How To Develop Your Business’ Technology Roadmap

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Cache Merril is a Zibtek Founder. Zinch Tech Cofounder. Degreed Technical Advisor. Currently, brings Oncourse CRM to market. More about Cache ↬

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Software development without a roadmap is akin to driving off a cliff — an undertaking that seriously jeopardizes your product’s life. Here’s how to develop a business technology roadmap that ensures your project safely reaches its final destination.

When people have an idea for a piece of software or an app, they tend to be pretty energized about getting it to market as quickly as possible. It’s exciting to create an app or piece of software no one’s ever imagined or built before. As software developers, we’re usually right there with them.

At some point, though, we need to sit down with clients and give them a sometimes sobering reality: software development without a business technology roadmap can be a lot like driving aimlessly from point A to point Z. Sure, you get to discover new worlds and experience unexpected adventures, but you also frequently get lost, spend more money, and can lose enthusiasm for the journey.

“Agile” And “Fast” Are Not The Same In Software Development

Many people think an Agile approach to software development discards long-term planning. Perhaps it’s because we so often use the word “sprint” in conversation. In reality, all good software development must flow from a business technology roadmap, as it:

  • Provides context around the development team’s daily work.
  • Responds to shifts in, among other things, the competitive landscape.

So, what is a business technology roadmap, and how can one be developed to support software development? That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What Is A Business Technology Roadmap?

Unlike detailed blueprints that lay out all tasks, deadlines, bug reports, and more along the way, technology roadmaps are high-level visual summaries highlighting a company’s vision or plans.

In an Agile approach, a technology roadmap feeds the sprint and grooming processes, providing insight into how the product will travel from start to finish. It makes it easier for development teams to:

  • Understand how the product will evolve.
  • Make near-term decisions that don’t compromise future work.
  • Gain awareness of which features are or aren’t working.

Companies can use technology roadmaps to review their internal IT, DevOps, infrastructure, architecture, software, internal system, and hardware procurement policies and procedures with innovation and efficiency in mind. The roadmap helps them define how a new IT tool, process, or technology supports their business strategy and growth and aligns projects with short and long-term goals.

There are hundreds of templates companies use for their tech roadmaps. A typical IT roadmap covers everything from requirements to testing and integrations. A dev team’s work dictates software or development roadmaps, highlighting tech initiatives, epics, and features while communicating the team’s primary goals.

There are hundreds of templates companies use for their tech roadmaps. That’s what a roadmap could look like. (Large preview)

For a typical client, a roadmap follows the following structure.

  • We created a list of all the features based on competition and wish list,
  • We narrowed that down based on what we wanted to be and what our beta users wanted,
  • We used that narrowed list to start technical planning and user stories,
  • As new features came up, we ran that through the roadmap to know if it fits in or how it should be prioritized,
  • We adjusted the roadmap if needed every 3-5 months.

The Role A Technology Roadmap Plays In An Agile Approach

In practice, a technology roadmap in Agile software development:

  • Facilitates planning activities by recognizing the journey is just as important as the destination. It forces teams to “come out of the weeds” and think more strategically.

    How this might play out: Your dev team suggests that the product needs built-in calling, meeting scheduling, and multi-layer reporting features. That forces you into planning activities like grooming meetings and getting outside feedback where you dissect each feature and come up with scenarios for setting them up. You might also discuss things like vendor selection for each feature. Conversations tend to follow an “or” pattern, as in “are we going to do this, or this, or that?”

  • Highlights key focus areas and works as a navigational tool to help the entire team succeed.

    How this might play out: Putting a spotlight on the areas the team needs to focus on forces you to decide who you want to be and what you want to become. Put another way, if you’re tailoring your product to a specific group, say inside sales reps, highlighting core features that matter to this narrower group of users helps eliminate tasks that might be used in other projects.

  • Works as a critical communication tool both within the teams and with other key stakeholders.

    How this might play out: As your project progresses and team members remind you about particular features stakeholders said they wanted, you can easily refer back to the roadmap to see if it was there in the first place. You can see where you chose to make certain development decisions, i.e., “we chose to be an inside sales rep tool,” and “we chose to be this or that.” This acts as sort of a forcing function, helping you revise the roadmap and rearrange the order and priority of tasks based on how they affect your schedule and deadline goals.

Different development companies and teams use different charts to construct their agile product roadmap, but they all tend to include:

  • A “longer-term strategic theme,” which points teams in a specific direction based on their assigned tasks.
  • A list of quarterly outcomes or objectives and key results (OKR) goals that each team will focus on to achieve the strategic theme. These goals basically answer the question, “what are the things we may build?” The answer lies in how you define success. Each team gives their best guesses as to how they’ll achieve each quarter’s goals.
  • Additional columns contain OKR goals, but with fewer and fewer “things we may build” listings. That’s because teams don’t know what they’ll be working on three or four quarters out so there are fewer best guesses. As the project moves forward and goes through testing, the boxes for the later quarters fill up.

More detailed software roadmaps cover milestones like player launch, product details like user profiles, UX/UI such as desktop icons and wireframes, and dev goals like press-to-play and performance enhancements.

Unlike traditional software development approaches, Agile focuses on the strategy, not the plan. That means outcomes, not outputs, are prioritized; tactical plans are left for backlogs. In a way, they’re designed to communicate uncertainty and provide transparency into what stops along the way are likely to remain as is and which might be in flux. For this reason, it’s crucial to update Agile roadmaps often as priorities shift and change.

How A Technology Roadmap Feeds The Agile Sprint And Grooming Processes

Sprints frequently go off track, which can have a negative effect on downstream operations. A technology roadmap helps teams run more successful sprints by setting a foundation and identifying how work should be organized so activities can be finished in a short time period.

  • A sprint goal refers to what can be delivered in the sprint.
  • A sprint backlog is the list of tasks to be completed during the sprint to achieve the goal.

To illustrate, let’s say you want to develop a new product feature. During the sprint planning meeting, team members need to “groom” the backlog and say which tasks they’ll work on. This is where many teams are led down the wrong path. They assume planning for the next two weeks is easy-peasy. They overlook or forget the work they’re planning must also satisfy the established goal.

A good backlog:

  • Lists each work item in order of importance.
  • Includes full-developed user stories the team can begin to execute on.
  • Has a current estimate for each work item.

Because it’s easy for teams to get bogged down in the details of a project, a technology roadmap helps them stay focused on high-level objectives and true customer needs.

The Role Of A Technology Roadmap In Digital Transformation

Today’s digital transformations focus on three key areas: customer experience, operational processes, and business models. Whether it’s for a small company or multi-national enterprise, a well-developed business technology roadmap helps companies reach short and long-term digital transformation goals by allowing them to:

  • Remain agile enough to accommodate course changes.
  • Build long-term value in the product.
  • Avoid roadblocks and other obstacles.
  • Because digital transformation is a relatively new concept, it’s often a journey filled with blind spots. What does it mean in terms of the scope and intensity of change? What will the repercussions be of pursuing and implementing it?

On the one hand, the digital transformation process is seen as using technologies to create new or modify existing business models. On the other hand, it’s about companies needing to embrace new cultures, structures, and processes that align with their IT architecture. One thing’s for sure: digital transformation is a fundamental change for any company.

A technology roadmap assists overall digital transformation goals by answering some key questions:

  • How is digital changing or poised to change the business and its industry?
  • What new offerings, operating models, and business models can it enable?
  • How is digital affecting the business’s competitive advantage? Where does the company remain well-positioned, and where is it disadvantaged?
  • Which digital opportunities are consistent with a company’s strategy based on value potential? In what order should the business pursue them?
  • What gaps in systems and capabilities need to be filled to succeed?
  • What are the targets, timelines, and accountabilities for individual projects and programs? What steps are needed to finance the journey?

Just about every business can benefit from developing their business technology roadmap as part of their digital transformation plan. New digital advances and the opportunity to improve traditional technologies to change customer relationships and employee experiences put businesses on a clear and rewarding path for turning technology into transformation.

Creating A Technology Roadmap To Drive Successful Innovation

Many businesses already have a technology roadmap. The question is whether that map is pointing to where they want to go, or has it only carried them to the present leg of the journey? Are they focused only on existing projects, or are they anticipating future breakthroughs?

The best technology roadmaps continually evolve, adding new destination points and aligning all resources and capabilities behind long-term goals. It’s not an easy process, but a methodical approach helps.

1. Identify Goals

Technology roadmaps must integrate long-term goals and visions. It’s often best to start at the end and work backward. For instance, in software development, milestones are often thought of as software releases or new versions of a project. But with a business roadmap, goals and initiatives also include things like hitting revenue targets or launching in a new region or market, basically anything that’s a significant result of combined efforts.

2. Seek Input From Stakeholders

For smaller businesses, this often means involving everyone. Including all pertinent stakeholders and decision-makers brings different views and priorities to the table and helps establish a clear direction for where the company’s headed. As collaboration is key to most business success, it also increases the chance of the roadmap being implemented. For specific projects, it weighs all pros and cons and ensures the new technology meets everyone’s particular needs.

3. Evaluate Current Systems And Chart A Course

All business technology roadmaps include negotiating a budget. Now’s the time to question previous decisions to see if they still align with the company’s vision. For example, a company has the goal of doubling customers, so assumes it must increase hardware capacity to meet it. That can cost significant sums of money. Another approach might be to make strategic changes to the software or combine current tools with custom software, typically a far less expensive strategy.

4. Be Open To Change

Clear vision and a revised budget in hand, it’s now possible to view the business landscape with a critical set of eyes looking. Perhaps a company previously developed a custom app because no existing product satisfied its needs — but now that software exists! The custom software could possibly be retired for the new software that will be supported by someone else.

That makes it possible to use in-house staff to develop new, potentially more profitable products. Sometimes bringing in an outside consultant to audit systems, processes, and teams help identify changes a business can make to support improvements and future initiatives.

5. Set Priorities

Up next is determining what’s critical, blocking, or simple. Items should be prioritized, and continuous feedback should be solicited from stakeholders. Project management tools can simplify the process and ensures items are linked to their dependencies and what needs to be done first is clear.

6. Build Out Timelines

Each task or initiative comes with its own level of effort. It’s critical to pull in the right technical people so to get an estimate around each effort. This should not be a long, drawn-out endeavor. Instead, it should be a quick activity that verifies how everyone’s on the same page. Often leadership has items it believes can be implemented quickly, but the team is of the mind it will take much longer to pull off.

7. Devise A Budget

Once there’s a clear view of what can be worked on, when it can be worked on, and how long it might take to implement, there’s enough information to fashion a budget for each item. Each item’s details should be worked through fully to get an as accurate as possible estimate for what’s needed. Budget decisions can also affect how urgent or necessary an item truly is. Some businesses find they’re better off putting something on the back burner or investing in a service that solves the same problem.

8. Visualize The Roadmap

Finally! Project implementation planning can now begin. Each project should be laid out and overlaid with the resources needed for project delivery. If working in an Agile software development environment, there’s no need to write out every detail of every feature. Simply focus on high-level component delivery, marketing dates, and other top-level deadlines. While building out the software, Agile teams can pull in features on a different schedule, but they should always work towards the company’s high-level schedule.

Many businesses find that creating a steering committee or oversight committee helps to see if initiatives are following a steady path or are veering off-course. These committees can be helpful in that they’re not involved in the day-to-day delivery of a product like development teams are.

Doing What’s Best For The Journey And The Destination

Rushed software development projects don’t save time or money, and they often negatively affect quality — the greater a company’s rush to launch, the greater the risk. Before starting any software development project, a business should take the time needed to develop a technology roadmap.

Decades of experience have taught there is a lot of truth in the adage that “prior planning prevents poor performance.” Moving too fast can cause enormous problems for software development, dooming them to failure.

Creating a business technology roadmap gives enterprises the best of all worlds. It drives digital transformation while being agile enough to accommodate course changes. By the time the final destination or launch is reached, long-term value has been built into the product, roadblocks have been avoided, and other obstacles that often run other development projects into a ditch have been overcome.

Smashing Editorial (vf, yk, il)