Bottom Line — 5 year roadmaps are as successful as fast weight loss programs.
I’ve been a software product manager for more than 6 years and wrote 5-year roadmaps for my products several times. And once again, I’ll be wrong.
The technology surrounding software changes at a ridiculous rate.
People had terrible streaks of predicting the future.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” -Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.
Or how about this one:
“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”-An executive at 20th- century fox, 1946
I tell you about these poor predictions to make you feel better about your own forecasting. The world changes so much that you’d be a fool to take a rigid mind-view too far into the future.
The problem with a 5-year roadmap is assuming you control the entire product team and its direction. You don’t.
I recall several times when I had planned user stories that were abruptly interrupted when a developer left the company.
Developers aren’t cashiers that you can train in a day. They are knowledge workers. If you have domain-specific software, it will take months to get them up to speed to understand the workflows before they become effective in developing.
Three things can happen to your teammates: They leave the company, get laid off, or they’re transferred to another team. All three will derail your timelines.
When you lose a developer, a lot of knowledge leaves with them. You have an unexpected gap you can’t fill in a short amount of time. All those wonderful 5 year plans you make take a detour.
As a product manager, you might control the direction of the team, but you don’t control the team resources. The company and its executives say what ultimately goes.
So what’s realistic in the tech world? I’d say a 2-year plan. A 2-year forecast can usually be predicted with some certainty. It’s enough time to put in features that will make a difference to the product.
Still, be more realistic and make solid plans for one year out. You’ll be able to deliver if your company releases software at least once per year.
In the end, don’t be too hard on yourself. The world is a hectic place. There’s depression, alcoholism, accidents, and various of other unexpected bombshells that hit companies and people. Teams aren’t going to stay the same. Keep proper perspective. Know that fluidity is normal and handle changes to scope as they come.