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Strategic Product Roadmap Secrets: Bridge the Gap Between Company Offerings and Customer Needs

Leveraging the gap between unmet customer needs and your company’s capabilities establishes a strategic product roadmap to drive innovation and growth.

John Bernero

March 23 rd 2021 | 10 Minute Read

Being responsible for creating the plan for your company’s next big product has got to be one of the scariest feelings there is. All eyes are on you to define the products that will revolutionize the market and reinvigorate your bottom line. The CEO wants to accelerate revenue growth. Your coworkers (and you!) could be out of a job if you’re wrong. If that’s not enough to keep you awake at 3 a.m., I don’t know what is. How to begin?

You might consider starting by soliciting ideas from your internal team and your existing customers. You might look at your existing product lines and see which ones are ready for a refresh. While these approaches may help you uncover some useful product ideas, they will most likely deliver only small incremental improvements to your company’s bottom line. Not the big improvement you’re looking for and need.

If you want more than incremental improvements, you need a different approach. Rather than just asking customers what they want and what your team thinks they can do, a better approach is to investigate the “gap” that exists between your customers’ needs/desires and your company’s current capabilities. This is a “target-rich environment” for opportunities that can provide your company sustainable growth and true innovation.

New trends and technologies are constantly influencing both your company and your market. As your customer needs and available technologies evolve, so too must your company’s capabilities.

Surgeons used to place a hip implant using manual tools and simple X-rays. Today, they use active surgical guidance systems and robotics that assist the surgeon with precision and accuracy. Companies that adopted new technology and pivoted are thriving, but those who didn’t are seeing their business challenged.

Let’s review how you can leverage the gap between your customers’ needs/desires and your company’s current capabilities to drive innovation and growth.

Reality check: customer needs don’t always fit within your company’s current capabilities.

Your internal team is likely designed to service your current customer base with your current product types. When they engage with customers for various reasons, your team is likely to uncover unmet needs that require new technologies, skillsets, or business models. A “gap” will appear as the difference between what you currently do and what it takes to fulfill your customers’ unmet needs.

The trick is to not let internal assumptions, fear of the unknown, or your subconscious get in the way of meeting your customers’ needs. It is critical to assess the opportunities objectively so your teams can transition from a “we’re not in that business / we’ve never done that before” mindset to one focused on providing a product offering that more closely aligns with evolving customer needs.

If you discredit or ignore these customer needs, you also run the risk of ignoring the market-changing innovations your company needs to grow and thrive.

So how do you overcome the bias that holds your company back from leapfrogging your competition?

Establish a strategic product roadmap to bridge the gap between company and customer

When planning user needs/customer research, do not follow the traditional “voice of the customer” (VOC) process. Unfortunately, when you ask your customer what they need next, you rarely uncover new innovative ideas. Humans are highly adaptable and may not realize they have a problem, let alone articulate a solution. Your customers don’t know what they don’t know.

Forget the VOC and design your research to be outcome-driven. Commit to soliciting (and balancing) the input from both internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders include company execs, R&D, marketing, sales, customer support, etc. External stakeholders include purchasing agents, users, installation, service, maintenance personnel, etc.

You need a holistic view of your stakeholders to be able to uncover their needs and desires, most importantly the unmet needs your customers don’t realize they have.

Outcome-driven techniques allow your team to see the larger picture: the primary motivations of each stakeholder. For example, what is the purchase decision process? Which stakeholders are involved? What do these stakeholders care about most when making the decision? It is critical to observe users in their environment in order to understand the jobs they are trying to accomplish and uncover product opportunities and pain points.

You might consider introducing crude concepts to evaluate crazy new ideas. These crude concepts will encourage users to be open to alternate solutions and suspend reality. If you can help stakeholders visualize what a better future could look like, you will be amazed at what you will discover.

Once you’ve evaluated your stakeholders’ needs, map their jobs, desired outcomes, and pain points onto a product journey map. When done well, this approach is likely to uncover innovation opportunities and help internal stakeholders empathize with your customers.

Navigate your internal teams toward a common goal, even if it means change

Close collaboration across your multiple internal stakeholder groups is critical. Once unmet customer needs are identified, expose them to internal stakeholders. Have discussions on how your company can evolve to meet those needs and begin laying out how this could look using a strategic product roadmap. Teams that are part of the roadmapping process will quickly align toward a common vision and drive the changes required that enable you to better serve current and future customers.

Without a shared understanding of your unmet customer needs, your team will likely focus on making your current products and services just “better” versions of your current offerings. R&D will focus on a new technology trend to enhance performance. Marketing will seek to gain parity with their competition by adding incremental product features. Manufacturing will focus on production efficiency or other business improvements. And sales will ask for additional product versions to expand their offering. These solutions are ingrained in the DNA of these teams, and without direction, will take over your product development. While these activities can and should be a component of your business, they will never deliver the types of innovative solutions that can take it to the next level.

To align your teams, pose a similar question two ways: 1) how can our company meet unmet customer needs, and 2) how would a start-up do it differently? The answers to these critical questions will help your team will quickly realize what is holding your company back.

As teams share ideas and thoughts more openly, their input will undoubtedly influence the final product roadmap. Stakeholders who feel heard will feel empowered to transcend organizational silos. Conversations become less about each team and more about how product decisions will ultimately impact your customers. Teams will arrive at a deeper appreciation for the process as they come to understand how their work directly connects with customers.

Other benefits of using this process are the financial and cultural improvements that result within organizations. A roadmap unites internal stakeholders around actionable plans and creates meaningful connections with current and future customers. These connections are the foundation of sustained competitive advantage.

Watch for what can derail your well-informed product roadmap

Excessive Risk Avoidance

Mid-level managers are typically responsible for implementing plans for incoming product ideas. However, they can be incentivized to “play it safe” by focusing on reducing project-related risks. They are usually in mid-career and more likely to be promoted with an on-time and on-budget product launch, even if the product doesn’t meet all of its requirements.

Consequently, most of their approaches will resemble what worked on past successful projects, i.e. the ones that got them great performance reviews. Focusing excessively on risk avoidance not only limits which future products are created and how they are developed but more importantly, limits the potential growth of your company.

A well-informed roadmap will allow your teams to take appropriate and necessary risk and avoid “playing it safe” for easy short-term gains.

Chasing the competition

Although your competitor’s latest product launch gives you a glimpse of what your customers may be wanting next, using it as your next product’s benchmark is short-sighted.

Instead, your team needs to keep abreast of new technologies and trends both inside your market space and beyond. And while some of the technologies or trends in adjacent markets may seem farfetched, they may eventually influence your business or customers in ways you don’t expect if you ignore them.

Staying on top of future trends is an integral part of your strategic roadmap process. Teams with an eye on long-term trends will be more prepared to quickly address unmet customer needs.

Establish a roadmap for sustainable growth

If you want your business to grow and thrive, and not just “keep afloat”, you need to create a strategic product roadmap that is informed by the “gap” that exists between your customers’ unmet needs and your company’s current capabilities. If you don’t know what the “gap” is, your team is probably working on the wrong thing.

A clear understanding of the “gap” enables you to create a strategic product roadmap that will connect your business with current and future customers as well as provide a shared vision for your organization. Your internal teams will work together towards common goals that deliver long-term, sustainable growth and superior profitability.

About the Author

John Bernero – M3 COO / Director of Engineering