This post was originally published on January 20, 2017, and updated most recently on February 10, 2021
One of the biggest misconceptions new Agile teams have is that they have to abandon the concept of a roadmap for the sake of constant adaptability. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Agile teams still have roadmaps, long-term plans, and commitments. The difference is, their roadmaps allow for the flexibility necessary to react to new information quickly.
Roadmaps are essential for giving teams context around their everyday work. But they must be able to respond to shifts in the competitive landscape, user’s needs or desires, user’s responses to new releases, and any other new and relevant information acquired along the engineering journey.
Understanding the agile roadmap
A roadmap is a high-level plan of action for how and why to build and deliver a product over time. The most important function of a roadmap is to demonstrate how the work ahead will support the overall vision for the product.
While an agile roadmap may contain details about functionality and features, it shouldn’t become a secondary product backlog. Rather, the agile roadmap should focus on goals (some people even refer to it as a ‘goal-oriented product roadmap’). Features change all the time. However, the goals of your product should remain relatively stable since they’re directly tied to the product’s vision.
Building your agile roadmap
The Product Owner has a lot to take into account when building the roadmap. Thinking of the roadmap in terms of goals rather than features will steer the product toward a mission-driven outcome rather than simply work-driven output.
To build your roadmap, start by writing out some of the goals your product has. Make sure to clearly explain how these goals serve your greater vision. For example, you might have a goal of expanding your user base, improving retention, or entering a new market segment. How can you tie these back to your vision? What metrics would you use to track success? How important are these goals in relation to one another?
Next, select the features or functionality that might support those goals. Timeline out the development efforts they would require. And add in your metrics. If you’ve made it this far, your roadmap is already looking pretty sharp.
You may notice that thinking of your agile roadmap in terms of goals actually helps streamline the feature selection process. Rather than endlessly weighing how good/helpful a feature is, you can select initiatives based on which few features meet the goal in the allotted time frame in the most efficient way possible.
Thinking about features in this way keeps your roadmap flexible and always open to the idea that best serves the goal at the time.
Using your roadmap
At a minimum, your roadmap needs to be readily available to the entire product team. Even better would be to make it available to your entire company, so all departments are up-to-date on the product. With a clear roadmap available to every team, stakeholder, and manager, it’s much easier to achieve organizational alignment.
Some organizations still rely on spreadsheets and PowerPoint files to create and share their roadmaps. However, static documents that live in emails or shared drives alone are ineffective. Firstly, version control can become a nightmare. And secondly, there’s no easy way to ensure that everyone in the company is regularly checking the roadmap for updates.
Luckily, modern collaboration tools — like our very own Backlog — make it easy to build an interactive timeline with features like Gantt charts, milestones, and versions. Moreover, these timelines can tie your initiatives directly to your team’s tasks and automatically notify participants of changes.
To ensure that your roadmap is useful to the team, first, keep it up-to-date. Second, assign an accountable person to each unit of work. Using the Scrum framework, you can combine user stories, sprints, versions, and epics to divide and organize your team’s work.
Breaking down your roadmap
While your whole roadmap (usually) represents a single sprint, you can break it up even more. Just like breaking down a molecule to all of its essential parts, you can do the same with your roadmap.
Once everyone is linked to your roadmap, you can further break it down into epics. You can then do the same again into user stories in your backlog. Similar to when you determined which work would live in your roadmap, and “epic” is a chunk of work in your backlog that can easily be broken down into smaller tasks. User stories, or just “stories,” are requirements and requests written with your end-user in mind. It can be extremely helpful to be able to focus on smaller pieces of your sprint instead of trying to take on the whole roadmap at once.
Evolving your roadmap
As new releases reach your users, markets fluctuate, and competitors innovate, the individual initiatives or metrics you choose to support your roadmap’s goals can easily change without derailing the product’s progress overall. Introducing and prioritizing goals will become the more time-consuming part of your roadmap. But because your roadmap maintains a high-level perspective of your product, you can address goals without feeling bogged down by an endless list of features.
The ability to measure results, research solutions, and pivot timelines as you go is the fundamental advantage of an agile roadmap. The roadmap will always evolve as the team learns more about its customers, the market, and the product itself. Rather than going ahead with a plan regardless of changing external factors, your product can remain poised for continued success.
Common pitfalls of the agile roadmap
Agile teams run into a few common pitfalls when first adjusting to an agile roadmap.
- When you update the roadmap too often or too drastically, the team can lose confidence in both the roadmap itself and in their leadership team’s strategic vision.
- If you don’t update the roadmap often enough, the product can fall behind in regards to market expectations, leaving it perpetually one step behind its competitors.
- If the team gets too caught up in short-term iterations, they can lose sight of larger, long-term goals, making it impossible for the product to ever reach its full potential.
As with most things in life, the answer is simple: Everything in moderation (even moderation). Remain flexible enough to make quick changes when necessary. But try to leave roadmap reviews to a bi-monthly or even quarterly basis. The key is to strike a balance between short-term tactics and long-term strategic goals.