DesignOps and the impact of effective roadmaps

A visualisation of Design’s performance when it comes to deliver product roadmaps: only 15–20% of projects are delivered according to plans. And one in three projects will never be delivred.

Being able to deliver tangible value to the customers and the organisation is a key challenge for many design teams and leaders.
Yet, in many cases, design teams are faced with challenges when it comes to the roadmap delivery due to many issues, such as lack of resources, time, poor ways of working, inefficient collaboration, and excessive workload.

It is easy to think these issues are the problems and to overlook what are the real root causes that generate inefficiencies.

Delays and poor delivery performance are not (always) the problems, these are often symptoms indicating that the E2E cross-functional processes and engagement models are not enabling the organisation to achieve its business goals.

How are design teams performing today?

Data collected from 3+ organisations in different industries to understand design teams’ productivity have all consistently shown that on average, on the quarterly roadmap, only 15–20% of the projects are delivered according to the original plan.

What happens to the remaining 80–85% of projects?

  • 30% are being delayed or extended beyond the planned deadline
  • 30–35% are being cancelled and dropped, often after designers have already been working on those projects, causing a significant waste
  • 20–25% of projects are being added to the original plan after the quarter has begun and during the roadmap execution.

These inefficiencies are caused by weak workflows that hinder teams’ productivity, reduce output and quality, and increase costs and spending for the organisation. In one word: inefficiencies cause waste.

Waste is any activity in the process that does not produce any tangible outcomes and “ that does not add value for your customer” (More at IsixSigma and Adobe).

The average waste I measured for the design and product organisation is approximately ±35%, with a rate of designers’ rework of 40–45% (rework means working on the same deliverable with no incremental improvements that add value for the customer).

Understanding and measuring waste

For instance: if a team of 2 designers worked 15 days each on a project that has been deprioritised and cancelled, the organisation has wasted 30 working days, equal to approx $15,000*.
[*The estimated cost to the organisation for a midnight/senior designer can be calculated at $500 / day].

And this is a waste for the design team only. Probably there was a PM involved, who also may have spent 10–15 days on the project, so adding another $7,000 to the bill.

And we have not mentioned meetings with senior stakeholders to discuss the project, review the priorities, and get buy-in.

What does this mean?

This means that the design team is not set up for success from the very beginning. It means that the organisation is incapable of achieving its goals and targets due to inherent inefficiencies. It means huge amounts of waste for the organisation.

But this is not the full picture.

When designers work on a project for weeks just to learn halfway through that the project has been deprioritised and cancelled, this reduces designers’ trust and their motivation, eventually lowering their productivity, and diminishing the sense of urgency and commitment as they will expect that other projects may go through a similar path.

Each time a project in the roadmap is not delivered as planned, the organisation is wasting its resources (money and time) and eroding employees’ engagement and motivation.

The consequences can easily spiral out of control, with disengaged teams that hang around with poor motivation and no desire to go the extra mile, impacting the quality of the experiences and services delivered, the time to market, and ultimately, the business results.

Why inefficiencies happen

When design is inefficient, there are several elements the product and design organisations need to consider because inefficiencies in the design team are often symptoms of something more systemic that needs to be considered with a more strategic lens.

When things do not flow properly and there are delays, there can be 2 main reasons, which are intrinsically interconnected:

  1. limited clarity on long-term vision, priorities, and impact
  2. limited ability to plan, prioritise, and sequence projects and initiatives

Limited clarity on priorities and impact mean that cross-functional partners do not have a common understanding of the following aspects:

  • Outcomes and experiences and their quantifiable success metrics
  • Target end users and their current experiences
  • Features to build to deliver the outcome and experiences
  • Needed performance/back-end improvements to deliver the outcomes or experiences

And the lack of a mutual understanding of all these aspects impacts the ability to plan and define a roadmap: in fact, much of the waste and rework is often due to limited clarity and alignment across stakeholders that cause requirements to change, priorities to shift, and directions to vary.

This misalignment between stakeholders translates into deceptive and untenable roadmaps, which are developed more to show ambition than to effectively and efficiently organise workflows and priorities, causing design (and product) teams to pay the price of a fickle strategy.

And misalignment cascades down to all levels and it often translates into poor briefs: based on my samples, on average less than 35-40% of projects have clearly formalised and detailed briefs, forcing design teams to work out requirements several unstructured data points, such as meetings, slack messages, emails, whiteboards…

(Re)Thinking the roadmap

Roadmaps are the visual representation of a strategy and aim to improve mutual understanding of the direction of the product while highlighting how initiatives are sequenced and prioritised to achieve the business goals.[ More on roadmaps here and here]

An inefficient product and design roadmap is often caused by the limited understanding of key elements that can sustain the development of a shared prioritisation approach, such as:

  • a quantified estimate of each project’s impact on the organisation’s targets (KPIs and OKRs)
  • an analysis of dependencies and bottlenecks (or risk assessment)
  • an evaluation of the total effort required to deliver the roadmap and the effective delivery capacity of each team
  • a shared prioritisation approach that organises initiatives and projects in a clear way
  • the definition of a responsibility matrix

An effective and impactful roadmap needs to align product and design to the business goals and it needs to define strategic goals, actions, quantifiable success criteria, and impact. This is where considering balanced scorecards as a way to plan and assess priorities can have a major influence.

Why this matters for DesignOps?

Data about the delivery rate of projects in the roadmap are consistent across organisations in different industries — highlighting the importance of developing a more structured and rigorous operational approach to product and design roadmaps.

This is where DesignOps enters the scene.

As a discipline that is in charge to define operational strategies that allow teams to effectively execute the roadmap and to bring to life the product/service strategy, ensuring that the roadmap is credible and reliable becomes a critical responsibility for DesignOps.

This is where Design Operations should drive the conversation and develop engagement models, processes, relationships, and workflows that deliver roadmaps that empower designers to focus on the right priorities and maximise value creation and business impact.

There are often tensions between product and design teams, mostly because of competing priorities and visions, but most frequently because of the lack of a clear and unified shared vision. It’s the leadership’s role to develop and agree a credible roadmap that is not subject to minor context shifting and that can support design and product teams’ efficiency, productivity, and predictability rates.

Case study — developing credible roadmaps

A well-defined roadmap can deliver multiple benefits, in fact, efficiencies, as well as inefficiencies, propagate across teams and business units rapidly.
The following is a case study emerging from experiences in several organisations with extremely similar approaches and issues.

Step 1: the context: poor planning and tools
There is often tension between product and design, especially when the final roadmap has limited details and when it is delivered with poor cross-functional collaboration.

I have often observed product managers taking their strategy documents and creating timelines with very broad effort estimates and dates.
They try to make a rough estimate of the effort needed to deliver the project and the resource estimation is often done per team and per quarter rather than by project and discipline.
In more than one case I have seen quarterly resource planning for the UX and design effort looking like this:

UX resource: 0.8 / quarter

with no specification of the skillset (UXR, content design, product design, service design…).
The issue is that 0.8 UX effort per quarter means a total of approx 55 working days across 3 months and 3 disciplines (UX design, UXR, and content design).
The missing details make it impossible to plan accurately and I have observed that inaccurate roadmaps are developed and managed solely with digital whiteboard tools that use unstructured data making these roadmaps hard to manage, update, change, track, and update.

And this is the beginning of inefficiencies.

Step 2: Analysing past roadmaps
If it is true that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, there are lots of learnings from analysing past roadmaps’ executions.
Looking back will help understand what happened and it will highlight issues that have prevented teams to achieve their goals.

Therefore, after revising the quarterly roadmaps with both design and product stakeholders, we quantified inefficiencies and realised that on average only 15/20% of projects would be delivered as planned.

Step 3: The need for more clarity needs new processes
Acknowledging the problem is critical to driving the change (see here) and to get buy-in from all stakeholders.
So, after sharing the findings on the team’s productivity, we agreed with all stakeholders to increase cross-functional transparency by increasing the details on every project.

We created new intake forms, an evolution of briefs and PRDs (Product Request Forms) to be submitted ahead of the quarter to increase alignment and transparency between product and design stakeholders.

This document would include some information, such as:

  1. Business goals that are being impacted by the project
  2. Quantifiable metrics of the expected impact of the project
  3. Description of all dependencies & possible risks
  4. Type of project
  5. Type of resources / skills needed
  6. Deliverables
  7. Deadlines
  8. Prioritisation estimate (P1 to P4)
  9. Responsibility matrix / accountable stakeholders

This is where DesignOps enters the scene:

DesignOps would analyse all intake forms looking at the impact and the effort required to deliver the projects, the dependencies, and how much capacity would the design team have and it would come up with a prioritised list of projects to be discussed among stakeholders.

If, for example, the proposed roadmap would require a total of 1000 working days and the design team had a capacity of only 300, DesignOps would come up with some proposals and the recommendation to deprioritise up to 60–70% of the projects.

DesignOps does not make decisions on the design and product roadmaps: as an enabling function, Design Operations sets up processes and engagement models that bring data to the conversation to support stakeholders to align and decide where the teams need to focus on the following quarter to deliver the highest business impact.

At this point design, marketing, and product leaders would sit around the table reviewing structured data in a spreadsheet-like format to define a shared prioritisation that aligns execution capacity with business goals.

Step 4: consolidate and socialise a shared roadmap
Once stakeholders have agreed on the priorities, the final roadmap would be shared with all designers and cross-functional partners so that everyone had full visibility of the quarterly plans.

Having a consolidated and reliable roadmap enables designers to focus on the key projects, allowing them to push back on any request that is not aligned with the prioritised projects.

Designers had also access to the intake forms containing all the details needed and they were able to discuss the final details with their partners at the beginning of the projects.

Step 5: Measuring the impact!
After the first quarter, we measured the impact of this new process on teams’ productivity.

In a quarter the clarity on priorities doubled and the number of projects with a reliable brief went from less than 40% to 91%.

This had an impact on productivity and the ability to focus, increasing in a single quarter the number of projects delivered as planned by 24% and reducing new incoming projects by 25% (from 35% to 10%).


This case story is based on data and experiences across 3+ organisations in past 3 years with organisation with design teams of 20–70 people. Data are anonymised, and they are consistent across all industries, organisations, and teams considered.

The importance of planning and supporting the leadership to align and plan more consistently is a critical task for every design operations practitioner that needs to be in charge of the product and design strategy execution.

Collaboration with ProductOps partners would make the effort easier, but design teams must reflect on what is hindering their ability to deliver value to the customer and actively engage in planning conversations.

Empowering teams to say no is the single most critical task that designops can do to help design surge at more strategic functions. And developing a shared roadmap is a powerful approach.

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