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  • Kate Mulligan

Evolution from Gantt Charts to Product Roadmaps

The need for visual representation of deliverables against time is a common thread that brings people to consider Gantt charts and product roadmaps. Beyond this, there lies a divergence in the behaviours they support. Even though both tools are intended to support organizing work, they have different characteristics that impact how people use them and how the work is done. Let's dissect the contexts they evolved in and their traits to explore how they can influence your approach to achieving goals.

The Gantt Chart: A Historical Perspective

The inception of the Gantt chart traces back to the mid-1890s, when Polish engineer Karol Adamiecki created an early version while managing a steelworks. About 15 years later, American engineer Henry L. Gantt independently developed his version, which gained widespread popularity in Western countries. Their popularity was due to the visualisation of deliverables against time. Henry L. Gantt's charts, originally designed for factory production schedules, gained prominence during World War I for planning and controlling the production of war materials.

“If a promise of a delivery is to be kept, all the work in a plant must be planned so accurately that when a new order is received, it is possible to tell almost to a day when the work will be completed. The Gantt progress chart enables the manager to keep before him all the promises he has made, to concentrate his attention on overcoming obstacles and avoiding delays, and, when it is impossible to live up to a promise, it enables him to give the customer advance notice of the fact.” Wallace Clark 1922. There were different styles or applications of the Gantt chart such as The Machine Record Chart, The Layout Chart, the Progress Chart. If you are really interested in digging into this you can read The Gantt chart, a working tool of management, by Wallace Clark.

During the rise of the Gantt chart, prevailing leadership perspectives championed a top-down approach, where managers dictated acceptable standards and decided the roles of workers based on perceived abilities. This hierarchical structure left little room for autonomy or empowerment among workers.

Key Characteristics of Gantt Charts:


1. Timeline Representation: Horizontal bars on a timeline visually represent project activities' start and finish dates and person accountable, the project work is defined upfront.

2. Simplicity and Effectiveness: Gantt charts were designed to be accessible in representation, providing clarity to a broad audience, including non-technical stakeholders. 

3. Coordination: They coordinated tasks and resources, especially in contexts where work was more predictable and repetitive.

Evolution and Limitations:

Despite their historical significance, Gantt charts face limitations in today's dynamic work environments. The Association for Project Management notes their challenges in coping with changes. Gantt's charts have a deterministic, upfront planning nature, requiring a detailed plan of the work at a stage the least is known about the work. They may aid coordination, but are not very conducive for collaboration. They were applied in an age of mass production where work was more knowable and repetitive, such as a factory where the steps to putting together the given product were prescribed and repetitive. The variability of change experienced in this work was much less than what is experienced in work typical of the digital age. 

The Rise of product Roadmaps:

In response to the limitations of Gantt charts, product roadmaps emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. These strategic tools aimed to address the complexities of technology and product development processes.

Facing challenges in meeting Gantt chart schedules, developers began pushing back against project managers who relied heavily on rigid schedules dictating development tasks, shipping timelines, and even coding structures. As a response, there was a shift towards an approach where the individuals directly involved in the work were empowered to influence what was deemed 'possible,' leading to an increased adoption of roadmaps.

 “We needed to do for software development what Toyota did for manufacturing. How do we get the risk earlier, move faster, and ensure we’re delivering that value as fast as we can, at the right time when the customer needs it? Strategic alignment and product roadmaps give engineering enough direction and detail to “be Agile” in their development and delivery.” VP of Product, Annie Dunham 

Similar to there being different applications or 'types' of Gantt chart there are different types of roadmap suitable for visualising the work and ambitions from a different lens. There may be a roadmap that outlines and visulises longer term outcomes, a product roadmap that looks at a specific product vision to achieve these outcomes, an output road map that looks at the day to day work being done. A key thing to note is the focus is on prioritising, funding and killing the work - not the workers.

Characteristics of Modern Product Roadmaps:

Supports unknowable work

1. Outcome-Focused: Product roadmaps articulate work as outcomes or goals rather than outputs. For instance, focusing on improving user retention by 10% rather than implementing a specific number of features by a given date.

2.  Dynamic Nature: Product roadmaps are aspirational, based on timeframes like months and quarters, allowing for adaptability to feedback, market conditions, and other factors.

3. Visual Connectivity to Company Goals: They can provide a visual representation connecting planned work and improvements back to company goals, fostering a deeper understanding. They can pre time based (month/quarter) or progressed based view (place in process). 

Cultivating Behaviours for Success:

Effective product roadmapping goes beyond tools—it involves cultivating behaviours and a culture aligned with the dynamic nature of modern product development. Strategic alignment, continuous learning, empowerment, and a focus on desired outcomes contribute to a culture that embraces adaptability and agility. Consider these behaviours as catalysts for unlocking success in the ever-evolving landscape to deliver value through your products.

1. Strategic Alignment: Connect product roadmap items to company goals, fostering alignment across teams and stakeholders. Clearly communicate the vision and high-level objectives to demonstrate each feature's contribution to overall success. 

2. Flexibility and Adaptability: Embrace the inherent flexibility of product roadmaps. Encourage a culture of continuous learning, treating the roadmap as a living document that evolves based on insights from development, customer feedback, and market trends.

3. Empowerment and Dependencies Management: Break down dependencies between work to empower teams. Make visible dependencies and work towards minimizing them, fostering a sense of ownership and accountability.

4. Rolling Planning: The further out into the future you plan, the more uncertain these plans become, don’t waste your time and risk following the wrong direction by planning the future in too much detail. Adopt a rolling planning approach for product roadmaps. Focus more detailed planning for the immediate future (next week/month/quarter) while outlining broader ambitions in the more distant future (quarter/6 months/year). This enables teams to adapt to changing circumstances and emerging opportunities. 

5. Emphasize the desired outcomes over outputs: Clearly articulate the outcomes or goals to be achieved, fostering a shared understanding of the purpose behind each item on the roadmap. This promotes alignment, transparency, and empowerment among team members.

Evolution and success pratterns:

"Feature factory" is a term commonly used in software development circles to describe a situation where teams focus solely on producing new features without considering the broader strategic goals or the quality of the product. In a feature factory environment, there is typically an emphasis on quantity, with teams constantly churning out new functionalities without consideration of user needs and strategic vision. Teams that do not have their work connected up to strategic goals and vision may be at risk of being a feature factory. This is not a direct limitation of a roadmap but instead a symptom of lack of alignment, as teams feel rewarded for finishing work and get lots of work done they may lose foresight of the outcomes.

A successful approach when visualising and managing work is to have work connected from the vision and goals down to the outputs - strategy to execution. This involves having both an outcome roadmap and an output roadmap. The outcome roadmap remains relatively stable, while the output roadmap should be flexible and subject to frequent changes based on feedback and learning. There's a strong connection between the two. For instance, we might use OKRs (outcome) to drive Epics or features (output), which then guide iterations and stories. The output roadmap encompasses various elements like product vision and architecture vision, all of which are interconnected. These visions may live in the product wiki.

Maybe in a few years, roadmaps as we know them will be outdated too, as our world evolves so will the way we work. Continual improvement is not only relevant for what work we do, but also how we work. Regularly reflect on how your ways of working are serving you, and adapt where needed. Think of small and regular improvements.

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Learning resources:

If you found this article useful, you might be interested in additional Sooner Safer Happier learning resources to enable you to lead with these behaviours:



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