Project roadmap: redundant artifact or secret weapon?
When you need to present your project in a strategic context, one of the most useful documents you can create is a project roadmap. Unlike most other project artifacts, a project roadmap shows not only what’s happening within your project, but also how your project fits within the big picture. It is the sizzle reel for the overarching program, the origin story of your project, and the trailer for the sequels to come – all wrapped into one!
But the exact purpose and definition of a project roadmap is somewhat contentious. Is it a sales tool or is it a reporting tool? Should it be created before the project starts or should it evolve as the project unfolds? Is it just a roll-up of your Gantt chart? Or is it the ace up your sleeve that makes it all click for your executive stakeholders?
After reading this article, you’ll be well equipped to:
- Present your project to your steering committee succinctly and on a whim
- Convince a Dragon’s Den of executive sponsors that your project needs to exist
- Sell in the next phase of the program while you’re wrapping your project up
- Plot a course for yourself from project management to program management or portfolio management
YES! Let’s dive in!
In this article
What Is A Project Roadmap?
“Put away your ruddy Gantt chart, and just give me the headlines.”
The fact of the matter is that many people involved in your project won’t need to absorb all the intimate details of the project the way you as a project manager may need to. Sometimes the most useful thing for people to really grasp is the project’s context and how all the puzzle pieces fit. As colorful and detailed as it is, most people don’t want to see your Gantt. What they need to see is your project roadmap.
The essence of a project roadmap
In its most basic form, a project roadmap is a summary of the context, impetus, and logic of your project in strategic terms. It focuses on the “why” more than the “how” or the “what”, and it keeps things at a level that anyone can understand.
There is admittedly some disagreement on what a project roadmap actually is. Some say it’s a blueprint that you create before a project so that you can make sure the project objectives are clear. Some say it’s an asset you use throughout a project to present high-level status to high-level stakeholders like steering committees and executive sponsors. And others say that it’s a document that you use to pitch the next phase as your project completes.
I’d argue that these are all the same thing. They just have different intentions at different phases of your project.
What’s does a project roadmap include?
At a bare minimum, a project roadmap should include the following:
- The project and program objectives
- A high-level project timeline or milestone view
- A summary of project deliverables or target outcomes
- Related risks & dependencies
In fact, a project roadmap could be a single page or slide that provides an at-a-glance view of the path that the project is taking to arrive at its destination. But it could also include a few other things to bolster the narrative. These things might include:
- The problem statement and/or hypothesis
- A synthesis of the facts and insights that justify the project approach
- The logic and rationale for how the activities will work together to be effective
- A listing of key individuals on the project team and a high-level resource management plan
- The steps beyond the project that are needed to continue the vision for broader success
Creating a highly detailed project roadmap might require its own project (see the section below called “Should you charge for a roadmap?” for more context). But in any case, the core principle is to keep your project roadmap succinct, high-level, and strategic.
What makes a project roadmap different?
Some might argue that a project roadmap is just another project management artefact that is made redundant by other project assets. I’d argue that it is not only unique in nature, but is also used much differently. Let’s do a few comparisons:
Project roadmap vs a Gantt chart or project plan
A Gantt is a detailed view of project activities and dependencies. A project roadmap may include only a high-level timeline view or milestone view, and that view might not even be chronological.
A Tip: If you are looking to make a project plan and Gantt chart, be sure to check out our Project Plan Guide.
Project roadmap vs Project charter
A project charter will indeed include a summary of the project objectives and the high-level details of budget, project timeline, and roles, but is typically a static representation of the project itself more than a living, contextual view of the project. A project roadmap is always being updated and focuses on the context and outcomes of the project.
Project roadmap vs Product roadmap
A product roadmap is typically meant to show the product development plan in terms of features, releases, and user impact. A project roadmap is more about causality and impact: the effect of doing these things will unlock doors along the way to our strategic objectives as an organization.
A Tip: If you are also involved in product management and are looking to create a product roadmap, be sure to check out this great article on Key Things to Include in a Product Roadmap.
Project roadmap vs a Strategic plan
A strategic plan and project roadmap both outline objectives to achieve a goal that will lead towards a broader vision. The main difference is that a strategic plan may be an even higher level view of organizational strategy that spins on multiple programs of projects. A project roadmap describes how the puzzle pieces fit, while a strategic roadmap is the full picture before we took a jigsaw to it.
How To Use A Project Roadmap + Examples
The contents of a project roadmap may differ depending on the intention of the roadmap and when you’re creating it. Based on the three stages described in the previous section, here are three example formats that illustrate a specific use case.
Example 1: The road leading up to the project
A project roadmap can be used to justify a project or present validated assumptions that build confidence that a project should proceed. In this case, the project roadmap could be the output of a discovery phase or even an entirely separate project.
Figure 1. An example of a project roadmap that makes a case for a project to exist.
- A service design project may begin with a research phase to validate hypotheses regarding the viability and accessibility of a digital service before building it. The project roadmap could be one of the outputs that would be used to rally support to greenlight the next steps of the project.
- Ambiguous requirements may warrant a separate project to create a detailed requirements document or prioritized product backlog of user stories. The project roadmap would describe how and why the requirements should be broken into phases and include a more accurate estimate for approval.
- Can be monetized
- Reduces delivery risk by aligning stakeholder expectations and clarifying scope
- Can become the formal proposal
- It’s a heavier document that may need some tailoring for other uses down the road
- Creating this document can be a project in and of itself
What’s in it?
- Background & Context
- Business hypothesis / hypotheses
- Research objectives
- Research methodology
- Research insights & outcomes
- Validated hypothesis / reframes problem statement
- High-level solution
– Project scope statement(s)
– High-level timelines
– High-level budget estimates
– High-level staffing estimates
- Next steps
Example 2: The road we’re traveling
Throughout the project, a project roadmap can be used to raise awareness of a project and provide high-level status updates to peripheral stakeholders as well as new team members or subcontractors.
Figure 2. An example of a project roadmap showing the high-level plan throughout the project.
- You may be asked to present your project at a steering committee meeting, where stakeholders are either being introduced to the project or are orchestrating other related programs. A project roadmap would provide a quick synopsis to drive the conversation.
- When onboarding a new team member to your project, a project roadmap can explain the context quickly so that they understand how their tasks contribute to the bigger picture.
- Easy to digest for folks who are time constrained
- Often a distillation of project assets that already exist
- Can be used to explain high-level sprint goals within your agile project
- Might become yet another artefact to maintain throughout your project
- Often misunderstood as the actual project plan
What’s in it?
- Background & Context
- Actionable research insights
- Program objectives
- Program components & logic/rationale
- Project scope & Project timeline (high-level overview)
- Risks & Mitigation strategies (high-level overview)
Example 3: The road beyond
As a project reaches its successful conclusion, a project roadmap can be used to reiterate the next steps and encourage project sponsors to use the current momentum to continue towards broader strategic objectives.
Figure 3. An example of a project roadmap showing the steps beyond the current project.
- You may be invited to present the project successes to a senior leadership team or executive team so that they can promote the roll-out.
- You may be asked to help plan future phases and adjustments to other related projects based on the outcomes of your current project.
- Great for keeping momentum going into the next phase
- Leverages the success of your current project
- Often needs to be tailored and presented when your project is at its most all-consuming moments
- Can be interpreted as “sales” by stakeholders and team members alike
What’s in it?
- Background & Context
- Program objectives / North Star vision
- Project outcomes & Implications
- Program timeline (high-level overview)
- Risks & Mitigation strategies (high-level overview)
- Next phases
Why Is A Roadmap Important?
Okay, so we’ve talked about what’s in a project roadmap and what you might use it for, but why is it important to have a roadmap? Or, more importantly, what is the impact of not having one?
A huge part of project management is stakeholder management and team management. In that vein, I’d boil down the importance of a project roadmap to two key things:
- Not everyone has the time – a project roadmap allows you to convey the essence of your project in a snackable format for influential, but time-constrained audiences.
- Not everyone has the context – key stakeholders may dismiss or even oppose your project and put it at the bottom of their list of priorities unless they can be convinced that it is important.
But let’s also talk about the impact of not having a project roadmap. To illustrate, let me tell the story of that time I really wished I had a project roadmap.
I was managing a website redesign for a transit agency, and we were in the final throes of approvals and testing. I was due to be on-site at the client’s office the next day, and I got a call from our sponsor asking if I could present the project to their executive committee while I was there.
Easy, right? Just talk about the project for five minutes and be done with it, right?
I spent my evening cobbling together a quick presentation using existing assets from the project. And, before I create unnecessary suspense, I should tell you the presentation actually went fine.
But I had completely missed the boat on communicating the strategic value that would make the broader program matter for my audience.
What I wished I had touched on were:
- The high-level view of how this project fits in with their customer service vision
- The long term impact to their organizational objectives and strategic plan
- What the necessary next steps and future phases are to drive even more return on their initial investment
Because I didn’t have a project roadmap, I wasn’t prepared to use the opportunity to frame the next steps, and ultimately our solution simply launched and stayed more or less the same to this day instead of evolving as a cornerstone digital service.
So, lesson learned: having a project roadmap is an important asset to promote your project and continue the excitement and momentum that you build along the way.
How To Make A Project Roadmap In 5 Steps
Alright, so how do you go about creating a project roadmap? Regardless of what stage of the project lifecycle you are in, your process should look something like this:
1.Assemble the context (The why)
Frame your project with the strategic context, focusing on the “why”. This could mean collecting the strategic objectives, the program vision, and the project objectives from assets like the project charter, the strategic plan, or the product roadmap. Equally, it could also mean conducting research with stakeholders and customers, performing a market assessment, or analyzing business data to validate the project approach (and that can be a project or phase of its own!).
2. Decide how to represent the high-level view (The how)
There are many ways to tell the story of how your project will achieve the objectives. Often this is a timeline summary that is simply a rolled-up Gantt, but it also might not be a chronological view: sometimes a flow chart, affinity diagram, or other visual representation will better represent the logic and dependencies of the project activities or their relationship to the project objectives.
3. Extract the key milestones & deliverables (The what)
Map the key deliverables to the project objectives, and summarize the outcomes they will drive. Based on that, downselect key milestones within your project timeframe so that they can be highlighted and discussed. Remember: without the “so what”, deliverables are just things and milestones are just dates.
4. Summarize the key risks and mitigation strategies
Take the highest impact risks and summarize the mitigation strategies. This could include project risks, but it could also include program risks, market risks, organizational risks. This is your opportunity to show what’s at stake and what precautions you are taking to ensure success.
5. Frame up the next and/or parallel steps
Contextualize your project within the bigger picture by explaining what should happen when the project completes (e.g., future phases, follow-on initiatives) as well as what related activities outside of your project are critica (e.g., your project + website uplift = CSAT problem solved).
Project Roadmap Template
To help you get started, we’ve included a template roadmap for a simple single-page roadmap. Use it during the project planning process or throughout the project lifecycle, but remember to tailor it to reflect your project’s goals.
For more complex examples and discussions about specific strategies for using project roadmaps, consider becoming a member of The Digital Project Manager community.
If you’re looking to create something a bit different, see the section below on recommended roadmap software.
How To Use Roadmapping In Your Process
While it is a good idea to keep your roadmap up to date throughout your project, the good news is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be a daily activity. Here’s how to work it into your process.
Prior to Project Start
A roadmap is a great way to start articulating a case for your project. Start by documenting your ideas into a roadmap format to save yourself time once your project is approved.
At this stage, it may be more of a hypothesis that is part of a broader business case that you and the team are using to drive alignment and build consensus. It definitely won’t be complete, so get comfortable with the idea that this is a living document.
When Initiating the Project
A project roadmap makes a great starting point for a kick-off deck and vice versa. After kick-off, transform your kick-off deck into a roadmap format while it’s still fresh, and keep it up to your sleeve.
When Planning the Project
There’s a lot of activities you could do in your project, but are they all going to drive the desired outcomes? When starting to plan the project in detail, use your project roadmap to keep your perspective grounded in the business objectives.
Once your detailed plan is complete, add or update the relevant details in your project roadmap so that you don’t need to frantically make edits the next time you need to present your roadmap.
When Executing the Project
While the project is in its execution phase, use your project roadmap to brief new team members as well as new stakeholders. This turns a verbal conversation about the nitty-gritty details into a more strategic understanding of where the project sits in the broader vision. It can even boost confidence, engagement, and morale!
When Monitoring & Controlling the Project
If you have a high-level timeline view, update it regularly and use it as the centerpiece for your stand-ups and status meetings so that your team continues to see the forest for the trees. Keep versions of your roadmap if any details change so that you can revisit it as the baseline.
When Closing Out the Project
Incorporate the outcomes of your successful project and how the results will enable next steps in the program or initiative it sits within. Use it to present outcomes to your client team or sponsor as well as your team (e.g., as part of your project retrospective).
Should you charge for roadmapping?
As mentioned above, a project roadmap *could* be the output of a discovery phase or can be created even before the project exists. The main goals of a project roadmap at this stage are to clarify requirements, validate the approach, and increase the accuracy of the estimated costs.
There are three scenarios where it might make sense to charge for project roadmapping:
1. To build an estimate for a complex project
When there are a lot of unknowns and vague requirements surrounding a proposed project, sometimes the best approach for everyone involved is to invest in an initial engagement to elicit and clarify requirements. One of the deliverables might be a project roadmap to summarize the approach.
2. As a discovery phase
Similar to the above, you might begin with a discovery or project planning phase to validate high-level requirements and translate them into an actionable backlog or solution requirements document. In some cases, you might have a stage gate at the end of this phase to re-evaluate the budget and solicit a go / no-go decision on whether to proceed. The roadmap could be the artefact that summarizes the need and drives that decision.
3. As a standalone project
If you work in an organization that has the skills to plan the project but no desire to execute the project, a project roadmap might be your primary output. It would then serve as a blueprint for the next firm, providing strategic direction and rationale without being overly prescriptive.
Recommended Roadmap Software
A project roadmap could be created as a set of slides or an Excel spreadsheet or just a document, but there are also many tools out there that help reduce the effort involved in keeping it up to date.
For example, some project management tools provide a roadmap view that updates dynamically in real-time as your project progresses. Have a look at our list of the top project management software here.
You may also choose to explore tools that are built specifically for roadmapping but be wary that they are also intended for other roadmaps such as product roadmaps.
For a more complex project, you might consider creating a secure microsite to publish project details for a group of stakeholders. This allows asynchronous information sharing while building trust and confidence with peripheral stakeholders who aren’t attending the day-to-day meetings and presentations.
CALLOUT: Looking to create a Gantt chart as well? Be sure to check out our article on Microsoft Project Alternatives.
What Do You Think?
So that’s project roadmaps in a nutshell! They can be used in many different ways using various different tools, but the key is to have a high-level summary that captures the essence of your project for a broad audience. It’s useful when you need to summarize the details and present the forest for the trees on a whim, whether that’s before the project starts, when the project is underway, or as the project is reaching its end.
Do you have any tips for maintaining a project roadmap throughout a project lifecycle? Do you have a novel way to create or use a project roadmap? Let me know in the comments!
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