Integrate your product roadmap to Azure Boards

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Alessandro

This post was contributed by Andre Theus from ProductPlan

Product roadmaps and backlogs are two areas where product managers spend a lot of their time. They work in lock-step to bring exciting solutions to the market as quickly as possible.

Together they let you create a compelling visual roadmap that’s powered by the detailed data stored in your backlog.

Let’s look at the unique characteristics of these two distinct tools and how they combine forces to create even more value.

Backlogs vs. Strategic roadmaps

Backlogs and roadmaps are complementary elements of the product planning and development process, but they’re not interchangeable.

A backlog is a repository for development tasks, including bugs, features, enhancements and behind-the-scenes improvements. It’s a searchable, sortable list of tactical items that the product development team may be tasked with in the future. And when handled in a sophisticated management tool such as Azure Boards, backlog items can also be assigned levels of effort. Then grouped into larger epics, assigned to individuals, and have their completion progress tracked.

On the other hand, a strategic roadmap is, well, strategic. Although individual features may appear on the roadmap, it is generally focused on higher-level themes and goals. Roadmaps are directional, informative and used for communication and alignment, rather than offering specific instructions and deadlines.

To provide adequate flexibility, basing the roadmap on themes instead of features provides valuable flexibility, since it’s not certain how far product development teams will get during execution. Even though individual backlog items may shift in and out based on progress made and ongoing learning, the themes persist. There’s also not always a 1:1 relationship between roadmaps and backlogs; in some cases, there may even be multiple backlogs linked to a single roadmap.

It might be tempting to have the backlog guide product decisions. But the tactical nature of backlog items doesn’t provide adequate context to make those decisions. Instead, the organization’s strategy and goals should be the driver, with backlog items assigned based on their alignment with those overarching objectives.

A roadmap’s purpose

Roadmaps are intended to provide a strategic, big-picture view of where the product is headed. When well-constructed, they’re a powerful tool that is used for many purposes both within the organization and with external stakeholders.

Grouping stories and features by themes builds a logical narrative to ensure there’s real value with each release and not just incremental improvements spread randomly across the product. With a single view, everyone can see what’s currently in the pipeline and when they can expect it.

The roadmap is also not an exhaustive laundry list of features and enhancements. It’s the output of prioritization exercises to align actions with strategic company goals. Therefore, most items on the strategic roadmap should have corresponding success metrics that tie back to the KPIs defined by the strategy.

Product roadmaps are the ultimate communication tool

Product roadmaps are really all about communication—they’re the perfect canvas for encapsulating the priorities and direction of the product. Roadmaps can be used by a variety of audiences for different purposes. Most often this is to build consensus and get buy-in from stakeholders since a clear and visual medium is the most effective way to put the product’s direction into perspective.

Whether to include dates and how to use them in the roadmap is often debatable, but with a sophisticated roadmapping tool, such as ProductPlan, their inclusion can be turned on and off. It depends on which audience you want the roadmap to be shared with. Internal executives and product development teams can see exactly when things are expected, while sales teams and external viewers get a more limited view to avoid setting false expectations or creating disappointed customers if things slip.

Filtering for different audiences can also extend to the specific roadmap items and categories, such as limiting internal infrastructure and technical debt-related items to only the relevant audiences.

When roadmaps are created with dedicated tools versus a simple slide deck, they can also easily incorporate a rough level of effort estimates and real-time progress toward completion. These estimates allow a proper resource allocation and a more accurate view of when things will ship.

Aside from everything I mentioned above, it’s important to remember the value that roadmaps can bring to the product development team as well.

Individual backlog items don’t really tell you why something is being prioritized for the upcoming sprint. Then compare that to the opportunity that a roadmap review provides. Your team will have context on where they’re heading and how the sprint items will get them there.

Starting every sprint with a roadmap review (rather than a list of backlog items) provides some background to the team so everyone knows where we’re heading and how the sprint items will get us there.

How to use your backlog

The product backlog is the single source of truth for stories, bugs, and features—it is the grand repository for everything that could be done to improve the product and where product feedback turns into action. But because it’s so comprehensive, it’s far too unwieldy to use for strategic planning.

Instead, the backlog is where the execution of that strategy gets serious and the details and specificity left-out at the roadmapping level are embraced and enhanced. It’s where granular estimates reside, implementation details are welcomed, and there are no bad ideas—just ones that never get prioritized.

Although backlogs may be vast, their focus and value are really on the short-term objectives of the product development team.

Backlogs and roadmaps inform each other

When a backlog is first created, its initial items in the backlog come from the roadmap—these are the things you know you want to complete based on the strategy. Then the backlog is where everything is broken down into tasks and assigned to individuals.

After the product is released, feedback from customers will generate additional backlog items on a continual basis. Backlog grooming is essential! Remember, not all feedback is created equal to facilitate the efficient movement of items to the next stage.

Finally, the backlog can eventually be used as an input to the strategic roadmapping process.

Make the most of the ProductPlan and Azure Boards integration

ProductPlan’s integration with Azure Boards significantly simplifies how to create a product roadmap and then keeps it up-to-date in real-time. To get started, ProductPlan and Azure Boards need a one-time synchronization, and then your epics and stories can be quickly imported into ProductPlan and connected to the product roadmap.

Once this connection is made, the completion status within Azure Boards will also be visible within the ProductPlan roadmap. This makes it simple to keep both platforms aligned over time as changes are made.

With ProductPlan’s private sharing feature, a link to the roadmap can be sent to stakeholders or even embedded in Azure Boards. You can share it broadly within the organization without requiring each person to get a ProductPlan license. Plus, everyone will always see the latest version, instead of sending out a slide deck which can get stale and out-of-date very quickly while remaining in circulation indefinitely. This self-service access also means you’ll never be asked for the “latest roadmap” again. Anyone with access can also subscribe to receive roadmap notifications so they’re alerted anytime something changes. This is particularly helpful to keep stakeholders engaged and also saves product managers from having to constantly communicate updates.

Individuals can also click on roadmap items to drill down and see additional details, such as progress made. You can also link back to Azure Boards and see the specific items tied to that roadmap item.

Ready to unlock the power of a beautiful, visual roadmap linked to the robust repository of your product backlog? Learn more about ProductPlan and Azure Boards integration today!

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Alessandro Segala

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