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Last updated on 4/7/20

Learn How to Use Roadmaps as a Communication Tool

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Introduction to Roadmaps

In any business, there are two main actions: planning and doing. Effective organizations spend an appropriate amount of time researching and planning before focusing on the plan's execution.

There are many benefits to engaging in an appropriate level of planning:

  • Setting goals helps coordinate the activities of all employees.

  • Setting goals allows the organization to measure performance.

  • Deciding the most efficient use of resources (money, assets, employees) allows the organization the best chance of achieving its goals.

  • Communicating with each team and individual how their work contributes to the overall organizational target helps increase performance.

  • Determining the necessary actions needed to reach a goal helps the organization monitor progress.

In particular, tech teams build products and solutions both to delight customers and to help the business to achieve its objectives.

This requires that other departments within the organization know something about the strategic direction of each tech team. For example, it is important that the marketing and sales teams are not selling something that the tech team has no intention of building. It's important that management believes the company's overall objectives are being supported by the tech team's initiatives (e.g., double the number of paid customers in the next 12 months).

In this way, you need to communicate the strategy for each product's future direction that will be built by each tech team. A roadmap helps you to do this. A roadmap is a communication tool.

The Difference Between Project Plans and Roadmaps

A project plan is a plan that details how a set of assets will be delivered, when they will be delivered, how much the cost of delivery will be, and potentially which people will work on the project. An example of a project plan could be represented by a Gantt chart.

A Gantt chart shows each feature and delivery date
A Gantt chart shows each feature and delivery date

A roadmap is a communication tool that outlines the strategic direction of the company.

Whereas a project plan has a list of features and the dates they will be delivered, the roadmap may instead mention something like "Reduce abandoned shopping carts by 5%," which does not give the reader details about exactly how this might be achieved.

Twitter Developer Roadmap
Twitter Developer Platform Roadmap

A project plan is used to provide costs and intended delivery dates.

A roadmap is a useful tool for ensuring that all internal stakeholders (including employees) and external stakeholders (in particular, clients) know the strategic direction of the company. A great strategy works best when all employees rally around it - making the roadmap a valuable tool.

Desired Outcomes

Roadmaps should:

  • Communicate strategy and help all stakeholders move in the same direction.

  • Deliver a valuable product to the customer while helping the organization achieve its goals - which can be done by staying flexible and adaptable.

An effective roadmap is designed in such a way to achieve these two goals.

Characteristics of an Effective Roadmap

An effective roadmap has the following characteristics:

  1. It delivers value to customers and the organization.

  2. It is optimized for learning.

  3. It avoids making promises that can't be kept.

1. Delivers value to customers and the organization

The roadmap is not just a piece of paper. It is a tool that is the result of dialogue and decision-making within a team, organization, and client-base that reflects a vision of the future. The roadmap  defines the focus of the tech team's short, medium, and long-term output. The roadmap can only be created if there is a clear and deliverable value (present and future) to the customer.

The well-created roadmap will help other departments in the organization realize value. (e.g. help the sales team to sell, the marketing team to market, the customer support team to support, the legal team to ensure legal compliance, etc. ) These other departments can use the high-level vision of the future to coordinate their activities with the tech team's to work in a smooth and unified way.

This is why the primary purpose of a roadmap is to communicate. A roadmap is a communication tool that is valuable to customers and other employees within the organization because they can see the future of a planned product.

2. Optimize for learning

You might ask why a roadmap doesn't just supply a list of features and then everyone would know what is in the pipeline.

You may recall above that a plan which consists of "a list of features and the dates that they will be delivered" is called a project plan. A project plan is a great resource when we have a high certainty about upcoming tasks.

A roadmap is a communication tool that shares the priorities and future focus of the tech team over a longer period of time (perhaps 12 months). It is difficult to know which exact features the team will deliver. 

Often the best approach is to challenge the tech team to achieve a desired outcome. Rather than making a huge list of features to be built over the next 12 or 18 months, perhaps it is best to prioritize. For example, maybe a product goal is to reduce the number of fraudulent transactions on a company's website to under 0.5%.  The tech team might have 10 ideas, and only after implementing and measuring the impact of some of those improvements can they make the best decisions about the next steps.

Internal stakeholders (executives) and external stakeholders (customers) are more concerned with goals achieved rather than product features. Therefore, the focus should be more on achieving desired metrics.

3. Avoid making promises you can't keep

A project plan has a list of exact features and exact dates when those features are expected to be delivered. A roadmap, however, deliberately avoids mentioning feature lists and exact dates.

This gives the tech team more flexibility. If you optimize for learning and discover that a new strategy is required to reduce fraudulent transactions (say), then the team should have the freedom to adopt that new strategy.

It is important that the roadmap uses broad timelines (such as Current, Near-Term, Far-Term) so that areas of focus are not regarded as promises. Many roadmaps have a disclaimer at the bottom indicating that the roadmap is susceptible to change - without notice - at any time.

Product manager John Feminella expresses this beautifully below:

Summary

  • A product roadmap is a communication tool. It should not be confused with a project plan, which details a list of features and a plan for the delivery of those features. Rather, it is a much higher-level (i.e., strategic and longer-term) view of the prioritized areas of focus of the product team.

  • When customers and other employees/stakeholders in your organization are familiar with your roadmap, the major benefits are that they can give feedback and input and also coordinate their activities with the future development of the product.

In the next chapter, we will look at how establishing a product vision is an important pre-requisite to creating a roadmap.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement