Words we don’t realise we use in different ways: Roadmap

In its mostly widely used context, the words ‘road map’ are fine. A map of roads. Big ones, small ones, main ones, M1s. All wiggling their way over a geographical area.

You can find a starting point and then plan your journey. Take the road map with you and you could even change the route. Or just help yourself back on track if you get lost.

This road map has a very clear and consistently shared meaning.

When we join the words and use them to metaphorically describe a specific plan of action though – a Roadmap – things start to get messy.

The intention seems clear. We expect to resolve similar questions as with a regular road map: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?

But, more often than not, people push the metaphor in inconsistent ways, expecting it also to explain how and why we’re navigating, and most dangerously, exactly how long each part of the journey will take. Road maps don’t do this. You have to add that meaning yourself.

The problem isn’t that any of these aspirations is particularly bad. It’s just that we don’t make clear which parts of the broken metaphor we share when we use the word.

If I think the Roadmap will tell us where we want to go, but you also think it’ll tell us how we get there, and someone else is thinking it’ll explain how long it’ll take, then we’re going to frustrate each other later on the journey.

It’s easy enough to explain what we think. I just did that. All very clear. The point is that we never do. We just say Roadmap like a Smurf says smurf and we imagine we’ve agreed on expectations.

The expectation issue is made worse with additions that look like they’re helpful, but really they’re just muddying the water.

Technology Roadmap. Product Roadmap. Project Roadmap. Feature Roadmap. Strategic Roadmap. Service Roadmap. Those extra words just create even more hidden meaning (especially ‘strategic’).

I think we should throw away the word Roadmap. If you need a plan for your team, to list things you’ve decided and agreed you need to do, then pop them on a Now, Next, Later. But don’t bother adding the word Roadmap on the end.

And if you want to attach timings to those items, pop them separately into a Gantt Chart.

Leave road maps for the car. Start sharing definitions of fluffy words.