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Building a Successful Road Map
by Marianne Kay
When I first started working as a team lead, most of my days were filled with solving urgent problems raised by customers and colleagues. My reactive approach kept us busy, but it was a stopgap measure, not a solution. Maintaining the status quo in the short term gave me breathing room to establish relationships with key stakeholders and to get a good understanding of the organization’s culture—something that is fundamentally important for long-term planning. Once this was done, I was in a good position to start working on a road map.
WHAT IS A ROAD MAP?
A road map is a communication and stakeholder management tool that defines the milestones required to reach medium-term objectives. Road maps usually include strategic goals, milestones on a timeline, and a rationale. You can start working on a road map by filling out a simple table with milestones listed underneath each calendar quarter. The road map can later take the form of a PowerPoint presentation, a Word document, or an infographic. The way the road map is presented will be most effective if it reflects the organization’s culture. A formal document can work well in regulated industries, whereas scribbles on a napkin can be just as good for a newly founded startup. A road map is all about planning for the medium term—the time frame goes beyond a couple of months of work covered in the development backlog, but not as far as the organization’s overall long-term vision and strategy.
Road map milestones represent important deliverables, such as projects, releases, digital marketing campaigns, and software upgrades. All milestones need to be linked to strategic objectives, have a significant impact on the business, and deliver value. Capture this information by adding a short narrative with a rationale for each milestone, which aims to answer why the milestone is important, why it is necessary at this point in time, and what its benefits are to the business.
The way milestones are positioned on a timeline reflects a rough estimate of how long these initiatives will take, but it is important to understand that these estimates are not commitments—they are best guesses. It may be useful to add markers on the timeline with important events that affect business targets (such as seasonal events, trade shows, and the end of a fiscal year).
Ultimately, the goal of the road map is to achieve stakeholder alignment on what needs to be delivered over the next year or 2 and in what order. The road map represents features and services that your customers are looking for, initiatives that your project sponsors are willing to support, and projects that satisfy security, legal, and compliance requirements—all aligned beautifully in a single document.
However, the road map document is simply the evidence of the stakeholder alignment. That’s why a road map on a napkin can be just as effective as a long Word document with three appendixes. If all stakeholders are happy with it, it works. To ensure stakeholder alignment, you should 1) identify stakeholders and arrange one-to-one meetings to gather input, 2) allow sufficient time for stakeholders to provide information and feedback, 3) send updates to all stakeholders as the road map evolves, and 4) hold a meeting with all stakeholders to secure alignment. Resist the temptation to use intuition to cut corners and produce the road map faster. Road maps that are created by one or two people in isolation from the rest of the organization lack stakeholder buy-in that’s fundamental to the road map’s success.
Road maps shift the conversation between stakeholders from arguing to collaboration, which makes it easier to unblock barriers to delivery. For example, problems with funding or skills gaps can be discussed and addressed ahead of time. Road maps help teams to prioritize their work, because knowing that there is a plan for all important activities makes it easier to focus on the task at hand and avoid becoming overwhelmed. It also means that there is a clear snapshot of the bigger picture, which allows teams to challenge the value of unexpectedly complex tasks against the strategic goals and reprioritize if necessary.