Are you ready to go to Mars? If Elon Musk has his way you will soon.

I read an article the other day that laid out Musk’s idea to colonize Mars. In fact, he has an entire strategic roadmap detailing the process. The roughly 50-million-mile trip would involve a spaceship that can be refueled while floating in Earth’s orbit. Reporters called it a “wildly ambitious plan.”

Yes, it is wildly ambitious. But as someone I greatly admire once said, “she with a plan wins.” Without a plan, Musk would simply be a dreamer with his head in the clouds. With a plan, he’s on a mission to Mars.

Paging ground control — let’s get back to Earth. In all likelihood you are not trying to colonize Mars. But I’ll bet you have ambition. And to achieve your goals, you need a plan.

Perhaps you are an entrepreneur with a new product idea. Or perhaps you are aproduct manager tasked with managing an upcoming launch. Either way, you definitely need something more coherent than a notebook full of scribblings and more descriptive than a simple spreadsheet. You need a product roadmap.

That sounds good, but where do you begin? Even without experience, you can create a brilliant product roadmap. Here is how to start:

Define your strategy

What is the market potential, and who or what stands in your way? Who are your customers? What problems do they have, and how will you solve them? You need to know where you want to go and why.

Get the details down and define your strategy. Capture the essence of that strategic vision you want to achieve. For your roadmap to succeed, strategy needs to be strong, accessible, and inform everything that you do.

Set measurable goals

Once you have the high-level vision of what you want to achieve, it’s time to nail down the specifics needed to accomplish that vision. You need a metric to assess progress.

Identify some key goals, and make sure they are measurable both in time and efficacy. Goals will keep you honest and give you something tangible to work towards when the finish line feels like it’s off in outer space.

Establish initiatives

If you have goals, why do you need initiatives? Well, goals do not achieve themselves. You need initiatives — the large efforts required to meet those goals. It is another part of breaking down that strategic vision into discrete steps.

Once you get into the details of defining the work, you need to make sure they are aligned with your higher level goals — creating a “red thread” of strategy that ties every effort to your strategic approach.

Define the work

Now it’s time to nail down the specific work to be done. Product teams at software companies often call the individual units of work “features” and group those features into “releases.” But let’s forget nomenclature for a moment.

The point is that for a roadmap to address the holistic plan, you need to be able to identify and define unique tasks, and then bucket them into the general time frames when they will be completed. Map work to your goals and initiatives, and you’ve strengthened that red thread even more.

Share the product roadmap

There are many different kinds of roadmaps, and which one you create depends on what you need to build and show — and to whom. The last step is to share it. You do not need a media blast like Elon Musk, but you do need to make sure your roadmap is in a consumable form that you can easily share with your intended audience.

Take a look at the planned work, goals and initiatives, and strategic vision. Consider your audience and tailor your message to their needs and interests. Roadmapping software can especially help here, or you can use traditional spreadsheets or documents if you would like.

Remember: Every solid roadmap begins and ends with strategy. Get that part right, and you can successfully build a beautiful visual roadmap that actually takes you somewhere meaningful.

Maybe even to Mars.


Brian de Haaff seeks business and wilderness adventure. He has more than 20 years of experience building innovative technology products and has been the founder or early employee of six cloud-based software companies. De Haaff recently founded and is the CEO of Aha!–the world’s No. 1 product roadmap software. His two previous companies were acquired by Aruba Networks [ARUN] and Citrix [CTXS]. He regularly writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life. @bdehaaff