Product prioritization is the hardest and certainly the most important aspect of the product development life cycle. The push and pull from all constituents such as customers, sales, marketing, engineering, board and customer support are valid and critical. However, the real and perhaps the most potent push and pull comes from the physics problem – i.e. there aren’t enough resources to do everything. It is this constraint that forces a Research and Development (R&D) organization to develop techniques for truly balancing the roadmap against the strategic objectives of the company.
In my nearly 6 years of tenure at Jobvite, I have developed several roadmaps and built many prioritization strategies with my team. When I started at Jobvite, in August 2008, we were less than 10 employees and it was easy to get the key people in a room and make calls. In my very first prioritization call, I looked at all the product backlog request stickies posted on the wall and decided to build a completely new feature that was not in the product backlog – make Jobvite a social recruiting platform. Perhaps that was the smartest and most strategic product decision we took in the history of Jobvite. Not only did this decision help Jobvite differentiate itself from competitors, it also helped us survive the Great Recession of 2009 and emerge out of the recession as a successful company. In other years we have focused on achieving balance between customer requests, table stakes, disruptive features and platform goals. But throughout these years, one thing that has not been up for negotiation has been innovation – at Jobvite building something disruptive is at the center of our roadmap strategy. We have always done it and we will always do it. This is the reason why Jobvite wins the hearts of the customers and the industry alike.
Today’s Jobvite is no longer the 10 employees strong company located in one location like 2008. In R&D alone today we have 65+ personnel distributed geographically across multiple locations and multiple time zones. This challenge is not unique to Jobvite. It is a challenge that every distributed R&D organization faces.
Today’s roadmap challenge is not just the prioritization but building a collaborative roadmap with a distributed team and getting everyone on the same page.
To solve this challenge, we took our R&D team on a 3-day offsite to a beautiful facility on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. The offsite location not only served as a change of scenery for the team, it also turned out to be inspirational because of the picturesque surrounding and view of the bay. During the 3-day session, we prioritized the roadmap and worked on a host of topics including development velocity, agile distributed development and quality improvements etc. Unlike past roadmap meetings, this time, we were able to prioritize the roadmap items faster because of the following guiding principles:
1. The roadmap is collaborative – key stakeholders need to constantly collaborate and align the roadmap with company’s strategic objectives.
2. The roadmap is top down and bottom up at the same time – strategies, technical debt considerations and ease/difficulty of building comes from all walks of an organization. Therefore, the best roadmap is built by considering both top down and bottom up ideas.
3. The roadmap is iterative – you can never have a 100% static roadmap. We operate in a dynamic environment and need to be open to change at all times.
4. Economy of scale – in a SaaS world you should only build the feature/functionality that will be used by at least 80% of your customers and has the highest Return On Investment (ROI).
5. Don’t Rob Peter to pay Paul – if you have done a good job of identifying the key risks then most likely you will not have the need to steal resources from one project to complete another. This may not be avoidable in all circumstances especially if you hit a wall with a third party technology with many unknowns.
6. Technical debt is as critical as a new feature development – technical debt and building infrastructure components needs to be given due importance and resources must be allocated to pay off the technical debt on an ongoing basis.
7. Constraint is the foundation for innovation – recognize that constraint is constant. No matter how small or big your organization is, you can never get enough resources to work on every problem. Hence teams have to be innovative and figure out creative solutions with fewer resources.
8. Build effective and autonomous teams – smaller teams of 2-3 people are more effective than a team of 5-6. Empower the team to make decisions that are in sync with the overall strategic objective.
At the end of the 3 day offsite, we had a 90% complete roadmap that everyone believed in and was excited to go work on. Note that we did not 100% complete the roadmap prioritization. Since roadmap prioritization is an iterative process, we needed to go back to our executive team for another round of iteration.