Taking a Wrong Turn – How your roadmap may be Leading you off a Cliff

You are driving down a road when your GPS tells you to turn left. You make a sudden motion, finding yourself down a small side road. It doesn’t look like where you are trying to go, but you have to follow your GPS; otherwise, you will get lost. You continue, then your GPS tells you to go right. There isn’t a road there, and because you are stuck doing only what the GPS tells you, you turn and suddenly find yourself running off a cliff, flying to your demise in a canyon below. Sound like a bad TV skit? The reality is that this is how most people leverage their “roadmaps” in terms of how they run their optimization programs.

While hypothesis is still the most misunderstood term in all of optimization, the most abused may be roadmap. So many different groups claim they have a roadmap or to be following a roadmap or that it is on their “roadmap” and yet so few understand how one is meant to be used. A roadmap (little r) is a list of tests, most of which serve as a great excuse to waste time and effort and to get locked into a system of projects. A Roadmap (capital R) is a constantly shifting list of priorities by which you will create actions and act to discover where to go next. This distinction is fundamental if you have any hope of really achieving great results with your program, and yet so many happily focus on the first for the sake of internal processes or the inability to change how their optimization program operates in producing revenue.

Let’s start with what the goal of optimization is. It is not to run a test.

Tests are a means to an end.

The goal of an optimization program is to produce the maximum amount of revenue for whatever resources you spend on it. The same is true of every effort you do, be it personalization, SEO, content creation or a promotion. You are not just doing it because it is fun, you are doing those things to increase the revenue to your organization. This means that those are just tactics and not the end onto itself. This is fundamental to understanding the difference between a roadmap and a Roadmap.

Anytime we confuse the action for the end goal, we lose almost all possible value because we have lost the ability to go in any other direction. When we get stuck on a review process and a large series of tests you are making the decision to focus on the action and not the value it generates. You become a means to empty action, not a means to the end of generating revenue. You are saying, at that point, that you couldn’t care less if you make money, so long as these few specific tests get run.

If you instead focus on the end goal, then the first and most important piece is to discover how best to do that. You may have some test ideas and some things you are going to execute on, but they are fungible. You must and will constantly shift them as you learn more and as you go in new directions. You cannot be stuck on the path if the end goal is the most important, you must instead focus on the discipline and flexibility to go anywhere the data tells you.

This is why a Roadmap is just a series of places to focus. It might be on personalizing an experience, or improving a product page, or on improving your recommendation system, but that is what you are trying to do. You are hoping that doing that will result in more revenue, but you are not tied to specific tactics, just finding the best way to accomplish the end goal. Often times you will have no more then 1 or at most 2 tests for each area when you start, but you plan out the time to shift and the time to continue down any path that presents itself to you. From there you can work out actions which will produce answers, things like inclusion/exclusion testing, or MVT, or content serving so that you can measure the value of different alternatives. At that point, you then focus on whatever the answers you have are and continue to drive forward based on those results.

The amazing or frustrating part of this, depending on which approach you are used to, is that you never know where you will end up. You might end up with a dynamic layout for your product page, or targeting content based on time of day, or on removing your recommendations system from a page. The farther you end up from where you imagined the more revenue you make. Each step that takes you in a new direction can only do so by proving using rational measurements that it outperforms where you thought you were going to go. You can end up just about anywhere and that is what makes it so powerful.

The most common refrain you get when tackling problems this way is that it is hard to plan resources, but that argument just does not hold water. You know you are going to test and you know you are going to need resources. This just means you plan time. What you aren’t planning on is that time being spend on coding this one specific module 6 months from now. The action of that time is constantly shifting and updating, it isn’t set in stone. you can plan resources extremely easily. What you can’t do however is focus those resources only on one persons opinion or on a singular person’s agenda. It is not that you spend more resources or can’t plan, you just spend them differently and away from empty talks about a test and about building a successful and meaningful program.

The real challenge becomes not resource planning but accountability. So many programs hold onto their list of tests because it justifies their actions. It becomes about checking off that a test was done and not about the efficiency or the value of that test. At the end of the day the people in your program get to choose between their own accountability between just running tests or with actually providing value. If you are focusing on an empty series of tests, then you will always just be doing action. If you can instead view your Roadmap as a constantly shifting series of actions that focus only on the value they derive, then you will never worry about any specific test or about trying to validate test ideas.

In reality the biggest challenge to tackling problems like this is the ego of the people in your program and the executives who might be involved. People protect themselves at all cases because accountability is the scariest thing in the world for most people. The old systems have everything going through them and with their blessing is everything done. When you are going wherever the data takes you then you are faced with going in a direction that might not be where that executive thought of 3 weeks ago. When you just focus on your part of the a lager process or when you accept their divined vision as the only means to an end then you have essentially said that you have no value at all to the organization and are just a fungible means to an empty end.

This is why an education program and why a focus on discover is so vital for the value derived from your testing program. Management might view this as a loss of power but the reality is that it is so much more. They aren’t constrained by some random thought they had, no matter how great it was, and can instead encourage others to expand on their creativity. It is no longer about having the right answer but about measuring and going with the best ideas your entire team can come up with. You can tell just how far you are from this point with the number of empty I believe/I think/I feel conversations you hear in meetings. The less you hear of those the closer you are to achieving real value. It isn’t about a review process but instead about the creation process and the management of the system to ensure rational decision making.

So many organizations are led to drive into that canyon or into a random lake. Even worse there are always people at those organizations who will describe that water they are drowning in as the expected destination. If you really want to go to new places and really want to end up where you should then you are going to need to give up your belief in that roadmap that you hold so dearly to. Find your own Roadmap, let it shift and go where it needs to, and you will be amazed as just how far you can go and how many new sights you will see.


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