The definition of Roadmap

In product development, a roadmap typically communicates what a product team plans to build within the next few quarters of the year. Generally, it shows the features and functions that will be delivered using a timeline format. It serves as both a ranked plan-of-record and also a visualization tool to communicate priorities to stakeholders (including customers).

It’s recommended that organizations should avoid having roadmaps that go further than a year out because changing industry and market conditions risk making the roadmap obsolete the further out it goes.

The roadmap should be consistent with the company’s north star. Key decision makers, such as the CEO will generally have veto power about what is and isn’t included in the roadmap.

A roadmap is a combination of different types of tickets ranging from highly-visible bug fixes to epic-level tasks. The business vision should influence the prioritization of these initiatives. Special attention should be given to epic-level tasks while balancing the immediate needs of customers and the business.

As Stephen R. Covey observed, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” It can be easy to focus on more tactical issues that seem more urgent but strategic efforts should be weighed heavily and reflected in the backlog’s prioritization.

A roadmap has the benefit of providing repeatable clarity about where an organization is going. As Thomas Carlyle put it “Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see further.” The more a roadmap is used, the clearer the next steps will become.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport pointed out that “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” Roadmaps serve as a plan that helps organizations stay focused on what matters most. Inevitably, with new information, some plans will change but those changes should be the exception, not the rule. Organizations that are constantly shifting focus either lack vision or are not being disciplined. They need to make incremental steps towards a meaningful goal and roadmaps facilitate that process.

The roadmap typically includes general milestones, rough release dates and key deliverables. It’s typically not feasible to be specific about release dates for projects that are further in the future. The roadmap is meant to provide a clear and concise overview of the direction of the product.

Roadmaps also serve as a communication tool for internal stakeholders, including the product, UX, and development teams. Client success, support, sales, marketing and executive teams are other internal stakeholders that often have an interest in upcoming deliverables. The roadmap can also be beneficial to external stakeholders such as partners, affiliates, investors and customers.

Making the roadmap easily accessible to internal and external stakeholders helps bring transparency to the direction that the product is going. This can be done by documenting the plan in a digital tool that others can reference. Roadmap templates can be found online but creating a simple bullet point list is a good start.

Timeline roadmaps are a visual representation of priorities which show time, sequence, duration and milestones of each task in relation to each other. These are more often used with waterfall development and are similar to Gantt charts.

Agile-style roadmaps accommodate a flexible approach to planning and development. Rather than focusing on timeframes, these roadmaps are more simple and easily adjustable through drag-and-drop functionality. They typically look like a kanban or a vertical list of tasks.