Everything You Need to Know about Project Roadmaps

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

December 9, 2016 (updated July 25, 2022)

Project managers can use a project roadmap to tell the story of their project. A well-thought-out project roadmap sets stakeholder and management expectations and keeps all parties updated along the way. 

Included on this page, you’ll learn what a project roadmap is, the crucial components to include, and the differences between a roadmap and a project plan. Plus, you’ll find some examples of project roadmaps.

What Is a Project Roadmap?

A project roadmap is a high-level, easy-to-understand overview of the important pieces of a project. It’s a resource that you can share with anyone to provide a quick snapshot of the work’s aims, important milestones, key deliverables, dependencies, and possible risks.

The project manager compiles the project roadmap and uses it as a key communication tool prior to and during project kickoff to set appropriate expectations, share high-level plans, and highlight important components of the work to come.

With the right stakeholders and project contributors at the table, the simple, graphical nature of a project roadmap helps set the stage for a successful project. Essentially, it should be an easy-to-digest infographic that communicates the most critical details of your project to any interested parties.

It is also important to note what project roadmap is not:

  • A Project Plan: While it can be connected to a product roadmap, a project plan is the backbone of your project once activities are underway. The critical components that make up a highly functional project plan (such as resource management, start and finish dates, and critical path) are too detailed to include in your project roadmap.
  • A Project Charter: A project charter is an excellent tool to keep your project team and key stakeholders on the same page, working toward the same goal and operating from the same playbook. While it may share elements with your charter, the project roadmap is effective for working with a wider audience and should be approached from that angle.
  • A Resource Management Tool: It is important to see how your resources are allocated across one project or multiple projects, and every team should have a method to make sure its people are working on the right areas (and aren’t overextended). However, this level of detail is too in-depth for your project roadmap. Your project roadmap can include key contacts working on your project, but even that can be too much information.
  • A Product Roadmap: A product roadmap provides information about a development-specific undertaking (one with an end product) and is typically more detailed than a project roadmap. We’ll explain more about the differences between the two below.
  • A Backlog or a List of Features: Though a project roadmap does include key deliverables, it is much more than a to-do list. A backlog and features list simply itemize and prioritize unmet needs, but a project roadmap is a visual tool that also includes high-level goals, deliverables, a timeline, etc.
  • A Project Management Tracker: Teams often use a project management tracker to maintain scheduling over the course of a project. A project roadmap is much less detailed and merely offers a rough timeline that can change as the project evolves.
  • An Epic: In Agile methodologies, an epic is a large chunk of work (including multiple tasks) that shares one common objective. By contrast, a project roadmap can outline multiple goals, and it includes the supporting information outlined below.

Although the project manager will usually create the project roadmap, team members, internal and external stakeholders, customers, and product owners and managers also use it.

A project roadmap is appropriate for many types of projects, including the following:

  • Marketing plan or project
  • IT strategy
  • Sales
  • Strategy development
  • New business development
  • Technology project
  • Project portfolio management

Though this article mainly focuses on project roadmaps in enterprise, they are also found in other industries, such as education or healthcare.

Project Roadmap vs. Project Plan

Project roadmaps and project plans are both important, distinct tools. A project plan is used to plan and manage project execution and project control, while a project roadmap is the big picture of the project’s course.

In a project plan, you’ll record the schedule, scope, and cost baselines. This document also tracks project-related decisions and assumptions, and the communication plan. The project plan is a working document that is updated on an ongoing basis, and the project roadmap shows the current state of many of those updates.

What Is a Product Development Roadmap?

A product development roadmap is a strategic vision of the path ahead for a specific product (software, hardware, etc.).

Project and product roadmaps share a few similarities:

  • Both are forward-looking.
  • Both keep stakeholders informed and are an easy way to encourage feedback.
  • Both should convey a story with a picture.

However, the two are distinct, and you should take these differences into consideration when creating them:

  • Product roadmaps are much more detailed than project roadmaps, and they include requirements and tactical steps.
  • Project roadmaps can be used to steer any kind of project work, while product roadmaps are specific to development projects.

Interested in learning more about the key components of product roadmaps? These best practices and expert tips cover everything you need to know.

What to Include in Your Project Roadmap

To build an effective project roadmap, project managers must pull themselves out of the weeds and focus on the high-level details. Your roadmap needs to be short and highly visual – everything should fit on one page. Ultimately, you want to create a snapshot of your project that viewers can digest at a glance.

Here are some key elements to include in your project roadmap:

  • High-Level Project Overview: Be succinct and concise when documenting your goals, objectives, and priorities for each initiative. You should aim for a few sentences at most.
  • Schedule Overview: What does the general timeline look like? Don’t worry about too many details here — that’s what your project plan is for — but do map out when you will work on each initiative, and note any hard deadlines that the team needs to meet.
  • Key Milestones: Make sure to highlight a few important dates. Use your project roadmap to clearly identify the most important dates from the start. Remember that the visual element is important for setting proper expectations with others in your organization who won’t be working on your project day in and day out.
  • Dependencies: At a high level, show important deliverables and their connections, along with how they contribute to project success.
  • Resource Allocation: Provide an estimate of the cost and human resources needed to complete your project. Ensure that the personnel you request have enough time to complete what you are requesting; if they don’t, make a plan to reorganize the team to adequately divide the workload.
  • Key contacts: Identify the go-to people on your project team and provide their contact information. This is particularly helpful when you are engaging with external stakeholders, such as consultants.

To save time and effort, you can use a premade template to create your project roadmap. Check out this article for a variety of free, downloadable templates.

Why Is a Project Roadmap Important?

A project roadmap provides an easy way to see the status of a project, and keeps all parties on the same page. Below, you’ll find additional benefits of a project roadmap.

Benefits of a Project Roadmap

There are numerous benefits to creating a strong project roadmap — namely, you lay out a clear plan so that all team members have a shared understanding of the scope, timeline, and goals of the project. Additionally, a strong project roadmap can help you do the following:

  • Quickly Communicate Plans and Goals: Your project roadmap is a high-level, highly visual document, which makes it easy to quickly relay important information to stakeholders.
  • Manage Stakeholder Expectations: Although the project roadmap is high level and open to change, setting goals, expectations, budget, and timeline early on will ensure that everyone is on the same page from the get-go and will help you identify non-negotiable vs. flexible aspects of the project.
  • Communicate With Other Teams: As appropriate, you should be able to share your project roadmap with anyone related to the project.
  • Stimulate Priority Decisions: As new constraints and variables arise, refer to your project roadmap for the most important goals and deliverables, which will help you to prioritize tasks and make decisions quickly.
  • Create Up-to-Date Project Snapshots: Update your project roadmap continuously so that at any given point, it serves as a status update for any interested parties.

Challenges of a Project Roadmap

Of course, creating a project roadmap comes with some challenges. Below is a list of common pitfalls to watch for as you build your roadmap:

  • The Team Neglects Future Planning: Many teams are not realistic in their project roadmap, which can lead to delays, cost overruns, or mismatched expectations down the road.
  • Failure to Share Progress With the Organizations: Be sure that you share your project roadmap with all relevant parties, even departments that are not directly involved in project execution but that may be impacted in some way.
  • Failure to Continuously Update the Roadmap: In this scenario, the project might be significantly behind schedule or, in the case of a product, arrive too late on the market and miss out on the highest-possible demand.
  • Updating the Roadmap Too Frequently: Consequently, the team may not trust the leadership to make strategic, long-range decisions.
  • Creating Too Detailed Requirements: Remember, a key aspect of a project roadmap is that it takes a high-level view. Don’t get so mired in the details that it becomes dense or difficult to understand at a glance.
  • Creating Too Complex Long-Term Endeavors: When this happens, the team could break down the work into extra-fine detail and focus too heavily on the short-term achievements.

How to Create a Project Roadmap

You can easily create a project roadmaps with a free downloadable template. Choose the template that best meets your needs (there are templates for multiple projects, Agile projects, IT strategy projects, and more), gather the information you need to fill out the template, and you’re on your way. 

Read more about creating project roadmaps.

Examples of Project Roadmaps

Here are a few sample project roadmaps:

Features Roadmap

Features Roadmap Template

This example shows the status of the features that are being added to an app. You can see the category of each feature and its scheduled start and completion dates.

Multiple Projects Roadmap

This example allows you to compare projects that are running concurrently. You can easily the status of each phase of each project. For related projects, you’ll be able to better understand what will happen to one project if another falls behind.

Sprint Roadmap

If you work in an Agile environment, knowing the status of work being performed in simultaneous sprints by different teams can help you have a better idea of the work that can realistically be completed by the end of each sprint.

Tips on Creating a Project Roadmap

Creating a project roadmap is relatively straightforward, but by taking a few extra steps, you can help maximize its effectiveness. Below are some tips for how to create a project roadmap:

  • Define the project plan and examine key components.
  • Define and assign the roles and responsibilities (you may need to include people from other departments or even external resources).
  • Identify the key stakeholders, both internal and external.
  • Hold a kickoff meeting to go over the project roadmap and level expectations.
  • Develop the project scope statement.
  • Analyze the project’s risks and quality.
  • Develop a communication plan for going forward.

How to Use Your Project Roadmap to Conduct an Effective Project Kickoff

Once you’ve built your roadmap, let it set the stage for your work. Your simple snapshot of project work can help ensure stakeholders and project contributors develop mutual understandings from day one.

Keep these objectives in mind as you prepare for your next kickoff meeting:

  • Build a sense of alignment and set realistic expectations. Before too much hands-on work is underway, gather stakeholders and your project team and use the opportunity to help build relationships among these key contributors. Your project roadmap can be the visual cue to imbue everyone with a shared understanding of the big picture. When everyone feels a shared sense of purpose and expectations are clear up front, you will build a solid foundation to help your team weather the storms that can arise from scope creep and other unanticipated obstacles.
  • Establish and agree upon clear goals. Your team will greatly benefit from being able to see and work from clearly communicated and established goals. When your project is in full swing and prioritizing duties feels like a challenge, empower your team to come back to the roadmap and reassess how their decisions and tasks fit into the greater picture and purpose of your work.
  • Identify key resources and put faces to names. At the kickoff meeting, have your team introduce themselves to new stakeholders or people from other departments. It’s helpful to connect faces and names and give everyone the time to share working and communication preferences, thus leveling the playing field for an equitable working environment.

How and Why to Turn Your Project Roadmap into a Living Document

Project roadmaps are incredibly useful in preplanning and setting the stage for success, but unless they are directly connected to your project work, your roadmaps will be outdated the moment you leave your kickoff meeting.

For your roadmap to be a helpful communication tool and guidepost, the driving factor must be your underlying project plan, which will also simplify your pre-project work greatly. Luckily, a number of tools on the market will help in this process, which we’ll discuss in the following section.

Get the Most Out of Your Project Roadmap with Smartsheet

From simple task management and project planning to complex resource and portfolio management, Smartsheet helps you improve collaboration and increase work velocity -- empowering you to get more done. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed.

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.

 

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