Agile product development teams often find their way to creating value with the help of a product roadmap. This visual aid helps agile organizations plot a product idea and develop a strategy for bringing it to life. In keeping with agile process principles, a "roadmap to value," or agile roadmap, guides them to gather input from customers and other stakeholders along the way, and incorporate what they've learned in later iterations of the product.
“An agile roadmap is a high-level, visual plan that helps explain the vision of the product," explains CaSandra Minichiello, an Atlanta-based agile consultant. “In addition to explaining the high-level plan of the product, it can also be used to map out specific milestones that need to be completed."
Agile roadmaps represent a significant departure from traditional product planning. Typically product planning involves creating a detailed document that specifies exactly how a product will be developed.
—Aurimas Adamovicius, president and co-founder, Devbridge Group
“They do this deep dive into all the requirements necessary to make this product ready to go to market," says Aurimas Adamovicius, president and co-founder of Chicago-based software development consulting firm Devbridge Group.
An agile roadmap, on the other hand, isn't a commitment or plan for the entire year, Minichiello says.
“Usually, a commitment is only made in short time frames and anything beyond near term is considered a forecast," she says.
Agile Roadmap Features
According to Minichiello, an agile roadmap, “usually contains dates, goals, [and] prioritized features according to business value and any metrics or measures of success."
Under that broad description, roadmaps may be viewed as having anything from a few to several major features.
The federal General Services Administration describes three steps in developing an agile process roadmap. During the first stage of laying groundwork, developers clarify goals, connect the planned product with organization strategy and identify end users. Next they focus on product objectives and solutions (rather than on product features as in traditional development). Finally, they plan how they'll share and update the map as the effort proceeds.
More detailed tasks in mapping include:
- creating a rough timetable for releasing prototypes to test features,
- arranging for meetings as frequently as daily between developers to discuss progress and obstacles,
- reviewing what was learned from previous releases or prototypes and
- planning for incorporating the newly acquired knowledge in further development stages.
The essence of the agile process is to learn as you go, rather than trying to plan every step in detail in advance. The agile roadmap makes this possible by allowing for in-process learning while keeping the overall project goal in view.
“There are no finite details in the roadmap," elaborates Adamovicius. “It's more of a North Star or guiding star for the cross-functional product team, versus a very detailed architectural blueprint of what they need to do."
Agile Process Roadmap Benefits
At the core of the agile roadmap is the idea of using an iterative delivery method.
“The concept is that you'll build, measure and learn," explains Adamovicius. “We'll build in small increments, expose it to the end customer, measure the appropriateness of this piece, learn from that experience and revise going forward."
The roadmap is designed to allow agile process product development teams to evaluate results of previous efforts, prototypes and releases and then to research the next steps. The idea is to keep the development effort aligned with the needs of customers and other stakeholders. It does this by focusing on short-term tactics while keeping long-term strategic objectives in view.
As long as the agile principles of learning as you go are kept in mind, the risks of adopting an agile roadmap for product development are minimal, Minichiello says.
“They are not intended to map out an entire year's worth of work in detail," she cautions.
However, it's not easy to adapt to an agile mindset or way of doing business. Teams employing the agile process are managed and motivated differently than conventional hierarchical organizations with a top-down configuration.
Agile teams may, for instance, have a circular structure with teams reporting to leaders who are in different departments, rather than the traditional silo structure of departments led by department heads.
“Often to adopt a product roadmap you also need very significant shifts in organizational structure and reporting structure depending on how delegation works within the operating environment," Adamovicius says.
The Road to Mainstream
At this point, awareness of agile product development roadmaps—at least among large companies—is high, according to Adamovicius. However, effective application of the agile process at companies of any size is still nascent, he says.
“Even though a majority of them are talking about it, they're still talking at a pilot level. Implementation is probably at 15 or 20 percent," Adamovicius estimates. "The maturity of what they're doing is probably also somewhat green."
As experience with agile product development in general and roadmaps in particular grows, it can help organizations respond faster, more effectively and flexibly to the rapidly evolving business environment, Minichiello says.
“We live in a time where technology is evolving faster than traditional project plans," she says. “In order to remain competitive, companies need to be able to adapt to the changing demands of their customers."
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