Introduction to IT roadmaps

The best IT teams operate proactively. This is because you know how important it is to reduce the frequency of ad-hoc tactical requests — so you can focus on delivering strategic work that moves the organization forward. Shifting out of a reactive state starts with clear goals, a comprehensive planning process, and a well-crafted IT roadmap.

A roadmap is a visualization of your IT plans. It lays out your long-term strategy, the work you will do to achieve it, and when you will deliver that work. Roadmaps are about the future. So while you will still need to intake requests from internal teams and maintain lists of issues to resolve, those items should be kept separate. Use your roadmap to keep the IT team on schedule, vet and prioritize new capabilities, and ultimately better serve internal and external customers alike.

Why is an IT roadmap important?

Every IT team contends with managing a running list of tactical requests alongside complex, strategic efforts. It is challenging to keep track of it all. So IT teams are increasingly shifting from a project to a product mindset. This means moving from an inward focus to a customer-driven approach — with more emphasis on longer-term outcomes than near-term outputs.

The process of building a roadmap requires you to define the initiatives that will bring the most value to the organization and connect all the details back to top-level company goals. You can make tradeoff decisions about what is most important to the business, review input from cross-functional teams, and establish deadlines.

Roadmaps are flexible and methodology-agnostic — even agile teams benefit from committing to a set plan. While exact dates may change, a visual timeline gives the team a plan to rally around so everyone is focused on delivering the functionality that you have committed to.

While IT leaders are responsible for setting strategy, the entire IT team contributes to the strategic IT roadmap with influence and support from other executive and cross-functional teams too. Each functional area of IT — architecture, operations, engineering, and so forth — likely has its own roadmap that may affect strategic plans.

How to build an IT roadmap

As noted earlier, a roadmap is simply a visualization of your plan. So first, you need to determine the business goals you are supporting. Then, you can identify the IT goals and initiatives (or broad themes of work) that you will pursue to achieve that strategy. And then you can specify the releases and features that serve each initiative and lay it all out on a timeline.

The exact details of what you show on your roadmap depend on who you are presenting to. Executives tend to want a high-level view of the plan, while folks on the IT team typically need more specific details. If you are showing the roadmap to partners or other stakeholders, you may want to forego exact dates and display deliverables by quarter instead.

This is one reason why having a purpose-built roadmapping tool is critical to IT success. You can enter data once and quickly create as many roadmap views as you need.

No matter the level of detail, building a roadmap involves these five steps:

Step 1: Lead with strategy
Strategy represents the "why" behind your work. Capture measurable objectives and the initiatives or big themes of work that will help you achieve them.

Step 2: Collect feedback
IT receives plenty of requests from other departments. Incorporate an idea management process into your roadmap planning — so you can map requests to in-progress initiatives or add tasks to your backlog of future work.

Step 3: Define the work
Now you are ready to detail out the "what" of your roadmap — the specific features or user stories that support your strategy. Outline the requirements of each so that everyone on the IT team understands the desired outcome. If you are building tools or applications for external customers, you will likely collaborate with a product manager on feature definition.

Step 4: Organize features into releases
Prioritizing features and adding to releases is the "when" of roadmap planning. You might organize your releases around sprints or the days or weeks when you deploy changes to production.

Step 5: Choose a view
Choose exactly what to show and share depending on your audience. In IT planning sessions, you may want to show detailed component, system, and governance plans. In executive briefings and board meetings, stick to progress toward high-level goals.

Start building your own IT roadmap

Goals, initiatives, everyday work, and timing — now you have the building blocks for your roadmap. There are plenty of templates that can help you get started for free. Mature IT teams are increasingly using roadmapping software like Aha! because you can integrate idea management, IT planning, and cross-functional collaboration. Track your progress, identify roadblocks, and integrate with the development tools of your choice.

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