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Everything You Need to Know about Project Roadmaps

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Project managers need to be able to quickly tell the story of their projects, and the project roadmap is a key visual tool for doing so. From setting expectations to updating stakeholders and the management team, a well-thought-out project roadmap is a vital component of your project planning documentation.

In this guide, you’ll learn what is a project roadmap, the crucial components to include in your roadmap, and the differences between a roadmap and other planning documents. Additionally, you’ll find suggestions for software tools to use during project planning and execution to connect all pieces of the project management puzzle.

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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.


What Is a Roadmap in a Project?

In a project, a roadmap serves as a high-level overview of important deliverables, dependencies, possible risks, and key players. The project manager compiles the project roadmap, which is used throughout the project’s lifecycle as both a communication tool and a reference guide to ensure that you stay on track to meet overall goals.

What Is a Product Development Roadmap?

A product 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 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.

How to Maximize the Utility of Your Project Scope Statement

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.

Benefits and Challenges 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 project plans and goals. Your project roadmap is a high-level, highly visual document. This 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, timeline, etc. early on will ensure that everyone is on the same page from the get-go and help you identify non-negotiable vs. flexible aspects of the project.
  • Communicate plans with other important teams/organizations. 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, you can refer to your project roadmap for the most important goals and deliverables, which will enable you to prioritize tasks and make decisions quickly.
  • Create up-to-date snapshots of your projects and people, shared with colleagues and customers. Ideally, you should update your project roadmap so that at any given point, it serves as a status update for any interested parties.

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 to plan for the future. Many teams are not realistic in their project roadmap, which can lead to delays, cost overruns, or mismatched expectations down the road.
  • The team fails to share their progress with the rest of the organization. Be sure that you share your project roadmap with all relevant parties, even departments that are not directly involved in project execution but may be impacted in some way.
  • The roadmap is not continuously updated. 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.
  • The roadmap is updated too frequently. Consequently, the team may not trust the leadership to make strategic, long-range decisions.
  • Detailed requirements weigh down the roadmap. Remember, a key aspect of a project roadmap is its high-level view. Don’t get so mired in the details that it becomes dense or difficult to understand at a glance.
  • Long-term endeavors can seem too big and too difficult to handle during shorter iterations. When this happens, the team could break down the work into extrafine detail and focus too heavily on the short-term achievements.

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.

Make Better Decisions, Faster with Smartsheet Dashboards

To be effective, a product roadmap must be highly visual so that viewers can gain an understanding of goals, expectations, and deliverables at a glance. One way to build a product roadmap is to create a digital dashboard that showcases all important project information in a dynamic, visual form.

Smartsheet is an enterprise work management platform that fundamentally changes the way teams, leaders, and businesses get work done. Over 74,000 brands and millions of information workers trust Smartsheet as the best way to plan, capture, manage, automate, and report on work.

With dashboards in Smartsheet, you’ll have real-time visibility into work progress to make better decisions and keep your teams on the same page every step of the way. The configurable, widget-driven dashboards enable users to highlight the information that’s most relevant to their business — without the need for technical support. Know the status of your business at a glance, gain insights, and accelerate your team’s innovation all in one platform.

Discover how Smartsheet dashboards will help your team make better-informed decisions, fast.

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