Project roadmaps: What they are and why you need them

Making sure you start a project on the right foot is critical. Whether it’s a short-term campaign like planning for a virtual event or a long-term initiative like rolling out a new IT tool, communicating your high-level project overview and getting your stakeholders on the same page is a key element of launching a great project.

So: how do you do it? You might start by scheduling a project kickoff and brainstorming session with all relevant stakeholders. Maybe you start by creating a project plan before the meeting to keep you on track. But while these strategies can be critical elements of a project launch, a project roadmap is the best way to organize your project strategy and align on business goals.

What is a project roadmap?

A project roadmap is a high-level overview of your project deliverables, key milestones, and overall project goals. It should be the first thing you create when you get started on a project. With your project roadmap as a jumping-off point, you can create other important project planning documents, like a project plan and a project schedule.

If you’ve never used a project roadmap, it can be a little confusing to differentiate it from other project planning elements. Here’s how they differ:

Project roadmap vs. project plan

Your project roadmap and your project plan have a lot in common. They should both be created at the beginning of a project, and they’re both living documents—rather than static, set-in-stone decrees. But unlike your project plan, your project roadmap should only focus on a high-level overview. Make sure you don’t get bogged down in too many specifics when you’re creating your project roadmap, since that would dilute the focus of the document. Remember: it is a bird’s eye view, not turn-by-turn directions.

To create a good project plan, you’ll want to dive into some nitty-gritty details—like your project timeline, what your budget is, what each individual stakeholder’s roles are, and any success metrics you’ll be using to grade your project.

[Read: How to create a project plan that actually keeps you on track]

Project roadmap vs. product roadmap

A product roadmap is your product team’s vision for the features you plan to launch in a given time period. Your product roadmap is your team’s single source of truth for these launches. It’ll typically include nuanced details like the priority or scope of the launch, any product and engineering stakeholders that are involved, and the marketing bill of materials—just to name a few.

Despite the similarity in names, a project roadmap is a completely different ball game. Any project, not just a product launch project, can and should have a project roadmap. For example, you’d want to create a project roadmap for a virtual event your team is planning or an upcoming project your IT team is rolling out. In both cases, your project roadmap is the overview for your project goals and how you’re going to get there.

Project roadmap vs. Gantt chart

A Gantt chart is a visual representation of a project. It looks like a timeline, and uses a horizontal bar chart to represent tasks and deliverables. Oftentimes, teams choose to build their project roadmaps in timeline view Gantt charts, and they use the horizontal bar chart component within the Gantt chart to represent high-level initiatives over time.

However, Gantt charts have a lot of functionality outside of project roadmaps. Gantt charts make it easy to visualize the relationships and dependencies between tasks. They also provide at-a-glance insight into how the pieces of your project fit together, and any important milestones that are coming up.

[Read: New to Gantt charts? Start here.]

Even if you plan to build your project roadmap as a Gantt chart, make sure you’re choosing a tool that offers various ways to visualize work and the ability to easily switch between visualizations—not just as a timeline, but also as a Kanban board, to do list, and calendar. That way, not only will you be able to create an effective project roadmap, but your stakeholders will also be able to view the work in whatever view works best for them.

The benefits of a project roadmap

If you’ve never created a project roadmap before, you might be asking: Is this really necessary? And while every project doesn’t need a project roadmap (more on that later), if your work is time-bound, a project roadmap is the best way to communicate your high-level goals to your stakeholders. There are three main benefits to creating a project roadmap before your kickoff meeting.

1. Outline your project objectives

The main purpose of a project roadmap is to set your project objectives before you schedule your kickoff meeting and create your project plan. Your roadmap should give you a sense of where you are and, ultimately, where you’re going. Even though it won’t have too many details about how you’re getting there, having your project objectives laid out this early on can help you gain clarity and hit your goals.

For example, imagine you’re creating a project roadmap for your social media content calendar. You know where you are—that’s how many followers you currently have, the engagement you’re getting from your audience—and your project roadmap helps you define where you want to be, and by when. Maybe you want to double your followers on Instagram in the next 6 months. Or maybe you want to 2X your engagement rate in the next year. Whatever your plan is, your project roadmap can help you and your stakeholders see the big picture.

2. Gain buy-in on project deliverables

As part of creating your project roadmap, you’re establishing what deliverables are important for this project. Having those deliverables established before you go into your kickoff meeting can help you know who to invite to your meeting, provide a better overview of the project to your stakeholders, and—ultimately—gain buy-in.

For example, let’s say you’re creating a project roadmap for a customer feedback tracking project. Your roadmap provides the overview, explaining how your customer feedback tracking process currently works, and how your project will improve it over the course of your roadmap. But your project roadmap also helps you clarify what project deliverables you expect to have by the end of it. Maybe you’re working to create a repository of all customer feedback that’s sortable and searchable. Or maybe you want at least 100 pieces of customer feedback by the end of the fiscal year. Having those clearly-defined deliverables is key.

3. Manage stakeholder expectations

Overview: check. Deliverables: check. Ultimately, you’re creating your project roadmap in order to share important information your stakeholders need to know, and gain buy-in on your deliverables, milestones, and project schedule. By having all of this information at your initial kickoff meeting, your project stakeholder can get a high-level view of your project scope and timeframe.

For example, imagine you created a project roadmap for a new marketing campaign. During the kickoff meeting, cross-functional stakeholders might have their own ideas for where they want the project to go and what deliverables they’re expecting. But instead of leading a brainstorming kickoff meeting, you’re providing a clear-cut plan of the important milestones and project goals. That way, you’re managing stakeholder expectations right from the start, and ensuring your project will be as successful as possible.

[Read: How to set, achieve, and celebrate project milestones]

Project roadmap examples

There’s no one way to create a project roadmap—you should structure your roadmap in the best way to visualize your work. But here are two examples to help you get started.

Virtual event project roadmap

Virtual event project roadmap

This project roadmap is in a Gantt-chart format because there’s only one focus: getting the virtual event up and running by a certain date. Other than the event itself, which is displayed as a milestone, all of the bars on the project roadmap represent a rough schedule and general overview of tasks. The goal of this roadmap overview is to help stakeholders align on the timeline, and get a high-level view of the project schedule and objectives.

IT project roadmap

IT project roadmap

This project roadmap captures multiple “swimlanes”—in this case, the IT department is planning three big initiatives in Q4, each with a distinct overview and goals. But because members of the IT department will be working across all three of these initiatives, it can be helpful to see the roadmap in one central place. This way, the entire IT team has a central source of truth for all three of their upcoming initiatives.

How to create a project roadmap

To build a good project roadmap, you need a way to visualize your project timeline, deliverables, and schedule. Put together, these elements create your project roadmap—a high-level overview of what is happening when, and (broadly speaking) what initiatives your project collaborators and stakeholders will be involved in. There are four main elements to creating a project roadmap:

  1. Outline the project schedule. When does your project begin? When will it end? Starting with your project schedule can help you ensure you have a reasonable timeline for your deliverables and milestones.
  2. Define deliverables and milestones. What deliverables will be finished by the end of the project? Are there any specific dates or project milestones to account for?
  3. Clarify any potential risks. Are there any risks your team should account for? What potential blockers could stand in the way of successful project completion.
  4. Loop in project stakeholders. Share your project roadmap with relevant stakeholders to get buy-in.

The best way to create and share your project roadmap is with a work management tool—like Asana. With Asana, your stakeholders have a central source of truth. They can gain a bird’s-eye view, and not just of your roadmap. By sharing a central source of truth, your team will be best equipped to plan, manage, and execute on tasks.

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Does every project need a roadmap?

Not every project needs a project roadmap. For example, if your project has a small scope—for example, a blog tracking calendar for the next month, or a low priority bug fixing initiative—it might be overkill to create a project roadmap. In that case, it’s still beneficial to check in with project stakeholders regularly, and you should still aim to have your project information in a central source of truth. But don’t force a project roadmap where it isn’t necessary.

A GPS for your team

With an effective project roadmap, you can give your team a sense of where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and who’s coming on the journey with you. Your project roadmap is the beginning of the rest of your project planning, and creating a strong roadmap is a great way to begin a healthy project.

Are you ready to build your first project roadmap? Try Asana, a leader in work management, and the best tool for your team.

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