Tweaking the variables of transparency

I’m a big fan of openness and transparency; hiding things creates extra work, and showing others what’s going on in our world can allow them to help us, or at least to appreciate our problems a little better. However, even I know one particular problem with transparency: if you make your product roadmap public then people will only be disappointed if you somehow manage to miss your milestones, or if other needs cause you to change your plans. A public roadmap is a hostage for fortune.

This subject came up in an interview with Ian Small, the CEO of Evernote (whose product I use a lot). The interviewer, Tom Solid, asked why he didn’t make the product roadmap public. This is particularly relevant, because Evernote has deliberately removed features recently in order to allow them to move to a new architecture. A roadmap, Tom said, would show Evernote’s users when they could expect their favourite features to return. But I didn’t quite anticipate Ian’s answer.

The problem, he said, is not just that they might disappoint users if some of those features slipped, but that they would also have to spend time talking to users and explaining what happened, when they could instead be spending that time on customer support and product development. And given that Evernote has 10 million users, that’s a lot of displaced time.

And then he pointed to something I hadn’t noticed: The product does have a “Coming soon” screen. This lists forthcoming features which are close enough to be certain deliverables, but it doesn’t list specific dates. So it’s not a whole roadmap, but it does show some of the short term product landscape.

There were two things I liked about this. One is that it shows that situations will vary. The problem of responding to unhappy users is particularly relevant to a consumer business with a lot of consumers; it would be a different kind of problem if the company had a small number of high-value business customers who had their own account managers.

The other thing I liked about this is that it’s another example of recognising that everything is on a sliding scale, and if we can identify the variables at play in a situation then we can seek to adjust them to our advantage. In this case Evernote recognised that there’s a difference between your internal roadmap and what you show, and when it comes to what you show there is so much choice, including which items and what level of detail.

So when it comes to being transparent about our plans, we can be open. But if total openness will create problems then we can tweak that, and still reap many of the rewards.

Photo by OiMax