Roadmap Management

What’s the Difference Between a Product Roadmap & Release Plan?

Product roadmap vs release plan & best practices for product management

Product managers plan everything from long-term strategy to short-term project implementation while keeping both business and technical teams in sync. There are many different tools and artefacts to help them meet these challenges, but two of the most popular examples are product roadmaps and release plan forecasts. Unfortunately, the two terms are often conflated.

Let’s take a look at the key differences between product roadmaps and release plans, as well as how they work together to keep everyone in sync and on track.

Internal product roadmaps and release plans are essential tools that product managers use to keep everyone on track and in sync. Click To Tweet

What is a roadmap?

Before talking about the product roadmap in Jira software, let’s discuss the idea in general. A product roadmap in an agile environment is a high-level visual summary of a product’s themes, epics, and goals. As a single source of truth, the artefact is intended to unite multiple teams behind a common goal and ensure that everyone is on the same page. They are focused on the “why” and strategic vision more than the “how” and detailed features.

Product roadmap helps serve several purposes:

  • They secure buy-in from executive stakeholders.
  • They communicate the product vision and goals across the organization.
  • They provide a reference to keep the entire team on track.
  • They provide a rough time frame for achieving certain goals.
Roadmap portal for JSD

Roadmap Portal for JSD Example – Source: Amoeboids

Public roadmaps enable customers to suggest ideas and provide feedback. For instance, Roadmap Portal for Jira software (JSD) enables companies to collaborate with customers to get their votes and feedback through Jira Service Desk. Customers can sign in with their Jira software (JSD) accounts and all roadmap items are dynamically populated based on JQL queries.

What is a Release Plan?

Release plans are detailed plans for the upcoming features, enhancements, and fixes. In essence, the release plan breaks down the next smallest chunk of the product roadmap in Jira to build and release to customers. It is focused on the “how” in terms of implementation details rather than the “why” that product roadmaps cover.

Release plans have a narrower focus:

  • They convert relevant product backlog items into action items for developers.
  • They ensure the development team always knows what’s next.
  • They keep the product roadmap on schedule for upcoming releases.
Confluence Dashboard

Release Planning on Confluence page – Source: Atlassian

Modern product management resources support agile release planning by collecting product requirements in one spot and linking to issues for easy access, as well as enabling stakeholders to check on the project status at any time. These features ensure that nothing falls through the cracks and minimize time-consuming stakeholder meetings to update on the status.

What are the key differences between roadmaps and release plans?

A product roadmap communicates an overview of a product strategy that culminates in the release, and release plans are tactical documents that outline the process of its execution. In other words, the roadmap explains the why, and covers a time frame of a year or more. It is often shared with the stakeholders of the product as it serves as a high-level summary of the product lifecycle. On the other hand, what the release plan communicates are details of product release. Product roadmaps vary in this regard, as release plans are in force for a few months at most, and serve as an internal document for development and product teams. As released products should meet the requirements and expectations of customers, a release usually consists of one or more sprints of nearly the same size in terms of estimated effort (number of days/hours). What is covered in these sprints is detailed by a release burndown chart that plots the remaining work at the end of every sprint against the ideal amount of effort.

How to use a roadmap in Jira?

Roadmaps offer an easy way to organise the project plan in a way that helps teams to manage their dependencies better. They also help in tracking progress, so that timely interventions can be made.

Team-level roadmaps make the process of planning large pieces of work easy, several months in advance. Their simple planning and dependency management features help teams visualize work and manage it better. Advanced version of roadmaps allows for the same planning and tracking, but over multiple teams.

How do I create a product roadmap in Jira?

Since roadmaps can only be created for existing projects, you either need to create a new Jira Software project or go to an existing project. In the sidebar of the (new or existing) project, click Roadmap. To see the roadmap option though, it needs to be enabled in the board setting first.

How do you write a roadmap?

Roadmaps usually include the entire lifecycle of the project and can span multiple years. The steps can differ from organization to organization, but the basic structure usually has the following elements:

  • Definition of the timeline and different phases of the project
  • A list of tasks, milestones, and dependencies
  • A Breakdown of work among teams and individual projects usually carried out through containers like swimlanes
  • Updating the roadmap with changes, requests, and other developments

The key characteristics of roadmaps and release plans

The agile software development cycle should begin with advanced roadmaps focus on a high level visual summary. Start with large themes that span the entire organization, break them down into initiatives that involve a common goal, and then break those down into epics that are large bodies of work that can be estimated with enough accuracy to be relevant to stakeholders (e.g., quarterly goals).

After securing buy-in for a product roadmap, the product manager can begin turning epics into user stories, or short requirements or requests written from the user standpoint. Most sprints aim for a release date every two weeks with several user stories pulled into development at the beginning of each sprint based on their estimated time and difficulty to complete.

The product roadmap should be updated as several major releases are made, to build context. In addition, users should be updated with each new release to keep them engaged—an especially important step when maintaining public roadmaps. Also, care should be taken to not use the release as a chance to clear the entire product backlog of features. Tools like Roadmap Portal for Jira software (JSD) simplify the process of keeping everything in sync with its use of JQL queries and Jira software (JSD) customers, and provide roadmap templates to get you started.

What are some common pitfalls of making a product roadmap?

Treating the roadmap like a document that contains directions to execute is the biggest mistake organizations make, as markets demand change very frequently. Having a frozen roadmap to focus on the product backlog when customer sentiment changes, can be disastrous. That’s why having a flexible attitude towards roadmaps is always essential. Some other mistakes of roadmaps are listed here.

Providing too much information in roadmaps is an issue that can be done away with easily – by viewing the product roadmap as a high-level, strategic tool. Product roadmaps are designed to show a vision for the product, including the themes that product teams work on, and the reason behind them. Ignoring this and presenting the roadmap as a series of tasks that need to be executed – like features to be developed and corresponding timelines, among others.

Not researching enough is another issue that happens during the creation of roadmaps, as product managers and team members who have worked on the project feel they ‘know’ what customers want. While having this gut instinct is important, relying on it alone isn’t enough to ensure desired benefits and success. The more research is conducted on the target market the better (but one needs to be aware of overdoing research, too). With the data points available, it is easier to make decisions on features to add and costs to accept in return.

Not aligning the product roadmap with organizational goals seems like a no-brainer, considering the pressure on product managers (and their team) to add more features to ensure constant customer delight. This can also happen if teams are focussed on clearing the product backlog. It is easy to get lost and focus on fringe features, and that’s why it is important for roadmaps to be aligned with the organization’s larger strategic goals.

Setting unrealistic expectations in product roadmaps can set teams up for failure. The roadmap should not be a list of execution details like estimated time frames, major stages, essential resources and interdepartmental dependencies, but should have an idea about these. By making sure the team can actually get the resources to stay on track of the roadmap, product managers can simplify the lives of their team members and improve morale.

Best Practices to Remember

Product roadmaps and default release plans can be powerful communication tools when used properly, but in some cases, they become an exercise in futility. Product managers must ensure that the basic roadmap is up to date at all times and communicate it with both business and technical teams rather than just update it as an afterthought following conversations.

Don’t forget to download an Example Product Roadmap to see how a real-life roadmap looks in terms of its epics and design.

Involve the Team

Product roadmaps are communications tools designed to get buy-in across the board and keep everyone on the same page. As such, it’s important to involve the entire team in both the creation and maintenance of advanced roadmaps. A new team member might feel left out, so it is a good idea to engage different team members at regular intervals to ensure that the roadmap is congruent with due dates and set expectations.

Make It Accessible

Product roadmaps should be highly accessible to both business and technical teams to access at any time. Oftentimes, it makes the most sense to put at least basic roadmaps of the product online where internal users can view it at any time. Public roadmaps may also be hosted online to keep customers and users in the loop, solicit their feedback, provide updates and lead the team to achieve product success.

Make It Flexible

Product roadmaps aren’t designed to be set in stone. Agile development is all about taking new information and using that information to inform the future development of advanced roadmaps. Multiple teams resort to writing “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” in bold letters across the top. However, it’s equally important to ensure that only one person, the product manager, can edit the roadmap.

Make It Visual

The most advanced roadmaps are visual representations of a company’s goals and how they relate to the passage of time. While PowerPoint and spreadsheets might get the job done, modern roadmapping tools like Atlassian’s product suite can help keep roadmaps and release plans in sync while presenting the information in a visible way that permits drill down.

Create Different Versions

Different product roadmaps may be necessary for different audiences. For instance, a developer-focused roadmap might include specific sprint dates for major releases whereas a marketing roadmap might be higher level and speak in months or quarters. That way, marketers aren’t overcommitting to deadlines and developers have the visibility they need.

The Bottom Line

Product roadmaps and release plans are two of the most important tools that product managers use to keep business and technical teams in sync and on track toward a common goal. By understanding the differences between the two, product managers can ensure that they are maximizing their utility and making the best use of their time.

Amoeboids provides a range of different Atlassian plugins to help solve common product management challenges for product owners. From managing Jira roadmaps to making the most of your confluence page, these plugins enable agile teams to manage their projects efficiently and work towards future progress.

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