Sanjukta Barooah, COO at Finturi, believes that having a product roadmap is essential for any tech team because without it, it’s hard for an organisation to align which, in turn, makes it hard to drive growth in a meaningful way. Over the years, she’s found that the best product roadmaps incorporate creative thinking into their process.
In this article Sanjukta shares how she’s used creative thinking in building product roadmaps, and what she needs in order for that approach to be successful.
Sanjukta has had a career in product operations, building strategies, and product roadmapping. She’s been with Finturi since its inception, and believes that a well-developed roadmap is the difference between a robust product, and a weak one. In her experience, building a good product roadmap not only impacts the business as a whole, but can directly benefit its software development as well:
“It’s our map, our outline, the plan and the steps necessary to achieve our desired objective”, she explains. “Thus, it adds to the predictability of the product development process, and builds a common understanding between different stakeholders in the organisation.”
However, Sanjukta says that the most challenging thing about product roadmaps is that there is no real ‘right way’ to do them.“I have tried so many different things and I’ve realised that there isn’t really a guidebook, or a ‘perfect way’ to build a roadmap. So, in reality, many roadmaps simply fail.”
In her experience, an effective approach to roadmapping is creative thinking, because it remedies three of the biggest blockers she’s seen hinder successful innovation, namely: homogeny, fear of judgement, and non-relatability.
The four things she’s learned make creative product roadmapping more effective are:
- Get everyone involved to stimulate diversity
- The environment matters, so create a “safe space”
- Invite feedback at every step to encourage opinion
- Re-evaluate your roadmap regularly
Get everyone involved to stimulate diversity
Creative thinking requires collective input and participation. When getting started with a new roadmap, Finturi’s team makes sure they involve the entire company in some way. “For us”, Sanjukta explains, “it’s always a question of using the combined knowledge of the team, and leveraging the strength which lies in our team.” They’ve found doing this helps stimulate diversity in thought, which Sanjukta says has been the best way to counteract homogeneous thinking:
“Without having an open mind that allows creative thinking, it’s easy to fall back on the things I know and already believe in. In those cases, it’s really easy to be a victim of confirmation bias, fall into the same thinking patterns, and miss out on true innovation.”
At Finturi, Sanjukta says their first step is to get everyone into one room. “In the beginning, we had a brainstorming session where we took a day and said everyone from every discipline in the company can come in and talk about what they think we should be doing.” Her team also has permanently remote members working in different countries, and so they set up a few cameras with mics and monitors in order for them to participate as well.
By including everyone in her team, Sanjukta says that the ideas were more innovative, helped the company come together, and ultimately helped everyone collaborate as a team.
“Everybody had different ideas and, in the end, we could find the common themes around which everybody converged. I think that that was one of the best things we have done as a company to build consensus, and collaborate in a way that everybody feels part of the journey.”
The environment matters, so create a “safe space”
There is a lot of literature about the importance of designing your environment for achieving the things you want to achieve. When it comes to creative thinking for roadmap setting, Sanjukta has made an active effort to set up the environment for those creative sessions so that her team feels brave enough to contribute without a filter. “Taking this approach gives us an opportunity to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas, and then we figure out that those ideas aren’t so crazy after all.”
“There has to be room for failure”, Sanjukta explains. “Only then do teams feel safe enough to step outside their boundaries, and come up with creative ideas.”
The key to having a creative environment is to take out judgement and evaluation, and remove the ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ In her experience, people hold back from sharing their ideas because they’re afraid of giving the ‘wrong’ answer, and being perceived badly by their team. “But that’s not how novel ideas are created. We really emphasise that, when we have these sessions, it’s a safe space. We come up with ideas without discussing whether it’s a good, or a bad idea.”
Another way she’s learned to set up a creative environment is to remove the formality of ‘a meeting’ from the creative process. She achieves this by focussing on visual interaction, and making fun a priority. By using pictures, and writing things down on paper instead of typing up docs, Sanjukta says that people become less attached to their ideas, and drop a lot of the fear involved in expressing thoughts that seem ‘crazy.’
“I think a lot of us are visual people”, Sanjukta says. “So, it’s always easier to interact in a fun, visual way, where you use post-its, colours, whiteboards, and just have a casual conversation. You can always create a document later on; but, in that moment, it’s important to forget about how things look and sound in a doc, and really understand each other, and put yourself in another person’s shoes.”
Invite feedback at every step to encourage opinion
As the person in charge of the product roadmap, once Sanjukta has gathered input from the entire company on strategy and vision, she has to go and actually build the final product roadmap. Linked to getting everyone involved, she says that it’s important to get as much feedback as she can, as often as she can. She explains:
“It’s one of the biggest pitfalls you can fall into: As soon as you think you’re sending the right information, and that it’s being received in the right way, you’re not making sure that that person has actually understood what you’re trying to communicate.”
In her experience, the best way to ensure that your product roadmap is still on track, and to ensure that you don’t lose the team collaboration and cohesion you’ve just spent time building up, is just to ask for feedback. “It really is the easiest thing you can do. For example, spend that extra 15 minutes to reach out to someone and say ‘Hey, I sent you this information. Is it clear? Can I explain it better?’ It’s really worthwhile in the long run.”
This allows her to maintain connection between the product roadmap and her team, as well as encourage an open environment in which receiving feedback is not scary or judgemental, but rather, where feedback is a way to generate new ideas, gather more perspectives, and improve.
It also helps empower everyone on the team as being given the space to share their input makes it feel like this is everyone’s product, and everyone is doing their bit to make it a reality.
Re-evaluate your roadmap regularly
Lastly, Sanjukta says that roadmaps should never be static. Times change, situations evolve, and roadmaps are something she updates on a regular basis. She explains:
“You cannot say that when you create a roadmap, this is exactly how it’s going to turn out. So, it’s important to update it. It has to be a living document. It has to be revisited, and it has to be monitored.”
At Finturi, they use OKRs as a forcing function to revisit their product strategy and roadmap on a quarterly basis. This is especially important for her team right now, she says, for two reasons:
- The fundamental nature of COVID-19 is uncertainty: When the world around you changes, it doesn’t matter how closely you stick to your roadmap. “We live in a very uncertain world right now”, she says, “so it’s important — more than ever — to be able to adapt to any of these changes in the environment.”
- Startups are not static by design: Beyond COVID-19, startups are incredibly vulnerable to budget changes, team growth, target market adjustments… Sanjukta says that Finturi needs to be self-aware enough as a startup to expect things to change, and be able to adapt when they do. “Our roadmap, of course, needs to be adjusted based on priorities, based on resources we have and the budgets we have. I can tell you, as a startup, this is something that changes quite frequently.”
By making sure Sanjukta’s team evaluates their roadmap often, and leverages creative thinking as an approach, they not only keep their product roadmap supple, making it easier to adapt, but they continue to push the boundaries of what can be done with innovative, divergent, and diverse ideas.