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

Roadmap Release Plan

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

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

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

What is a Roadmap?

A product roadmap is a high-level visual summary of a product’s themes, epics and goals. As a single source of truth, the artifact is intended to unite business and technical 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 roadmaps serve several purposes:

  • They secure buy-in from executive stakeholders.
  • They communicate the 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 Example – Source: Amoeboids

Public roadmaps enable customers to suggest ideas and provide feedback. For instance, Roadmap Portal for JSD enables companies to collaborate with customers to get their votes and feedback through Jira Service Desk. Customers can sign in with their 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 to actually build and release to customers. It is focused on the “how” in terms of implementation details rather than the “why” that product roadmaps cover.

Download an Example Product Roadmap to see how a real-life roadmap looks in terms of its epics and design.

Release plans have a narrower focus:

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

Release Planning on Confluence – Source: Atlassian

Modern product management tools support 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 minimizes time-consuming stakeholder meetings to update on the status.

How They Fit Together

The software development cycle should begin with a high-level product roadmap. 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 every two weeks with a number of 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 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. Tools like Roadmap Portal for JSD simplify the process of keeping everything in sync with its use of JQL queries and JSD customers.

Best Practices to Remember

Product roadmaps and 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 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 the product roadmap. It’s a good idea to engage different team members at regular intervals to ensure that the roadmap is up-to-date 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 product roadmaps 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 and provide updates.

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 future development. In fact, many teams write “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” in bold letters across the top. However, it’s equally important to ensure that only one person, the product manager, has the ability to edit the roadmap.

Make It Visual

The best product 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 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 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.