Why your project roadmap isn’t just another project plan

Have you ever started prepping for a project, jotting down all of the details you could think of, only to quickly realize that you’ve lost sight of the big picture? It’s like setting aside an hour to tidy up your house, then before you know it, you’ve spent the entire sixty minutes tackling only your junk drawer.

When taking on a complex project, details are important. However, it’s just as important to be able to quickly see the big picture without getting into the weeds.

This is where the project roadmap comes into play.

This post will cover the basics every project manager needs to know about project roadmaps — what roadmaps are, what they include, and how to create one. Armed with this valuable information, your projects will have a better chance of staying on-time and under budget.

What is a project roadmap?

A project roadmap is a visual representation of your project’s big picture.

Unlike the project plan, which spells out the project’s details on a micro level, the project roadmap keeps it simple with a high-level view only. The roadmap shows key objectives and milestones on an estimated timeline. It exists so that everyone — even those who aren’t involved with the execution side — can easily grasp the overarching strategy.

When everyone has a firm grasp on the strategy, the project remains a collaborative effort. The project roadmap allows stakeholders to stay in the know because it’s free of technical jargon. In turn, stakeholders are in a better position to offer feedback to the development team. Ultimately, the project roadmap serves as a great halfway point for collaboration.

Click here for Asana’s visual example of an IT project roadmap.

What’s included in an IT project roadmap?

Your project roadmap should be free of intricacies and details. But what should it include? What information is high-level enough to make the cut?

The typical project roadmap contains the following:

  • Goals and objectives
  • Dependencies
  • Workstreams
  • Milestones
  • Risks
  • Timeline
  • Updates

Let’s briefly cover what these components are.

  • Goals and objectives: 31% of companies report that the top reason projects fail is confusion around the project objectives. To set yourself up for success, clearly define what you hope this project will achieve (goals) and the steps that will be taken to achieve them (objectives). Make them realistic and measurable. Including them on the roadmap will ensure that everyone — from the higher-ups to the internal team — stays on the same page.
  • Dependencies: If a task, objective, or milestone is contingent upon the completion of another, that’s a dependency that needs to be represented on your project roadmap. By knowing how different items relate to one another, you avoid bottlenecks, which are constraints in the workflow.
  • Workstreams: Also called “swimlanes,” workstreams categorize the activities on your project roadmap. For example, you might create a workstream for each department, or if team members are cross-functional, workstreams might be based on the type of work. Including workstreams makes it easier to comprehend the data on the project roadmap by breaking the work up into digestible chunks, which is especially helpful in such a high-level overview.
  • Milestones: Milestones represent the completion of significant phases within the overall process. It can be any marker of transition to the next phase, such as getting approval by higher-ups, holding a key meeting, or finalizing a significant deliverable.
  • Risks: This one is simple. Point out anything that could put the project or timeline in jeopardy from a high-level view. Identifying them now in your project roadmap will set the stage for devising a more thorough risk management plan later on. But for now, don’t dive in. Hint: Your dependencies are a good place to start identifying potential risks.
  • Timeline: By timeline, we’re not talking about day-to-day scheduling. Remember to keep it high-level. The goal is to have rough estimates of key dates so that stakeholders know what to expect.
  • Updates: Keep in mind that the project roadmap serves as a point of communication between stakeholders and the project team throughout the entire process. It’s not a one-and-done printout to be handed out during the initiation stage. Therefore, it’s crucial that the roadmap stays up-to-date with the most recent changes.

Note: This might seem like a lot of ground to cover for a “high-level overview,” but remember that it’s all in your execution of the project roadmap. Keep it broad! Resist the urge to divide objectives into tasks and subtasks, and take a step back — more than once — to be sure you’re capturing the big picture.

And that brings us to the next part: How do you set about creating a project roadmap in the first place? Here’s a step-by-step process:

How to create a project roadmap

Here are five steps to creating an awesome project roadmap.

1. Gather the goods.

And by goods, we’re talking about two documents in particular: your business case and project charter, which you’ll have created by the time you start on your roadmap. The former is a document that justifies why a project is worth the investment; The latter is a document that spells out all of the information that’ll be in your roadmap.

2. Choose a roadmap template.

Don’t reinvent the wheel by starting your roadmap from scratch. Roadmap templates are ready-made layouts — all you need to do is input your project’s information. Project managers can also take the software route. Simply plug in the data, and the software will create the roadmap for you. Our pick? Asana Timeline. (As an added bonus, Asana integrates seamlessly with Clockwise!)

3. Input the data.

With your business case and project charter on hand, this step should be as simple as copy and pasting.

4. Make it collaborative.

Creating the roadmap is the project manager’s task, but involving stakeholders and team members ensures that your roadmap includes all critical objectives or other big-picture items.

5. Keep it fresh.

Your project roadmap is a living document. It’s only useful if it’s relevant. Update!

Additional tips

  • Since roadmaps include project timelines, it’s normal to confuse them with Gantt charts. However, a Gantt chart doesn’t provide an overview of the project but is concerned with task execution on a smaller scale.
  • Project roadmaps are also not to be confused with product roadmaps, the latter of which zeroes in on business objectives rather than project objectives.

Voilà! If you followed these steps, you should have a bird’s eye view of the project. As a project manager, you’ll use your newly-crafted project roadmap to run a successful kickoff meeting that aligns everyone’s expectations and creates a unified vision. Plus, your roadmap lays the foundation for you to create a more thorough project plan.

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