Business planning: Roadmaps through uncertainty


Business planning can be full of jargon and buzzwords. I used to think that “roadmap” was one of these – an output used to disguise a lack of a more detailed plan.

I’m changing my view on this quite rapidly. I now think that, as with most business jargon, the roadmap has a place and is meaningful if done properly.

What’s prompted this is the publication of both the Irish and British governments’ roadmaps to reopening after lockdown. I started pondering why both documents were described as roadmaps rather than plans and came to the following conclusions;

  • A roadmap sets out the path that you want to follow but acknowledges that there are obstacles in the way to overcome and that you might need to change direction
  • A roadmap is something visual and helps communicate your more detailed plan

What is a “roadmap” in a business planning context?

When I searched for a definition of “roadmap” in a business planning context, I got a few different interpretations. For some, it’s a way to communicate the business’s vision. Some say it sits between a goal and a strategy; for others, it sits between a strategy and an executable plan.

However, while there are some differences in interpretation, there seems to be consensus that a roadmap will feature milestones and is probably visual. For me, the two combined means that it should be fairly easy to see where you are, and what lies ahead and behind you.

Most definitions refer to it as being some kind of bridge that helps put more detail on a goal (or strategy). So you will probably have it alongside some other business planning documents.

I also think that it might take the place of a detailed strategy when trying to plan in a very uncertain environment.

A roadmap, not an instruction manual

Take the current situation. Most countries went from “it’s a slightly worse flu” to lockdown in a matter of weeks. Contingency plans were activated everywhere. Planning for the future was put on hold in most places because planning for the present was challenging enough.

We’re now in a position where we can and need to plan more. But it’s hard when there are still so many unknowns and so many factors depend on other things happening or not happening. It’s easy to get into a planning paralysis, where it’s easier to wait and see if things get better rather than committing to a new reality.

Enter the roadmap as a way to think through and then communicate what needs to happen in what order. With a roadmap, the emphasis can be on the order you do things, not necessarily the when. You can also better display the inter-dependency of other factors. For example, government legislation might dictate whether you can or can’t open your business. But other factors will also come into play such as how your customers respond to rising or falling cases in your community.

Examples of roadmaps on a national scale

Going back to what prompted this post, I really like this one-page roadmap for reopening from the Irish Government. It accompanies a much more detailed document, both available here.

I like that it shows progression, and that it breaks down the issues into key themes. I think this kind of presentation helps to see the bigger picture.

If I was to critique it, I would say there was a lot of repetition, so potentially unnecessary words cluttering the visual. It would also be good to see something a bit clearer on how we move from one phase to another.

But all in all, we have a document that works as a simpler version of a more detailed plan. It sets out the order that things will happen and an approximate timeframe.

The British government have produced much shorter visual, within a 60 page document.

Full UK government roadmap document available here.

Fundamentally, the approach of both governments is pretty similar but I think there is more substance in the Irish approach. There is also more of a sense of how issues are inter-connected. This helps when you are trying to have difficult conversations with your citizens about why you’re expected to see your boss before your family.

Communication and roadmaps

A further problem with the British approach is that the messaging around it has been rather confused. Lots of people seem to have understood from Boris Johnson’s speech that they needed to go “back to work” this week. Interestingly, the phrase “actively encouraged” (to return to work) which appeared in Johnson’s speech does not appear in this visual and I don’t think it’s anywhere in the more detailed plan either.

I’m not going to get into the possible reasons for this or any further political comment. But there is no point having planning tools such as roadmaps if your corporate messaging is not consistent with it.

A good roadmap should allow you to highlight where you are on your journey. You can use this a trigger to revise messaging as well as reviewing your next steps. It’s a great way to reflect on progress that you’ve made, and to focus communications on the next part.

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