Roadmaps vs. Projects

April 21, 2019

I had lunch with a friend yesterday, and he shared an interesting story. He was leading a large technical project at his company, and it started off fairly normally. They saw some fruit they thought would be low-hanging, ran the ROI numbers, wrote a project plan with clear milestones that showed value along the path, staffed the project, and started to deliver.

Over time, they started to discover that the low-hanging fruit wasn’t so low-hanging after all. They had to change some old systems in order to get at the low-hanging fruit, and the more they dug in, the more they realized that they didn’t understand the tech debt that stood between them and their end goal.

They reevaluated the ROI at each step of the way. On one hand, as they discovered this new tech debt, they were paying it down and making changes which would open up a whole class of errors. On the other, their project was slipping, management was getting antsy, they weren’t directly showing any ROI, and the problems seemed to involve progressively more teams.

Ultimately, my friend decided to cancel the remainder of the project. He also took all those technical hurdles which would enable large classes of work and turned them into a technical roadmap for the team, so that they could continue to unlock value in the future.

This highlighted an interesting set of trade-offs between roadmaps and projects.


The distinguishing factors of projects are that they are:

These characteristics make it very easy to rally a team around a project and get people to start delivering. The clear goals and staffing also makes projects easy to track. This is great if the team is delivering effectively, but can create pressure if the team struggles to meet its goals


The distinguishing factors of roadmaps is that they are.

Both of these tools are valuable tools for a tech lead, but you’ll want to use them differently. If there’s a clear project with known scope and direct ROI, leaning on a project may be the right tool. If you have a series of efforts which provide value but culminate a far out, and possibly shifting, goal, a roadmap may be more valuable.

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