Agile vs. Roadmaps
March 2, 2020

Agile vs. Roadmaps

by Brian de Haaff

Have you ever tried to follow a complicated recipe? Exotic ingredients, specialty cookware, and professional techniques — it takes more than instructions to cook a delicious meal. Depending on culinary experience and access to tools, a dozen people following the same recipe could end up with dramatically different results. The same is true for building products. I think this is why a lot of teams focus on how they will get work done. For many, this means “going agile.”

There is comfort in embracing a methodology like agile — if you can follow the rules, then you can deliver better work, right?

Yes, in part. It is true that without a unified approach, it can be difficult to accomplish anything. And the bigger the company, the more important it is to align the team with a consistent workflow, so you can wisely allocate resources and reduce risk. You want to safeguard against the chaos that can occur when everyone is off doing their own thing in their own way. But knowing the “how” is not enough.

I recently wrote about the idea that roadmaps make strategy work. And I noted this same idea — that many organizations talk about methodology before they define clear goals and plans. The problem with this “how will we jump” mindset is that it leads to lots of discussion and little action.

Without a clear sense of what success looks like, it is impossible for the team to know if they are making meaningful progress.

If you work in an agile setting, you may think that a roadmap will slow you down. But you still need to be aligned on what you are planning to deliver, when, and why it matters. And that is exactly what agile roadmaps are for. Here are a few questions that roadmapping helps you answer:

Agile teams move fast and reduce risk. At least, that is the idea. But moving fast only works well when you have a compass for choosing the right work to pursue. That is your strategy.

Roadmaps make strategy work. That is because you are forced to make hard decisions about what activities are worth investing in and what is most important. You can visually link work to company goals so everyone can see the direct impact.

Product owner, scrum master, developers — agile teams are comprised of many cross-functional stakeholders. And everyone needs to be aligned in order to deliver new functionality quickly.

Roadmaps are inclusive because they provide equal transparency when shared. You get a visual plan that can be customized to include what is important to unique contributors as well as the broader team. Each person can see the overall vision, understand how their work contributes to realizing that vision, and track what is next to ensure fast delivery.

Being agile means iterating often. This is not just about speed — you can quickly include feedback from customers as you receive it. And taking small steps fast helps you avoid big bets that fail and are hard to recover from. But how do you know when to change course (or what direction to move) when you are bombarded by different feedback, ideas, and requests?

Roadmaps serve as a guide for making tradeoffs and prioritizing. It is literally a timeline for achieving your strategy. You can be purposeful and deliberate about when to iterate and whether or not that furthers your vision. And because roadmaps are not static, you can make adjustments easily.

Agile teams are able to react and adjust. But as much as we might wish them away, dates do exist. Deadlines and schedules matter if your work is tied to actual company success. But to reach any date, you need to work back from delivery to lay out the necessary steps along the way.

Roadmaps allow you to create a tactical plan that is rooted in time. Everyone can see what they must complete within a set period, as well as the progress the team has already made. You can include sprints and milestones to mark stages of work and specific achievements to reach.

The real power of roadmapping is that it allows you to move fast while doing your best to define and work on what will truly benefit customers.

Although the focus here is agile teams, roadmaps are useful no matter how you work. You can adapt them to any development methodology. Because no matter how you choose to attack the work, roadmapping aligns the team around the strategy, provides clarity on what should be built, and introduces time as a key consideration.

How does your agile team use roadmaps?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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