The need (or otherwise) for a technology roadmap: Part 1

This is a post in two parts, inspired by a recent conversation with a colleague. In this part I’ll set out what a technology roadmap is and circumstances in which it would be useful. In the next part I’ll set out why it might be best to go without.

Roadmaps can be usefulIntroduction

Let’s first make sure we know what we’re talking about. A roadmap is a series of milestones to achieve some end; a technology roadmap is a roadmap for the technology base of an organisation.

Simple examples might be: we will replace the following legacy systems so that we can respond more quickly to our users’ demands; we will move our non-core systems into the cloud, in this sequence; we will implement the following technologies so that we can operate our distribution system globally.

In reality such a roadmap is likely to be more complex, with several different elements.

People get very excited about roadmaps. If you have two departments about to spend your time and money, and one has a roadmap and the other doesn’t, then the one without is going to look pretty shabby. And that’s even without looking at the content of the roadmap…

Any roadmap has some positives

Now, setting aside for one moment the benefit that any particular roadmap or plan might or might not give us, any technology roadmap clearly has some positives. It demonstrates purpose to those outside it (“They’re on a mission…”) even if those outside don’t fully understand it (“…and I guess I have to trust them on that”). It gives purpose to those implementing it (“I have to go in today despite being sick; there’s a key deadline for our roadmap”). It shuts down any number of unwanted conversations (“Can you do this for me?” / “Sorry, we’re maxed out delivering the roadmap, and you know the board’s expecting results”).

Obviously this is an overly cynical perspective, but like I said, that’s setting aside the benefits of the roadmap itself. So roadmaps are good, and have benefits even if they don’t actually deliver any real value themselves.

But really and truly a roadmap does need to have a purpose, and (because technology for its own sake has no benefit) that purpose must be driven by something outside technology. Here are four suggestions of where that purpose might come from, in order of increasing maturity:

4. The bureaucratic roadmap

Here, a roadmap is created purely because corporate bureaucracy requires it. Maybe it’s budget time and your budget won’t be approved unless it looks like there’s a grand plan. Maybe the CEO — or the VCs who are bankrolling your startup — want to see things mapped out before they’ll give you the time of day.

This scenario is not much better (possibly worse) than the cynical reasons given above. Except this time it’s not you who is made to feel better for applying some arbitrary order to daily pressures, but the corporate powers that be.

3. The defensive roadmap

This is where a tech team realises it must do something for itself to head off something less palatable. An example might be integrating a corporately-approved web service, such as Basecamp, before too many staff sign up to similar services themselves, directly, and scatter company data all over the Internet. Another is modernising the mail system ahead of a merger with a larger company to avoid being utterly taken over by the larger company’s technology base.

Clearly it’s not great to be on the defensive, but at least we’re responding.

2. The directive roadmap

This is where a tech team recognises the company doesn’t have a particular direction, so it implements something in order to create one. An example here might be enhancing all the systems’ robustness and security because there’s an opportunity to shift from a consumer to a corporate clientbase, and the tech team realises this would be the way to open up those kind of opportunities.

The directive approach can really only be instigated by the most senior one or two people in the tech team. Also, it’s a bit risky because it could be called into question if there’s a lack of trust or change of leadership. The IT director could find themselves in a difficult situation if their peers suddenly thought they were running an expensive project which wasn’t aligned with any current company purpose. But if it works then it’s a good result: a previously directionless company gets a new lease of life. Or at least new opportunities, whether or not it chooses to exploit them.

1. The aligned roadmap

Almost certainly the highest form of technology roadmap. In this situation the organisation has a clear strategy which becomes the basis of every other department’s own, localised strategy — the the technology department is one of those.

If a company decides it needs to increase its overseas sales then there are implications for distribution, legal, advertising, procurement, and of course technology. Even without a single co-ordinated programme to achieve a specific goal every department suddenly has a purpose, each one can work out for itself what it needs to achieve that, and all departments are working to achieve the same thing.

That this is highest form of technology roadmap should not be surprising. It’s born of a very high level of organisational maturity which may seem easy but isn’t in practice. Just recall the story from eBay where the company had a long-term strategy to emphasize fixed-priced goods, but they managed to forget to tell the technology team.

In the next part of this article I’ll consider reasons why it might actually be better not to have a roadmap…