Public versus Private Roadmaps, Lessons from Trello

Giff Constable product management

Should you make some or all of your roadmap public? If yes, then what are some of the considerations? I had to answer this question recently. To hone my thinking, I reached out to Justin Gallagher, who’s been the head of product management for Trello since their earliest days. 

As a general rule, enterprise software companies have typically maintained a version of their roadmap that can be shared with prospects and customers. Consumer companies have tended to be more tight-lipped about where they are going.

Trello is interesting because they have elements of both an enterprise and a consumer company. In the early days, they actually created a public Trello board that shared their full product roadmap. However, something made them pull back.

Justin explained, “At the beginning, we thought it would be useful to be transparent about where we were going and showcase the product at the same time. It worked well and was an especially nice way to connect with our early enthusiasts.”

However, Trello started running into some difficulties with the public roadmap. “Our mistake was that we let people vote. When we shipped something that didn’t match the voting, we were accused of not listening to our customers. This started to cloud our feature launches.” 

During this time, Trello was in growth mode and that meant expanding their customer segments. With the public roadmap, they faced a real challenge: the power users who frequented the roadmap and passionately argued for specific features weren’t the highest-priority design target. This only got more difficult as Trello scaled and the number of people looking at the roadmap grew.

“The dynamic really changed,” Justin said. “The roadmap became impersonal and ripe for miscommunication.”

At first, Trello adjusted the roadmap to make it more backwards looking. Instead of futures, they shared what they had recently shipped and what was currently in flight. Justin said, “The trouble was this approach was less exciting and useful. We could point people to it, but it didn’t give the same level of insight and didn’t give us the same connection to our enthusiasts.”

There was another reason why Trello stopped talking about futures: PR. Media attention was fueling a decent amount of their growth. “You get less excitement and PR around a launch if you’ve been talking about a feature for a while,” Justin said. 

They chose to keep the backwards-looking public board. However, alongside that board, they created a private document that did cover futures and which could be used with enterprise customers.

Justin explained, “Our enterprise customers are interested in knowing where we are going and how we think about things. We created a roadmap document that our customer-facing people can talk through, and we update this quarterly. We seek to balance giving a sense of direction without over-committing. In particular, we have to be careful about dates. It’s better to not share anything at all than to disappoint someone.”

“It’s better to not share anything at all than to disappoint someone.”

Justin Gallagher, Trello

Trello solves this concern by intentionally going up a level of granularity. “We group things into three categories: in progress, next up, and exploring.” They also were very careful with word choices, definitions, and disclaimers on the document; hence words like “exploring” and “vetting”. It also helps that Atlassian sales reps don’t close deals based on future features.

Where their early public roadmap had become impersonal and ripe for miscommunication, now they had a curated document with someone from their side explaining and translating the roadmap. “It’s been a great way to explain the ‘why’ behind changes,” Justin said.

None of this means that Trello is secretive to the rest of the world. The team recently published a “future of” blog post. They are also working towards the kind of forward looking roadmap Atlassian uses for their other cloud products (JIRA, Confluence, etc). 

If you click through, you’ll see that they cover Shipped, In the Works, Coming Soon, and Future. The further out something is, the more vague the dates get, and they never get more granular than a quarter. Future has a ring of a promise about it, so I’m guessing they do not put their more experimental ideas on that page. 

Below are some additional thoughts and tips on this topic:

Tips if you want to have a public or semi-public roadmap

  • Don’t just share items/features; create a narrative about the why and the vision though blog posts, podcasts, or video
  • Design how you present ideas to protect future flexibility
  • Don’t share something if there is a high risk of disappointing the viewer
  • Don’t give customers the impression that they have control over the strategic decisions of the company
  • Use a roadmap as a reason to have more conversations with customers, not as a wall between you and the customer
  • Have product management/design piggyback sales conversations around the roadmap to listen and, if invited, to help
  • Create mutual agreement with sales that deals should not be closed based on future features or deadlines, and have a mutually agreed upon process for ruling on exceptions

For Enterprise Companies

Reasons to share a roadmap

  • Builds prospect and customer confidence by exciting them with your innovative ideas and reinforcing that the product is getting continual investment and will be around for a long time 
  • Gives the sales team another conversation starter, a chance to differentiate, and creates an opportunity for the product team to listen
  • Can deflect potential competition (side note: in the 90s, I saw SAP use pre-announcing a feature — by years even! — to deadly effect: “We’re going to build this, so you don’t need to buy from that other company”)
  • Forces you to really sharpen your thinking about what is important and how to communicate it

Reasons not to share a roadmap:

  • If you have a lot of uncertainty in your roadmap with risky ideas or company/market volatility
  • If you’re trying to use splashier product launches as a marketing tactic (think Apple)
  • If you’ve got a copycat competitor who seems to be out-executing, out-shipping you, but isn’t as creative as your team

For consumer companies

Reasons to share a roadmap

  • If you want a tool to engage your enthusiasts, make them feel heard, set their expectations, and create a narrative. If so, don’t just put a document out but rather figure out ways to engage these customers alongside.
  • Can reinforce that you’re the fastest moving, most innovative company in the space (if you are)

Reasons to not share a roadmap

  • Consumer bases are cantankerous, prone to drama, and inevitable misunderstandings can lead to constant (and exhausting) social media tempests-in-teacups
  • The upside to a public roadmap is smaller compared to enterprise; fewer consumers will take the time to absorb and understand it