What is an agile roadmap?
An agile roadmap is a lightweight strategic planning tool. It outlines general time frames for major themes of work — what you plan to deliver and when. It is informed by high-level strategy, oriented around business value, and provides transparency for stakeholders and teammates. Unlike a backlog (which is a catch-all list of new features, enhancements, and bug fixes), an agile roadmap is about shipping a holistic customer experience.
If someone tells you that agile teams should reject roadmaps because they force rigidity, fixed dates, and delivery commitments that are bound to be broken? Well, they are wrong. The idea that an agile mindset eschews long-term planning is outdated and misinformed. Rather, roadmaps complement an iterative workflow.
For new product development teams, a propensity for speed is essential — but it can also create whiplash. When upfront planning is ignored, the horizon lines shift constantly. Lacking clarity about what the team is working on or what the most important priorities are, others can be left wondering what is happening and when.
This guide includes definitional guidance and best practices to help you learn how to build agile roadmaps. The details will depend on your company, market, product, and planning process. But fundamental roadmap methods can be used by agile teams of all sizes to drive more value quickly.
When to use agile roadmaps?
Agile roadmaps are most useful when you are working on something new. You need to have a plan for the why, the what, and the how of what your team will build. This could be the release of a new version of an application, a new feature set, or an entirely new product.
How a product manager builds an agile roadmap greatly impacts the success of any new launch. Stakeholders, cross-functional teammates, partners, and customers all want to know when to expect new functionality. Sharing a roadmap can help foster transparency and rally everyone around what you want to achieve.
What does an agile roadmap look like?
The visual presentation will depend on your company — both in terms of planning and aesthetic. A startup working to deliver a new product to market will have an agile roadmap that looks very different from a larger enterprise.
In a startup, you may have just a few folks creating and referencing an agile roadmap. This team could include founders, the product manager, and the engineering lead. Teams in this environment are focused on delivering disruptive functionality as quickly as possible. It is common to see theme-based agile roadmaps used in the early days. These plans might be shared with investors. Once the team starts building, they may rely on a time-based roadmap with very short release cycles so plans can be adjusted quickly based on feedback.
In larger companies, you are always working to maintain and invest in what you already delivered to customers. So you may see a longer-term product roadmap that captures how existing offerings will evolve over an extended period of time — alongside an agile roadmap for new product development. New products do not have related maintenance work, so the focus there is on innovation. These enterprise-level agile roadmaps will likely still have longer time horizons than a startup.
You may see releases, epics, and sprints displayed on an agile roadmap. It is unusual to see individual features bubble up, but it could happen with startups, where the features effectively are the product. Below are a few examples of agile roadmaps. The different types may be used at specific phases of product development or concurrently.
Theme-based agile roadmap
This type of roadmap groups planned work by theme. Those themes could be based on product features or strategic goals. The roadmap below shows three business goals on the left with major development efforts visualized as bars within swimlanes.
Custom roadmap created in Aha! Roadmaps
Time-based agile roadmap
This type of roadmap shows areas of work as swimlanes within a date range. The range can be as general as needed — from quarters to months to weeks. The roadmap below shows a few months worth of product development. Purple containers represent epics, with individual features shown as blue bars.
Starter roadmap created in Aha! Roadmaps
Progress-based agile roadmap
This type of roadmap displays work based on status. Commonly used by teams who use kanban, categories might include “now, next, later” or “planned, in progress, done.” The roadmap below groups features by progress within releases. The releases include a percent complete which is calculated from the completion rate of the features within it. Here, feature statuses reflect the team's unique workflow.
Features roadmap created in Aha! Roadmaps
How to create an agile roadmap
Most product teams already have established workflows for adding bug fixes and general improvements to sprints. So you do not need to include ongoing development on your roadmap. Instead, you want it to be a mix of shorter-term efforts that support longer-term goals.
Focus on goals and outcomes
Strategy is the backbone of an agile roadmap. Put it at the forefront of your roadmap. What do you want to achieve and why? What impact will your plans have on the overall business?
Prepare a coherent story
Keep it simple. Only include features that will support your strategic vision and are well thought out. The plan should unfold naturally in a way that anyone can understand.
Secure stakeholder buy-in
Before you begin working against or circulating your roadmap, obtain strong buy-in from stakeholders. You need their support to gain traction and secure resources.
Make it measurable
What gets measured gets built. Be ready to share progress and impact with different groups. This is the real world — future investment in your product is dependent on how today’s plan matures.
Know when to show dates
Due dates can be triggering for agile teams. But you are the one in control. Understand the difference between internal and external dates. An approximate date range might be all you need for certain audiences.
Review and adjust regularly
As you progress and new information emerges, review and adjust your roadmap. For most teams, a quarterly cadence will work. You might need more or less time but be sure to set checkpoints.
Building, using, sharing, evolving — most people want to know the best ways to establish a process for roadmapping. Some of this depends on your work breakdown structure. From storyboarding to impact mapping and poker planning, much of your agile roadmap process relies on how your organization approaches planning.
A good agile roadmap should be easy to manage and update. That is why static spreadsheets are impossible for any forward-thinking team. You do not want to spend your time on version control — you want to keep building. Purpose-built roadmapping and agile development software gives agile teams the flexibility to set plans and shift in real time.
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