There are some days when I feel like I’m living in the twilight zone. I can remember when people didn’t think product backlogs were a good idea because they didn’t provide enough information. Now I commonly see people suggesting that you shouldn’t use product backlogs because they get too big.
The same thing goes for roadmaps, which have always struck me as a better alternative to a Gantt chart, yet it’s becoming fashionable to suggest that roadmaps are harmful as well.
Basecamp avoids both roadmaps and backlogs in favor of organizing work into six-week cycles where they decide what to do in the next six-week cycle at the beginning of the cycle based on what they know at that point, not what they planned six months ago.
Contrast that with large organizations that brag that “they’re agile” yet rely on roadmaps that disconcertingly resemble a Gantt chart and desire healthy backlogs that project things out at least a quarter, if not longer.
Perhaps there’s value in both approaches in the right context. Basecamp is a relatively small organization led by people with a specific outlook on product development.
Most large organizations have built-in dysfunctional communication channels because they are large organizations and desire the false sense of security that a fleshed-out roadmap and backlog seem to provide. It doesn’t matter if it’s accurate, just that it’s there. Of course, some people unrealistically expect accuracy in these projections as well.
So do you need roadmaps and backlogs? It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and your context.
Here are some resources that provide different perspectives on the matter. I hope they help you determine what will work for you. If you have any input on the matter, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The basecamp way of creating and managing products
Basecamp thinks and works differently than most fast-growing SaaS companies… and it’s completely fine with that. Jason Fried, Co-Founder and CEO, is known for his unique take on building products and companies and joins ProductCollective in this INDUSTRY Interview where no questions are off the table. One of the things Basecamp does differently is to avoid roadmaps and backlogs.
Basecamp’s head of strategy, Ryan Singer, sat down with the Rework Podcast to discuss his new book, Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters. The book is a culmination of Ryan’s 15+ years working at Basecamp and explains how small teams of designers and programmers can ship great work in six-week cycles. Ryan’s book is about product development and software, but many of its ideas around working with the right level of abstraction, embracing constraints, and making smart bets are applicable to other creative pursuits.
We Need to Rethink the Product Backlog
Joe Daniels suggests that product people are ignoring the elephant in the room when it comes to product backlogs.
“A product backlog is not a productive or effective way of building a product.”
Joe goes on to suggest that if you tweak how you think about backlogs – as a feedback library – you can make them much more effective.
Product Roadmap vs Product Backlog
The folks at ProductPlan have a different view on the usefulness of the product roadmap and product backlog. Given that they build a product road mapping tool, this is understandable. Even with that admitted self-interest, their perspective is helpful to see another perspective and for understanding how the two tools can work together.
Their take: the product roadmap and product backlog serve distinct but complementary roles in helping a product manager shepherd a product from early strategic conceptualization all the way through development and market release. The product roadmap communicates high-level strategic objectives and priorities, whereas the product backlog is a list of tasks that will serve the roadmap’s strategic plan.
Why product roadmaps are so important
Thiago Müller suggests that product roadmaps are important because, when used properly, they can help your team build a shared understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish. According to Thiago, product roadmaps help your team collaboratively gather the pieces of work and have a view of long term desired outcomes that afterward are going to be broken down into sprints, not the other way round.