Where is Roadmapping Taking Us?

Roadmapping has been on quite a journey. Many managers use the term to describe planning and tracking projects. But they use different schemes to create roadmaps. And the results vary widely.

Roadmapping is a key contributor to forming and carrying out a good product line strategy.

There’s much to learn from roadmapping’s evolution. This is especially true for innovation management and product development in big companies. That’s because roadmapping, combined with other approaches, is on the cusp of delivering enormous gains. It’s about to transform how we develop products and compete in markets. This is much needed as we step up to radically new technologies and market needs.[i] That’s why it’s best to see how it got to where it is and why these major gains are coming.

Early Roadmaps

The journey began nearly thirty years ago. That’s when a group of R&D Vice Presidents from large hi-tech companies got together. They had a common problem. Each company was poor at coordinating technologies. And while these top managers knew the solution was to roadmap their technologies, the challenge was how best to do it and make it work.

The group called themselves MATI. It stands for “Management of Accelerated Technology Innovation.[ii]” Notice how the title doesn’t mention projects or strategy. The group’s concern was about technologies. In the journey, you’ll see that roadmapping’s purpose and focus changes away from technology planning.

Motorola and Lucent were MATI’s leaders. Each began their roadmapping work during the 1970s and 1980s. That was the start of integrated circuits and microprocessors spreading throughout products. It was the switch from analog to digital. The challenge was to coordinate work on products that matched the increasing processor speeds, shrinking passive components, and software changes. This led to these top manager’s biggest fear and MATI’s true goal. No one wanted to be left behind.

Plus, the companies had another problem. Each had legacy hardware in place. They needed to advance these. Or, if not, they had to plan the products’ retirement.

The MATI group knew managing old technologies with new technologies is difficult. It’s packed with engineering challenges. And it’s fraught with political infighting. The job was to merge planning and creativity. It was to create faster and cheaper products and services. And it was to make products with higher quality and greater efficiency. Less often, though, the job was to create breakthroughs.

Good roadmapping should aid smart, not random, innovations. Customer behavior and competitive actions matter. And the MATI group knew that startup companies were a threat. Their clean slate approach to serving customers was an advantage. This makes smart innovations more difficult to plan. And it’s especially true for each MATI company’s culture and skills sets.

But that was MATI’s challenge. They had no choice but to learn how to speed up developments and coordinate work. This was a major task.

Adding Markets to the Mix

MATI’s Motorola leaders gave the group a strong Chicago presence. It’s where meetings where held and it also led to Northwestern University’s involvement. This made perfect sense. The members knew that technologies need markets. So Northwestern’s marketing talent was a strong complement to the group’s technology-centric thinking.

But connecting markets and technologies is never easy. Many experts say it’s one step up from a guessing game. They also say there’s only one skill a company has that’s worse than forecasting technology. It’s their ability to forecast markets.

The goal was to match uncertainty to unknowns. And there were no marketing VP’s in the group to help make the connections. Carrying out roadmaps, it appeared, would demand functions like marketing to change their ways.

Whether too many unknowns or too much change, the MATI approach never gained acceptance. And in the decade that followed, both Motorola and Lucent saw their downfall. It’s ironic the technology tsunami from which the firms hoped roadmapping would save them, washed them away anyway. It’s not to say the roadmapping wasn’t good. But early roadmapping focused by R&D, was not enough.

Enter Cambridge University 

As our roadmapping journey continued, we lost MATI’s practitioner view of technologies. September 2001 ended the focus and pushed the lean movement to the forefront. A cost cutting wave then helped companies rebuild their earnings. Not surprisingly, figuring out roadmaps wasn’t a top boardroom discussion.

The roadmapping world was left to independent consultants. This included me, which I’ll discuss as our story unfolds. Plus, there were a few MATI practitioners who were “leaned” into consulting. There was no longer a group of senior managers from large companies leading the way.

But a Cambridge University team stepped in and filled the void[iii]. And, while they presented themselves as academics, they served clients as consultants. They taught public classes and worked with big companies to build innovation roadmaps.

These new roadmaps added to MATI’s technology and market focus. The results were more complete. That’s because the Cambridge group used business strategy thinking and analysis to give diverse thought worlds in a company a common path forward.

Think of the Cambridge approach as roadmaps with swim lanes for each thought-world. The worlds included topics like marketing, products, and supply chain. We call this a composite roadmap. And with the process flow laid out by the UK team, the composite roadmap made great strides in becoming an exceptional planning tool.

But our journey took a turn when Agile practices gained favor. Composite roadmapping didn’t connect to the Agile approach. Nor did the Cambridge flow connect to any other practice.

Agile Projects 

The rapid acceptance of Agile methods led the way for project-centric roadmaps to gain a footing. This followed the great recession of 2008.

Project-centric roadmaps were anchored by a few software vendors, perhaps unknowingly. They offered cloud-based project management solutions and marketed to small businesses. And in trying to get a boost from the word roadmap, they named their Gantt Chart rollup of projects the “product roadmap.” This affected the roadmap landscape.

Big companies pushed ahead with tracking projects and took heed of the small companies. They created their own multiple project Gantt Chart views and also called it the “product roadmap.” That redirected our Journey. Now, many managers think the “project roadmaps” are the only roadmaps.

One software provider learned an important lesson during this period. The firm bought a startup company offering new software based on MATI’s technology approach and coded with aid from MATI members. The problem was that big companies didn’t want it. Big companies, the software firm learned, wanted project and process views. They didn’t want help with planning their technologies.

Design Thinking

The big problem in technology planning is that companies must embed each technology into a product. At first glance, the solution appears only to be a creative task. But that perspective changes when the planning unfolds. The goal isn’t to create products. Instead, it’s to maximize impact in markets and to minimize chaos in development. One boosts cash flow in while the other slows cash flow out. The real solution, therefore, needs both creative and strategic thinking. Let me explain.

Technology planning isn’t just rearranging work. To be effective, each technology must embed into a product. And it’s the products that someone must coordinate to yield the greatest impact. To get this right demands both creative and strategic thinking. Sadly, these are disparate thought-worlds for most big companies. And creativity and strategy mixed like water and oil.

For decades, we’ve treated our continued need to improve innovation as an absence of creative problem solving. We didn’t view it as a mix of creativity and strategic thinking. We thought of it as creating new products, not making strategy moves.

And our skills to solve problems creatively grew more powerful. We saw Alex Osborn’s view on creativity become Open Innovation. It gave us the means to work outside our company’s boundaries. And most powerfully, the crew from Stanford and Ideo gave us Design Thinking.

Wicked Problems

The power of Design Thinking is enormous. It aids mere mortals to grasp “wicked” problems. And it empowers managers to solve these problems. But most managers use the tool only for product and innovation challenges. They don’t use Design Thinking to develop strategies. Strategy, they think, is too big to conquer.

The good news is we can divide strategy into smaller chunks. And the chunk most important to innovations is a product line strategy. Adding creativity is easy once you learn how strategies drive product lines. The key, though, is to shift your thinking from a business or company level to a product line level.

That brings us to today. Most big companies use Design Thinking for creative gains. And they use Agile practices for execution. But the focus remains on separate products and innovations. You’ll see most companies don’t have the means to improve their strategies. Without a strategy, any path will do and any roadmap will suffice. It’s also why you’re more likely to find project roadmaps on the PMO’s, not the CEO’s desk. And so the roadmapping journey continues.

Adept Roadmapping

My firm, The Adept Group, is also part of the Roadmapping journey. My interest and work in roadmapping began in the 1990s, spurred on by the MATI work. At the time, I was setting up Stage and Gate processes and working with product development teams.

By invitation, I attended a MATI meeting but didn’t contribute. My previous role as president of PDMA and as a consultant to Lucent helped. It gave me the credentials to be a visitor. During the session, I listened. And, if my memory serves me, I may have brought coffee to a few participants.

My key take-away was a deep awareness of roadmapping. And for me, the big question was how to fit roadmapping into the product development process. At the time, stage gate flows were underway, portfolio management was taking shape, and we called all front-end work “fuzzy.” My view was that roadmapping had to connect to these processes. It needed to tie deeply into portfolio management and front-end work.

I included roadmapping in the first front-to-back process architecture of product development.[iv] It was first published in the late 1990s. I include roadmapping in the flow as part of front-end work. It follows strategy formation and precedes concept creation. See Figure 1. This work was not mine alone. And its originality was in how we assembled the parts and filled in the gaps.

Figure 1: Roadmapping connects strategy with concept generation and product development.

Process Vs. Event

Many managers cringe at adding process flow when all they want is to solve near-term problems with a onetime roadmapping event. A new flow, they believe, would be more work. And no one wants more work. This view makes it logical to reject any new approach. But if a roadmapping process boosts planning and creates value, then embracing it would make sense.

The approach connects innovation and strategy. Plus it guides project management. And without defining it as such, I set up objective-based roadmaps. This is a roadmap that displays time-sensitive milestones and goals. It’s not a Gantt chart graphic.

Today, the stage is set for big companies to reap major gains from roadmapping. But the roadmap is different. It focuses on product line moves and the innovations that drive those moves.

The new roadmap lays out product line advances based in strategy. It links technologies to customer needs. And it includes technology tweaks and innovations. Plus, it helps shape bigger moves like pivots and transformations. It does this with special graphics and descriptions.

Most important it coordinates the results for the biggest gains. This demands arranging work to deliver the right results at the right time. Its about forming the strategy and carrying it out.

Reaping Gains

The knowledge gained over the last decade and the tools created to use that knowledge have made a great difference in roadmapping. Perhaps the biggest difference-maker is the modern framework for product line strategies. [v]

The framework gives managers the means to form strong product lines strategies. Plus, it sets up roadmaps to guide actions that carry out the strategy. The framework works because it has a strong foundation in both innovation management and composite roadmapping. And it aids creative and strategic thinking.

Consider three key parts of the framework. When placed on a roadmap, the parts shows the product line strategy and how the company intends to carry it out.


The framework’s first part is the platform-lever. These are common factors that cut across multiple products. They are internal to product lines, not the external platforms that drive entire businesses.

Platform-levers create leverage. And it’s this leverage that enables products to have greater performance. Plus, the leverage helps teams develop new offerings faster. That’s why you’ll see good product line strategies have strong platform-levers.

The framework guides teams in creating and testing platform-levers. This work goes to the heart of the original MATI challenge. It provides teams the tools to coordinate technologies with and through platform-levers. Seeing this in action can show its genius. Check out more about platform-levers HERE.

Innovation Charters

The Innovation Charter is second. This is a target for innovation; it’s not a concept or solution. Charters point to where teams wish to take the product line. Some may target new products, and others may target platform-lever changes and new technologies.

Innovation charters have a rich history[vi]. Managers stopped using charters after the 1980s’ push to improve team performance. This was an old form of charters. The new form helps shape innovation targets to yield greater impact. Plus, these targets have a higher success likelihood.

And on roadmaps, as in strategies, charters connect technologies to markets. They spell out customer needs in specific market segments. Charters do this by capturing Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) outcomes[vii], the foundation of the third framework part.  And when but into practices, charters guide strategy dynamics.

JTBD Segments

Jobs-to-be-Done segmentation is key to good strategies and roadmaps. The JTBD theory says customers hire products to complete a job, and those jobs are defined by the job’s outcomes.

Plus, JTBD allows teams to divide markets by innovation needs. This is powerful in product line strategies. It differs from the old approach. Those define market segments by geographies or industries. Or, they’ll use personas and income levels.

The framework uses the three parts to help teams form, test, and maximize a product line strategy. Once placed on a roadmap, the parts help display the strategy’s execution. This is a composite, outcome-based roadmap that communicates and coordinates work and decisions. It’s powerful stuff.

A New Path

The roadmapping journey has much farther to go. Companies and consultants have a role, as do software providers and academics. Each can add to the journey by adjusting and altering the approach. There’s much to be gained. But what’s clear is the roadmapping journey is taking another turn. I encourage you to look down the new path. You’ll see a world of opportunity.

Learn More

To learn more about product line roadmapping, please consider several Adept Group venues.

Consider purchasing and reading my book, The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy. Or consider my in-depth Masterclass. This 1-day class enables deep discussion specific to different product lines and organizations. You may also find our customized Seminar, held on-site at your offices, a perfect fit to your needs and your product lines.


Book The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy
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Creating Powerful Product Line Strategies and Roadmaps
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Whitepaper– Good Product Line Strategy Matters.
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i] You may read more on this in my blog post on Innovation 4.0.

[ii] While I formally credit the VP’s for MATI’s formation, the real work was carried out by people like Rich Albright of Lucent and Greg DeGregorio of Motorola, both now retired from those companies.

[iii] Rob Phaal leveraged his research, study, and teaching at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing to bring roadmapping to practitioners. He offers training and facilitation through his group Cambridge Roadmapping

[iv] After working on a full architecture for several years, I first published it in Chapter 4 of The PDMA Handbook 2 for New Product Development (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005), pp. 59-72. Credit for the original architecture should also be given to Beebe Nelson and Robert Gill.

[v] You may learn more about the product line framework in my book: The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy.

[vi] Innovation Charters were first introduced by the late Professor Merle Crawford, a  PMDA founder. Merle’s work on Innovation Charters began in the early 1980s.

[vii] Tony Ulwick founder of the consulting firm Strategyn began our collective thinking on and use of “outcomes.” for defining customer needs and market segments. Harvard University Professor Clayton Christensen and his team then coalesced the outcomes thinking with their Jobs to be Done theory. You may read JTBD outcomes and their role in product line strategy here.

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