This concept took me many years to uncover. When I finally did unlock it, the power was (and continues to be) incredible.
Here is the riddle: What time horizon is the optimal length for setting product strategy? Let me say it another way: When planning a product roadmap, how far in the future do you look, how often do you update it and how do you communicate it? That doesn't seem like such a hard question. However, in my experience it was.
When you sit down to answer this question, or series of questions, you may find yourself sitting down for a while and scratching your head. In the early years our product strategy was characterized by survival instinct. We had to have certain features or we would go out of business. That simplified things. At a certain size and complexity we began to need to manage multiple products, multiple engineering teams and eventually develop a methodology for both. I vividly recall sitting in a product strategy session some years ago and realizing that I could not answer the basic question posed above, which was, what is the optimal time horizon for product roadmaps? I stood up and announced to the group that I just did not know the answer and I was going on a journey to find it.
This question led to many book purchases, studying leading company product cadence and countless hours of discussions both internally and externally. The more I studied, the less clearly I saw a potential answer. I almost gave up and figured that nobody had a solution. Then one day it occurred to a group of us that there was not one answer, but in fact there were three. My problem was that I was looking for one perfect time period. However, the proper framework was to think in what I now call the "3 Time Slice Roadmap".
This breakthrough came as we were preparing for a big customer event in which we would be demonstrating new products and discussing our product roadmaps. I remember thinking that we needed to discuss our vision for a longer view of how benefits would be bought, sold and managed. I wanted to stretch the audience to think ahead five years from now. Topics like mobile, using big data sets to guide shopping and that multiple carrier marketplaces were exciting to us but a bit before their time. As we framed up the presentation, I had the thought that many customers did not want to hear a "future speak" presentation; they wanted to know when certain new reports would be available or a new communication capability would be optimized to run faster for their associates. I knew we needed to discuss the here and now, but also stretch the conversation out at the same time. Personally, the breakthrough was to begin to talk in both time horizons in the same conversation.
After that presentation, the concept of 3 slices of time became real while working with our product folks and engineering managers. We saw a pattern of key new features and functionalities that took a bit longer than one or two of our quarterly software release cycles. However, these items were not as grand as a five-year vision statement. These items were in between - bigger than one year, smaller than five years. And thus the "8-Quarter Roadmap" was born. This third time slice gave our team a framework to discuss and plan for larger items, build them into an ongoing plan, vet them with our customers and communicate them to our teams and partners.
In design there is a concept often referred to as "the power of threes". It so happens that the brain has a unique ability to compare and contrast three items simultaneously very well. A fourth item erodes the brain’s efficiency and ability, while only two items result in insufficient variety. We understood this principle from our design work on products, but had not applied it to the management of the products. Once we saw the power of threes as a way to manage products as well as design them, we unlocked an incredibly powerful tool. Here are our three time horizons:
- 4 Quarterly Releases. We publish and maintain a software release cadence of new releases four times per year. This is our most practical tool and we have been managing this way for years. We release several hundred new software features and updates every 90 days.
- 8-Quarter Roadmap. This is our plan for a rolling two-year time horizon. It allows us to think of bigger and bolder items, communicate them to customers and partners and still maintain a disciplined delivery expectation.
- 60 Month Plan, or what we refer to as "The Next Five Octobers". Our business tends to follow annual enrollment cycles for benefit plans that see heavy traffic in the October-December timeframe. Thinking about how that will look in five Octobers is a very fun as well as a very powerful way to communicate direction, test our continuously updating thesis, etc.
I hope our years of researching and discussing this concept help you plan your work. After a recent talk on this subject, I was sent a very nice note by someone who went home and shared the concept with their spouse, planned a retreat and came up with their family's "Next Five Aprils". They had a financial plan designed around the concept and a series of key family goals. I thought that was an incredibly innovative use of the power of thinking in 3 time slices.