What is a roadmap? A complete guide to roadmapping
A roadmap is a visualization of a strategic plan. Maybe you are starting a business, building a new product, or leading a cross-functional project. You need a bold vision for what you want to achieve and a solid plan for how you will turn your aspirations into reality.
Roadmaps are the output of a strategic planning process. You can link goals to detailed work and show the time frame for achievement, given your resources and capacity. Roadmaps are also a useful tool for communicating plans to stakeholders and tracking progress against your objectives.
Roadmaps have been closely associated with the product development process. In the last several years, however, roadmapping has expanded beyond product management. Today it is a popular strategic planning method for businesses and teams of all types. Several different types of roadmaps are now widely used at most organizations — including business, technology or IT, project, and marketing roadmaps.
This guide provides an overview of roadmapping best practices. Jump ahead to find the details you need most:
What is a roadmap?
A roadmap is a visual representation of your strategic plans. It ties together your strategy (the "why"), the work you will need to do to achieve your goals (the "what"), and a timeline for completion (the "when"). As a high-level plan for how you will accomplish your goals, a roadmap helps you picture the work that needs to be done along with a corresponding schedule.
This is an example of a strong product roadmap built in Aha! Roadmaps. Plans are organized into goals, initiatives, epics, and features — with a timeline for releases at the top.
What is roadmapping?
Roadmapping is the exercise of creating a roadmap. This can be an extremely effective planning approach because it provides a clear way to visualize and communicate what you want to accomplish and when. You can share your roadmap with a variety of audiences — including executives, teammates, other groups in your organization, and customers. Anyone with access to the roadmap can quickly understand the plans and rally behind what you will achieve together.
What is the difference between a roadmap and a project plan?
A roadmap is a visualization of your strategic initiatives and the major areas of work you will pursue. A project plan is a supporting document that lays out the specifics of what you need to do to achieve those initiatives. Use a roadmap to define the high-level goals and give an overview of how you will accomplish them. Then create a corresponding project plan to capture the step-by-step actions you will take to reach each goal along the way.
How do you create a product roadmap?
Product managers use roadmaps to coordinate a cross-functional product team around a common goal, such as the launch of a new product or a major release. Product roadmaps are particularly useful for communicating high-level product plans to company leadership, partners, and customers.
There are five basic steps to building a product roadmap:
1. Define product strategy
Outline your product vision, goals, and initiatives. You may want to do more in-depth research such as creating personas, writing product positioning, and doing competitive analysis to inform your strategy and give your team critical context as to what ends up on your roadmap.
2. Review and evaluate potential features
You likely already have a list of ideas that could bring value to your product. These could be your own concepts, suggestions from teammates, or feedback from customers. Use a scoring mechanism to weigh potential features. (Some product managers use the RICE scoring model. RICE stands for reach, impact, confidence, and effort.) Then add the strongest ones to your backlog.
3. Prioritize and define requirements
Next you want to break down the efforts that best support the strategy into smaller chunks of work. Some teams employ user story mapping to stay focused on delivering customer value. A user story map shows the journey of a user’s interactions with the product. You can evaluate which steps have the most benefit for the user, prioritize what should be built next, and define detailed requirements for engineering.
4. Organize into releases
Now it is time to group your ranked list of features into themes or major efforts and decide when you will release new functionality to customers. You may work cross-functionally with an engineering manager or scrum leader to make these decisions.
5. Choose your roadmap view
Most product roadmaps show major releases over a specific time frame and link those to goals and initiatives. You can adjust the type of information and level of detail you want to share based on your audience and roadmap tool. For example, you may want to include specific features or cross-functional dependencies that will impact your plan.
What are the components of a roadmap?
The components of a roadmap do not change from team to team. The details may vary, but the basics stay the same. A product roadmap should answer:
Why are we doing this?
When are we doing this?
What exactly are we doing?
By including strategic elements, time frames, and prioritized work that the team has agreed to complete you can be sure your roadmap has all the right answers.
Goals and initiatives: Show the value that your product or project brings and how it delivers on business objectives.
Releases and milestones: Answer the question of when work will start and be delivered to market.
Epics and features: Communicate committed work that is prioritized by overall value.
Dependencies: Visualize interrelated work that might impact delivery.
What are the benefits of creating a roadmap?
Think of your roadmap as a promise. This forces you to be judicious about what you choose to commit to. When each work item clearly aligns with your overall objectives, you can be confident that you are investing your time wisely. Only include the initiatives and tasks that are most important for achieving your goals.
How do roadmaps benefit a business?
Roadmaps help you see the future and show the "why" behind the work. Your roadmap helps:
Clarify business strategy
Communicate company-wide goals and initiatives to internal teams
Link department goals to business goals
Share annual plans with external groups such as advisory boards and partners
Track organizational performance and report on KPIs
How do product managers benefit from building a product roadmap?
Building an effective roadmap may sound like a massive effort. But it serves as a foundation for everything the team will focus on. Roadmaps make it possible for product managers to:
Visualize how product strategy ties to company goals
Break product goals and initiatives into features and requirements
Share plans with leadership, cross-functional teammates, and customers
Prioritize new features and enhancements
Report on the progress the product team has made
Remember that a roadmap is a promise of what you will deliver, not how you will deliver it. Folks on any type of team can benefit from building and referencing a roadmap.
Company leaders, teammates, and customers are counting on you. Share what you will deliver and when, so everyone can follow through on the plan.
You cannot achieve anything meaningful in a vacuum. Use your roadmap to align different teams, portfolios, or areas of the business. Everyone should understand the vision and objectives.
What are you working towards and why? By clarifying strategic goals and then linking work to that strategy, you ensure that the team is focused on the activities that bring you closer to your goals.
Transparency is key. Share your plans to drive conversations with teammates. You can show direction, visualize timing, and discuss challenges.
Large or complex projects require collaboration between multiple groups within an organization. A roadmap can help you track dependencies and identify bottlenecks to ensure that you deliver on time.
Since each area of investment ties up to a high-level goal, you can easily show the impact of the team’s progress.
The exercise of roadmapping forces you to think through what is most important. This can help you make tough tradeoff decisions and prioritize the work that will bring the greatest benefit.
What are some roadmap examples?
There is not one "correct" way that a roadmap should look. How your roadmap looks depends on the information you are communicating — the level of detail you want to show and the audience you are sharing information with. For example, some roadmaps convey high-level info such as key initiatives, while others drill down on the details of activities in a specific timeline.
The best roadmaps show a timeline view of the duration of work items such as goals, themes of work, and activities. Despite variations in appearance, most compelling roadmaps do share a few attributes. No matter what your roadmap looks like, always strive to make it easy to understand. It should be accurate, up-to-date, actionable, and relevant for the intended audience.
Here are five examples of roadmaps for product, product marketing, and IT teams — all built using Aha! Roadmaps, which is purpose-built roadmap software:
A business roadmap shows the most important strategic efforts across the company. These are typically created by executives and then shared with functional teams to inform their own roadmaps. Business roadmaps usually sync with an organization's strategic planning process, whether that is quarterly or biannual.
Each initiative ties to a business goal and success metric. Progress bars show how close the team is to achieving the goals.
A strategic roadmap visualizes high-level goals and initiatives. In this example, you can see specific releases in purple and related goals as colorful flags. The timeline at the top gives a sense of when the team plans to deliver the work.
Releases on this strategic roadmap can unfurl to show specific features and related dependencies.
A portfolio roadmap shows planned releases across multiple groups or offerings. The blue and green bars below represent the two different products (Fredwin Cycling and Fredwin Running). The dots signify dates for different release milestones at the corporate level across both products.
The colored release bars on this portfolio roadmap are shaded to show progress as it happens.
A features roadmap shows all work in flight for a given time period. You might see vertical columns or swimlanes to indicate different releases. Note that each release corresponds to a quarter in the year, so it is easy to see when you plan to deliver.
The status of each feature is shown visually (with the percent complete bars) and textually ("Define," "Ready to develop," and "Shipped.")
An agile roadmap shows major themes of work in a general timeline. Those themes could be product goals or epics, which are groups of related features. The date range will depend on how an agile development team works, but it is not common to see an agile roadmap expand beyond a quarter at a time. The flexibility of agile workflows makes it easier to keep the roadmap contained to just a few sprints or iterations.
Each of the five columns shows a high-level epic that the development team is working on — along with key details such as corresponding goals and statuses.
A go-to-market roadmap gives a complete picture of everything that must be done to accomplish a successful launch. The roadmap below includes cross-functional tasks and activities, from drafting a creative brief to conducting sales and support training. You can track dependencies (the black arrows) and milestones (the red and yellow dots) to make sure that everyone delivers on time.
This example of a go-to-market roadmap was built by a product marketing team.
A marketing roadmap shows marketing goals and related activities that support overall business objectives. Depending on the complexity of the organization, you might have a marketing roadmap that separates work by function (such as digital marketing and content marketing) or that visualizes major campaigns linked to specific products.
This roadmap shows how the strategic marketing initiatives map to the overall goals, along with a timeline for completion.
IT projects roadmap
An IT projects roadmap combines strategy, releases, and features into one timeline view. You can see how each release and feature supports the broader IT goals of aggregating business data, internal mobilization, and improving business process automation.
This is an example of an IT projects roadmap for the Fredwin IT group.
A technology roadmap is a visualization of your strategic IT plans. Examples of focus areas that might go on a technology roadmap include updating infrastructure and platforms or managing a data transformation. A good technology roadmap usually includes goals and initiatives, new system capabilities, release plans, milestones, resources, training, risk factors, and status reports.
This visualization shows all the work the team must do to roll out new integrations — across architecture, services, infrastructure, and DevOps. The window displays more information about the "new data center setup" release.
How to choose a roadmap tool
While you can create roadmap views in spreadsheet or presentation software, there are several downsides to this approach. It can take hours to manually create even a simple roadmap in a tool that was not designed for roadmapping. You also have to update your roadmap each time you make progress or plans change. And it is difficult to share your roadmaps and collaborate with teammates.
This is why many teams use purpose-built roadmap software like Aha! Roadmaps. Instead of constantly updating your roadmap or worrying about version control, you can quickly create, customize, and share beautiful views of your strategic plans. You can build a roadmap and link it to the detailed work. Enter your information once, and your roadmap will update automatically — so everyone can see how they are making progress towards the goals in real-time.
When evaluating whether a roadmap tool is right for you, consider the type of project you are working on and the specific needs of your company and teammates. Smaller teams or less mature organizations may want to start with pre-populated templates before graduating to more advanced roadmapping software.
Whatever you are working on, the tool you choose should let you link your work to the strategy, create different types of views, adjust as plans change, and share your roadmap easily with others. Be aware that some tools treat strategy as an afterthought, focusing more on project planning or time tracking. Unfortunately, these tools are unlikely to help you make a real impact — having clear goals to work towards is key to successful strategic planning.
Common misconceptions about roadmaps
Despite the growing popularity of roadmaps, there are still many points of confusion about what a roadmap actually is and what it is not. Here are some of the most prevalent misconceptions about roadmaps:
"A roadmap is a to-do list."
Some people think of a roadmap as a list of upcoming tasks or (in the context of product development teams) a backlog. While you can use a roadmap to guide prioritization decisions and inform what to work on next, a roadmap is a distinct document. Keeping your roadmap separate from other planning materials such as backlogs or customer requests helps you maintain your strategic focus.
"Roadmaps should not change."
It is true that a roadmap is a commitment — it captures what you are working towards over the next quarter, six months, year, or longer. But since you typically create a roadmap at the beginning of your planning process, priorities may shift. Adjust dates and details when necessary.
"Roadmaps replace Gantt charts."
Some teams that follow agile software methodology may think of a Gantt chart as a waterfall artifact. The reality is that roadmaps and Gantt charts can be valuable (and often complementary). In a roadmap tool like Aha! Roadmaps, you can enter data once — from high-level strategy to the more detailed work. Then you can customize your view to display both a strategic roadmap and a detailed Gantt chart that captures phases of work, tasks, milestones, and dependencies.
"A roadmap will slow agile teams down."
Some agile folks think that a roadmap with dates will slow them down from continuously iterating and delivering. In fact, roadmaps can make you more efficient. A roadmap aligns everyone on the team around the goals and plans, providing a clear direction and a way to quickly view priorities. The roadmap is your foundation — it is the "why" behind the "how."
"A roadmap must have exact dates."
If roadmaps are visual timelines, then including exact dates is a must, right? Not quite. While some teams commit to delivering on specific days, others choose to plan in broader time frames — weeks, months, or quarters. A time-based roadmap gives you checkpoints to make sure the work you have committed to is progressing.
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