By    |    September 10, 2020
How do you create and execute a value-driven, forward-looking technology plan? Clay Johnson can tell you.

Clay Johnson, PEAK6 principal product manager, knows a thing or two about how to “reboot product” to maximize value and timely opportunity. Clay honed his experience in strategic IT product management at a number of leading companies, and brought that forward-looking philosophy to PEAK6 last year. Here’s how Clay and his team approach their product roadmap.

First, what products?

At PEAK6 Capital Management, our tech products enable our trading desk: applications, the platform those applications run on, and the underlying data and technology that powers them.

How the roadmap works:

In the past, we’d release a couple of products per year, then do maintenance on those products. Our product roadmap today offers a live view of the plan covering multiple independent products. It lays out that ‘we’re going to release these items in these time frames.’ It’s owned by a group of product managers working with their technology teams. Dependencies impact the timing of the product release, but we coordinate those dependencies across the team. You can see what’s next, what’s further out, what’s coming—broken out by teams. This approach allows the entire PEAK6 firm to see all product plans and delivery team progress. We leverage our roadmap to guide internal product team discussions and external reviews; to capitalize on opportunities as they arise; and stay in sync across delivery efforts.

Measuring success through value:

Our roadmap answers the question: ‘How can we execute to provide timely business value?’ while a classic roadmap—typically put together once a year—is answering, ‘Is delivery on time and on budget?’ Success is measured by whether you’ve completed the roadmap items. This historical approach tends to lack a consistent assessment of whether the things being delivered are providing value.

Why do this?

Our co-founder, Jenny Just, was the catalyst for adopting this approach; she wanted to do things differently to improve on what was working well, and apply some leading practices that had been emerging in the field. A common challenge IT leaders face is: How do you put together a single plan for the organization, versus many people doing a lot of disparate things?

How do you create and use a value-driven, forward-looking technology plan, rather than a tech plan that addresses primarily the things that need to be fixed?

Achieving alignment across teams:

One thing that matters is to have a consistent, consolidated view of the roadmap day to day. Any distance, physical or temporal, between roadmaps creates switching costs and introduces discrepancies. We make sure we share the same philosophy about how to think about product definition and how to prioritize value delivery. That’s done through collaborative learning and coaching, and sharing ideas among the product management group.

Advice to others:

First, you need to understand the user base that you’re providing technology for and know what success looks like for them, to deliver the right technology. Second, you need to have feedback loops in place from users, so that you’re not losing touch with that cycle of response and adjustment. Third, you to prioritize what is most critical and say no to what’s not. It’s too easy to fall into a cycle of finding and fixing problems, which can wash away your ability to discover opportunities and go after them. Finally, product and technology need to be in lockstep, understanding the needs, constraints and ideas of the other.

Problems occur when product and technology become disconnected and pursue different individual goals, or when product management dictates to tech.

If tech doesn’t understand the product value and user context, they can end up solving the wrong problems, for example, optimizing the performance of parts of the application that, no matter how cool, aren’t meaningful to the business.

We understand that the needs of users are more important than sticking to a roadmap schedule. Adjustments to our plans have focused on our users’ needs and even regulatory changes. Prioritizing our users and business metrics forces collaboration across workstreams. That alignment has allowed our teams to coordinate and deploy with few dependency issues.

When it’s time to reprioritize:

As we’ve shifted market regimes, we’ve made rapid adjustments in delivery. We deprioritized longer-runway items and focused on short-term needs. Our focus on ad-hoc communication ensures we address dependencies as soon as possible. The focus on outcomes also allows us to de-scope expected deliverables, instead of cutting corners to deliver by a specific date, or alternately, increase the scope.

Revisiting old problems:

We don’t just do something and set it aside. We revisit, rework and fix old problems. It’s similar to gardening. You have to continually go back, dig things out, prune stuff, and ask yourself: Are people enjoying the garden and getting value out of it?

Best part:

The best part is that the product management team challenges your ideas, which helps you create better ideas. Or you aren’t satisfied with the first version and keep iterating on it. Or you’re forced to admit that it may not be worth doing because it won’t work, or that there are better ideas out there. With every consideration, we ask ourselves: Is it usable? Is it valuable? Is it feasible? These levers push and pull on each other. Having a group that informs and challenges each other helps us collaborate across and within our teams.