The ultimate guide to roadmaps
You are ambitious. Maybe you are starting a business, building a new product, managing an initiative, or leading a cross-functional project. Accomplishing anything worthwhile demands plenty of hard work. But it also requires foresight and preparation. You need a bold vision for what you want to achieve and a solid plan for how you will turn your aspirations into reality.
Thoughtful planning upfront is crucial to success. After all, a brilliant idea is not inherently valuable — you have to actually act on it in order to create real value. Making a plan for how you will prioritize and implement your ideas forces you to focus on the essentials. When you can clarify where you are headed, why it matters, and what steps you will take to reach your destination, you are much more likely to reach your intended target.
This is where a roadmap helps. A roadmap is a strategic planning tool you use to visualize how your goals connect to the more detailed tasks within a given time frame. You can chart the direction you are going, link goals to the detailed work, and set a realistic time frame for achievement, given your resources and capacity. You can also communicate the plan to other people and track progress against your objectives.
A roadmap is useful for any type of endeavor you are pursuing, whether you are launching a marketing campaign, offering a new service, or defining a customer loyalty program. Use a roadmap to transform your goals into action and take your strategic planning to the next level.
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.
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.
Historically, roadmaps have been closely associated with the product development process. Many product managers use roadmaps to align multiple groups within an organization and coordinate everyone around a common goal, such as the launch of a new product or feature. Product roadmaps are particularly useful for communicating the high-level product plans to company leadership, cross-functional teams, and customers.
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.
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:
Misconception: "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. It offers a holistic view of how your strategy links to the actual work. Keeping your roadmap separate from other planning materials such as backlogs or customer requests helps you maintain your strategic focus.
Misconception: "A roadmap does 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, it can become outdated as priorities or plans evolve. To keep your roadmap accurate and firmly rooted in reality, adjust dates and details when necessary. Following through on what your roadmap promises helps you stick to the overall strategy and build trust with the people around you.
Misconception: "Roadmaps replace Gantt charts."
Depending on your needs and the scope of work, you might benefit from creating both strategic roadmaps and more detailed Gantt charts. Both are useful planning tools. Some teams that follow agile software methodology may think of a Gantt chart as an artifact of waterfall — overly complex, hard to update, and unrealistic to follow. The reality is that roadmaps and Gantt charts can be valuable (and often complementary) when you use the right tools. In a purpose-built 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 a strategic roadmap or a detailed Gantt chart that captures phases of work, tasks, milestones, and dependencies.
Misconception: "A roadmap must have dates."
Some teams that follow agile 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 progress. The roadmap is your foundation — it is the "why" behind the "how." It is useful and necessary no matter what type of methodology you choose to use.
Misconception: "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. Maybe you want to take a more flexible approach to roadmapping so you can focus on continuous iteration and delivery. But no matter which time frames you choose for your roadmap, dates still matter when you dig into the work. Time boxes give you checkpoints to make sure the work you have committed to is progressing.
A roadmap serves as a foundation. It aligns everyone on the team around the goals and plans, providing a clear direction and a way to quickly view progress. Remember that a roadmap is a promise of what you will deliver, not how you will deliver it. Your roadmap should be strategic, flexible, and adaptable to the methodology you follow — anyone on any type of team can benefit from using one.
How can a roadmap help you succeed?
A roadmap is a guide — it helps you focus on what you want to accomplish and how you will get there. Thinking of your roadmap as a promise forces you to be judicious about what you choose to commit to. You know that you are including only the initiatives and tasks that are most important for achieving your goals. When each work item clearly aligns with your overall objectives, you can be confident that you are investing your time wisely.
There are many benefits to creating and sharing a roadmap:
Company leaders, teammates, and customers are counting on you. Use a roadmap to share what you will deliver and when, then follow through on the plan.
You cannot achieve anything meaningful in a vacuum. Build a roadmap to align others across different teams, portfolios, or areas of the business. Everyone should understand the vision and feel excited about how you will work together to reach it.
What are you working towards, and why? By clarifying the strategy 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. Use a roadmap to share your plans and drive conversations with teammates. You can show direction, visualize progress, and discuss new areas to invest in.
Large or complex projects often require collaboration between multiple teams, functions, or groups within an organization. A roadmap can help you sync everyone who is working towards the goal. Track dependencies and identify bottlenecks to ensure that you deliver on time.
Visually show progress against your strategy and outline how each area of investment ties up to a high-level goal. Build a roadmap to outline how every task or activity is making a real impact on the business.
The exercise of roadmapping forces you to think through what is most important. Use a roadmap to help you make tough tradeoff decisions and prioritize the work that will bring the greatest benefit.
A roadmap is powerful because it succinctly and visually shows what you are working on and why. Allow others inside and outside the organization to view your plans so they can better understand what you are trying to achieve.
Roadmap creators range from company leaders and product managers to IT leaders and project managers. Here are some specific ways that roadmaps help business leaders succeed:
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
And here are a few reasons that product managers benefit from building a product roadmap:
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
What does a roadmap look like?
At its most basic level, a roadmap shows a timeline view of the duration of work items such as goals, themes of work, and activities. But 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 specific 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 and a timeline.
Despite variations in appearance, most compelling roadmaps do share a few attributes. The best roadmaps give a clear direction for where you are headed, show the high-level themes you are pursuing, and include colors and visuals. 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:
This is an example of a strategy roadmap for a fictitious product called Fredwin Cycling.
Use a strategy roadmap to link initiatives to their corresponding goal. In this example, the product strategy maps to the specific releases in purple and blue. The timeline at the top gives a high-level overview of when the team plans to deliver the work.
This is an example of a portfolio roadmap for a fictitious company called Fredwin Software.
A portfolio roadmap shows planned releases across multiple groups or offerings. The blue and green bars represent the two different products (Fredwin Cycling and Fredwin Running), and the dots signify key dates for different release milestones.
This is an example of a features roadmap that shows upcoming releases for Fredwin Cycling.
A features roadmap includes 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.")
IT projects roadmap
This is an example of an IT projects roadmap for the Fredwin IT group.
IT teams use roadmaps for product, platform, and technology planning. 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 a go-to-market roadmap built by a product marketing team.
A go-to-market roadmap gives a complete picture of everything that must be done to accomplish a successful launch. The roadmap above 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.
How to choose a roadmapping tool
While you can create roadmap views in spreadsheet or presentation software, there are several downsides to this approach. For one, it is inefficient. 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 roadmapping 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.
There are many different options for roadmap software. 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.
Roadmaps are not magic. It is your responsibility as a roadmap creator to make your roadmap dynamic. Use it as a tool for achieving your desired results, whether you are starting a company, launching a product, or leading a project or team of people. With a roadmap as your guide, there is no limit to what you will be able to accomplish.
Frequently asked questions about roadmapping
Why is a roadmap important?
A roadmap is important because you can use it to help you achieve your goals and make an impact. Create a roadmap to:
Link goals to work
Show the value you are planning to deliver
Communicate plans to teammates
Customize information for different audiences
Report on progress towards your goals
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.
Is a Gantt chart a roadmap?
Not exactly. Some roadmap views may look similar to Gantt charts, but the purpose of each is different. Gantt charts show the "when" and "what" of your work — everything that must be done by a certain deadline to deliver on time. They typically include the details of how the team will implement the work, with dependencies to monitor and milestones to reach. Roadmaps provide the big-picture direction and timing for work but do not go into the detail on timing that Gantt charts typically do. Think of a Gantt chart as an extension of your roadmap — you can use it to manage the logistics of complex projects with multiple groups and dependencies.
What makes a good technology roadmap?
A technology roadmap is a visualization of your strategic IT plans. IT managers typically create a technology roadmap to communicate the team's goals and plans to the rest of the organization. Examples of big focus areas that might go on a technology roadmap include introducing new systems, updating infrastructure and platforms, and managing a data transformation. Besides linking technology initiatives to organizational goals, a good technology roadmap usually includes goals and initiatives, new system capabilities, release plans, milestones, resources, training, risk factors, and status reports.
How do you create a product roadmap?
There are five key steps to build a strong product roadmap. Here is a brief overview:
1. Define the strategy — outline your vision, goals, and initiatives.
2. Review and evaluate ideas — score ideas against your strategy and prioritize the strongest ones.
3. Define activities — break down the efforts that best support the strategy into smaller chunks of work.
4. Organize into releases — group features into themes or major efforts, then decide on timing.
5. Customize the view — adjust the type of information and level of detail you want to share based on your audience and roadmap tool.