Successful and sustainable digital products come from a blend of innovation and iteration. Yet most design teams and their digital product roadmaps are out of balance.

Chris How
Chris How
26th July 2021

Start-ups over-index on big and new ideas at the cost of accumulating design and technical debt. Established organisations play it safe tending to focus on incremental optimisation and in doing so put themselves under threat from disruptors and challengers. Of course, these are generalisations. But ones I repeatedly see working across sectors with businesses of all sizes and at varying stages of digital maturity.

What does your product roadmap look like?

As any Product Owner will tell you, prioritising what to spend time doing is the challenge that gives them sleepless nights. Finding the time to explore potentially bigger and more valuable ideas is not a problem exclusive to digital product management. As many a President will confirm.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important
Dwight Eisenhower
The most important thing you need to do [in this job] is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking
Barack Obama

Immediate problems tend to shout loudly for attention. Yet making too many knee jerk changes and firefighting one crisis after another quickly leads to a product roadmap that is shortsighted and unstrategic.

Innovative ideas need time to find their voice. Being further away from the frenzy of delivery they can be muffled and easier to ignore.

A way to ensure balance in your product portfolio is to map out the work you have in play. Even better if this is put on display (not hidden in a PowerPoint deck) and updated as a living document.

There are many frameworks for plotting your activities within a product portfolio. The two I most often use are:

The Lean Enterprise innovation portfolio map. This moves the progress of initiatives through four gates (explore, exploit, sustain and retire) with the option to kill any that fails to meet the success criteria.

Lean Enterprise Innovation Portfolio Map

The portfolio map from Stratygyzer. This plots initiatives in two quadrants – explore and exploit – with an axis in each for risk and return.

Portfolio Map from Stratygyzer

If you’re working in a product team that doesn’t have a holistic view of your product portfolio then I’d recommend you run a workshop to create one.

How to get your product teams looking over different horizons?

Product portfolios and roadmaps are ideal for showing the quantity and movement of initiatives through stages of production readiness. But, how do you set up your product teams to work across these different spaces simultaneously?

One way (but certainly not the only way) is to rotate your design squads to give them focussed time on either futures, features or fixes.

Futures, Features and Fixes Innovation Diagram

Let’s look at these three types of design activities and how to set your team up to tackle them.

Futures – finding the next big idea

Companies known for bringing new products and services to market are united by one common trait. They put considerable effort into the research and development of their next big idea. Piloting multiple concepts and placing numerous bets is a proven strategy for successful product innovation.

This is the time to explore big and radical ideas using low risk and low-cost techniques. You want to increase the number of ideas generated to gain confidence as quickly as possible in which ones to pursue.

This is a divergent phase. The number of ideas should trump their fidelity. For the team, a ‘yes and …’ attitude should replace ‘yes but … ‘. You’re looking to initially test ideas for their desirability with viability coming later.

The futures team should have a wide remit. Initiatives should explore unmet customer needs, potential new markets, different business models, emerging technology etc. Techniques such as Google Venture style Design Sprints, Wizard of Oz prototypes, and proposition testing fit into the toolkit for exploring potential futures.

Keep in mind these are learning projects with disposable prototypes. Success comes from finding out what not to spend effort on as much as identifying promising concepts to take forward.

Many organisations consider the skills for successful innovation needing a separate team of superstar designers. I disagree.

Setting up an innovation lab sounds impressive and a powerful marker of organisational intent. Most often, the creation of a separate innovation department divorces it from the realities of the business and leads to an indulgent form of technical and design theatre.

Another common approach is to employ an agency to inject a dose of innovation. The benefits of extra capacity and capabilities should be weighed up against a lack of detailed business context and the ability to see the idea through to fruition. In my experience, it’s much better to have an agency working alongside members of an in-house team where techniques for innovation can be gained through coaching, immersion and practice.

Innovation is exhausting. Moving your team in and out of this space gives them a chance to recuperate and come back refreshed. Having this secondment timeboxed also helps to focus minds on rapid creation and concept testing rather than over-engineering a single solution.

Features – improving the product

The feature team is the production line for your product. Their purpose is to take a brief, create designs that solve the problem outlined, and deliver something new into the interface.

This team is responsible for incremental but sizable changes. Typically the initiatives for this team have enough definition to outline the problem to tackle and the desired outcomes to achieve. A good brief should give space for creativity and be a problem to solve not a solution to implement.

This is the world of backlogs, user stories and user acceptance testing (UAT). Confidence in the designs comes from evaluative methods such as usability testing sessions and multivariate testing (MVT).

A successful features team has an eye for crafting solutions. The work is elevated through polishing the details in the layout, interactions and copy. To help with this the team should be carrying out regular crits and showing their work early and often to stakeholders. Project meetings should include discussions on performance, accessibility and success metrics.

Digital product teams live in a fast-changing world. The growing expectation of your audience, opportunities afforded through new technology and shifts in the competitive landscape all require a nimble delivery focussed unit.

Fixes – polishing your product

Trust from an audience is hard-won and easily lost. In usability testing sessions of existing websites, you often get to witness the death of a thousand cuts. A typo here, a broken link there, inconsistent design patterns and slow loading pages.

Accumulated technical and design debt can unintentionally come to define the experience of your product.

The team doing fixes, maintenance and enhancements should have a focus on velocity and autonomy. In this activity stream, there should be little need for meetings or protracted discussions. Bugs to fix and production debt to remove should be prioritised against set criteria and continually deployed when done.

This is vital work to do but it shouldn’t be the only work you do. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re doing lots of work just because your time is filled with activity.

A note on rotation

In the futures, features and fixes diagram there is a suggestion that 50% join and 50% remain in the team for each activity. This is to ensure a level of continuity and handover. It’s most important within the futures and features teams, where work started, may not be finished or will benefit with further iteration.

Rotation allows the team a regular change in pace and exposure to all the activities required to develop and maintain a digital product.

Even small digital teams can use the approach to gain balance in the work they do. You could divide a week between a few days spent on the future and features and a day doing fixes. Or the whole team could do a week of features, then futures, then fixes. The exact slices of time in each activity will depend on your setup. The important thing is to have some time for each activity.

Three activities that benefit from different approaches

Digital products need teams tackling ‘fixes, features and futures’. Over-focusing in one area will be detrimental to another.

Each activity requires a subtly different approach and mindset. Teams gain in productivity when time is allocated to each activity as it provides focus and avoids context switching.

This is one way to approach managing a team’s activities and product portfolio. I’d be interested in carrying on the conversation to find out how you ensure a polished product backed up with a flow of new initiatives?