline.

The roadmap gives the whole company visibility of what is coming up without causing problems by tying things to a date. The release plan takes over when development is done and coordinates the wider team’s activities to make each release a success.

The confusion between product roadmaps and release plans

A roadmap is not as release plan

This transition from roadmap to release plan is where the worlds of product management and product development can get a little murky. In many organizations, they’ve started to merge or overlap. Indeed, this is how so-called “timeline roadmaps” have come to be a common practice.

Maybe some teams think they’re being efficient by doing both in one go, in one discussion, in one tool. But actually, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your company, and your customers.

Great product management isn’t possible when it’s tied to timelines. And great release planning is about so much more than the product launch itself. By separating these two processes, you’ll build a better product and deliver that product more successfully. 

The downsides of a timeline roadmap

If you’re using a timeline roadmap you are basically using a glorified release plan to manage your product strategy. You’re mixing up two distinct processes that are each critical to your company’s success.

Here are three reasons why this mix-up is a problem.

Downside #1: You’re focused on features and delivery, rather than solving the right problems.

Timeline roadmaps are more about development than they are about product discovery or strategy. The team’s focus moves from the problems you’re trying to solve — to the features you’ve plucked from the backlog and decided to build.

Taking a step back to look at the problems facing your business and users is what keeps your roadmap fresh and adaptive to change. These changes could be in the market (you have a new competitor) or new insights about how your customers use your product.

But when you’re running a feature-focused timeline roadmap, you’re less agile across the board.

Downside #2: You’re less agile due to long-term commitments. 

With timeline roadmaps, some teams plan for a whole year in advance (or even longer), which doesn’t make sense! Why would you tie your own hands? When you make promises to senior stakeholders and customers, you lose the ability to change direction. People expect you to hit X target by Z date. Perhaps you can change direction after what you’ve committed, but not before. And then it might be too late.

Bottom line: long-term product commitments can mean building the wrong things and missing the right opportunities.

Downside #3: There’s friction with stakeholders when plans need to change. 

When timeline commitments absolutely must be changed, this can be a huge burden for PMs on a psychological level. Stakeholders don’t want the dates changed. So then it’s your job to get them to agree to the changes and accept that these changes are worthwhile, maintaining their trust in the process.

This requires too much time and effort on your part. And if it happens repeatedly, resentment can build up between teams.

The benefits of a horizon roadmap and separate release planning

Building a lean roadmap

There’s a better way than using a timeline. Horizon roadmap is about the problem you’re solving. At Prodpad we advocate for horizon or lean roadmaps. Here’s why:

Benefit #1: More experimentation means a roadmap with better solutions

When you’re focused on problems that need solving, you allow for continuous discovery and experimentation. Your vision for potential solutions is much wider, so you generate more of them, and they’re more creative than if you’d stayed in the box of your backlog or timeline.

Ultimately you find the best fit for your product and your company objectives. 

Benefit #2: The product pipeline is more transparent and reliable

The release plan is shorter, perhaps covering just the next two cycles rather than the next 12 months. With this closer focus comes a smaller level of granularity — you understand the details of what needs to be done, how long it will take, and when it will be ready.

With the lean roadmap, it’s much clearer what is currently being worked on and when it will be delivered.

Benefit #3: Higher confidence and better morale among teams

You can finally make realistic promises to the rest of the company! With a transparent and reliable product pipeline, other teams will feel more confident in their own work, campaigns, and aligned efforts. This of course ripples out to executives, customers, and other stakeholders. Less friction, higher morale.

How to separate your product roadmap and release planning

If you’re ready to separate your product strategy from your development timeline, here are a few steps on how to do it.

  1. Recenter the problems you’re solving in each cycle. Make them explicit! And tie each delivery or feature idea back to a problem. For more on this, check out Janna’s thoughts on product prioritization models and how to prioritize on a “Problem Level.”
  2. Shorten your timeline. Look at the current development cycle and the next one only. Don’t look six months down the road, and don’t make commitments into the future! If you’re pressured to provide time estimates, pull back on precision (no exact dates) and emphasize the new problem-focused approach.
  3. Separate discussions and hold separate meetings. This could help the team adjust to thinking about roadmap strategy and release planning separately. There would be one meeting for product strategy and prioritization discussions, and another for committing development resources and timeline planning. To define a release planning process for your team, check out how to master release planning.

If you’re really ready to move on, start this 6-step process to ditch the timeline roadmap.

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