Project managers are constantly balancing short-term responsiveness and long-term strategic planning. Striving for maximum agility by neglecting any plans and processes can result in miscommunication and uneasy customers. At the other extreme, trying to plan every detail too early in the process is equally dangerous.

The power of Kanban is that it deals with risk quickly. Kanban lets you make sure that the most important items are accomplished first and the team is not distracted by low-priority items.

Frustration with top-down planning gave birth to the Agile methodologies. The focus is on accomplishing the most important tasks as soon as we have enough data to do so – this is how Kanban operates. Still, humans need security to feel safe. Telling a customer that she has no idea what her team is doing next week because it hasn’t been planned yet is a project management faux pas.

So how can we wrap the high risk and lack of details into a human, comprehensible and agile project plan? The answer is in the flexibility of a Kanban roadmap.

Kanban roadmaps mean direction, not details

The first step is to change how you view a roadmap – this is not a detailed, rigid, long-term plan of new features. Instead, think directions: goals, strategies and themes should form the basis for your Kanban roadmap. Think about where do you want your company to be after one year. The Kanban roadmap contains the answers to questions of that level.

Roadmaps are not promises. If we “plan to”, it doesn’t mean we “are going to”. That’s the biggest confusion in software project management. Roadmaps are dynamic, they can and must change in response to new information. For example, a long-term goal could be to turn more leads into customers. There are many methods to make this happen and features that could be implemented, but these should not yet be the focus.

Kanban provides several tools to identify and manage your roadmap. It’s important to invest in Kanban meetings and it’s important to gather regularly to discuss your wider strategic vision.
Strategy Reviews are an ideal location to define and refine your Kanban roadmap. From there, you can continuously translate the higher goals into actionable items during the Operations and Risk Reviews and the Service Delivery Review.

Kanban cadences

The customer is the key

One of the fundamental principles of the Agile methodologies is early customer feedback. Having your customers as close as possible to your team is a difficult task, but is instrumental to the success of your project. To keep your roadmap up-to-date and ensure your goals are in sync with the needs of your customers, you have to establish close and frequent communication channels with them.

Often, customers themselves realise that what they thought they wanted one year ago is no longer relevant to their current needs. If you don’t ask them on time, you’ll be developing something they have no use for. For every type of project there are ways to gather customer feedback – adopt those in your development process in order to maintain your roadmap aligned to the end users expectations.

Realistic timescales

Your Kanban roadmap timeline will change depending on several factors such as the type of product you offer, the size of your organisation and how far along you are in the product life-cycle. Early-stage products and startups will naturally have short roadmap timelines – adapting and changing direction quickly are essential to keep pace with the market and your competitors.

Once your organisation is more stable and your product direction has been set, you can move towards longer timelines and larger strategic visions. Kanban roadmap timelines can be just 2-3 months at a time in the short term and growing to a year in the longer term.

Stakeholder management

Everyone gets the shivers when they hear “stakeholders”. These are the scary people that will ruin our business if we fail to deliver as we promised in our roadmap. This is wrong! It’s important to communicate to your stakeholders that a roadmap is a living thing and not a delivery commitment. As customer needs and market conditions change, the Kanban roadmap will naturally evolve to keep pace. Roadmaps convey direction, not dates.

Stakeholders very rarely care about the actual functional implementation. Often they care about dates, but we should all finally realize that time is relative. Priorities are relative too. The current context and the green light towards our higher goals is what’s the most important. Communicate your goals in your roadmap to your stakeholders and don’t try to engage them with long-term delivery dates.

That’s not to say that dates are not important – just that long-term roadmaps are not the place to discuss them. Knowledge work is notorious for tasks taking more or less time than predicted. Giving your stakeholders long-term fixed delivery dates is just setting up opportunities for disappointment. As new tasks and features get drawn into the backlog, Kanban estimates can be used to give your clients accurate delivery forecasts and the probability that these forecasts will be achieved.

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Keep roadmap priorities flexible

While your Kanban roadmap goals focus on the long-term, freedom to reprioritise tasks in order to reach those goals is crucial. Companies need to be able to respond to everyday local challenges and global changes and the instrument to do that is the flexibility of their priorities. Project managers should feel free to shuffle work items in and out of the backlog to better meet customer needs.

The roadmap should be continuously validated against your current situation. Another advantage of Kanban is the utilization of historical data. Use your Kanban metrics and meetings to assure your goals are on track and choose the highest priorities for the time being. Service Delivery Reviews, Replenishment Meetings and Delivery Planning meetings are the ideal location for this.

Kanban roadmaps not only focus your team on what to do, they help to minimise unnecessary distractions. Consider a roadmap with a goal of reducing shopping cart abandonment. Your marketing manager would like to use the checkout process to ask additional customer questions for better list segmentation – you could make the case that this takes away from your roadmap goal.

Every endeavour needs a roadmap. It keeps the team focused. It soothes stakeholders’ uneasiness. It’s a tool to measure company performance.

Keeping the direction towards your goals is as important as adjusting the direction towards your new goals. By any means you should have clearly defined goals but also you should continuously validate them against real life and adjust your roadmap.

The nature of agile project management means that firm long-term planning will be sacrificed to an extent when making Kanban roadmaps. However, they empower companies to overcome fear of change by focusing on strategic goals and results rather than low-level breakdown of fixed milestones. The result? Delivering higher-quality and more useful product features to your customers – faster.

Does your project have a roadmap? How long is its timeline? How often do you review and change the goals? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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