Strategic Roadmapping: The essential tool that innovators can’t do without (and shouldn’t even try)

Connecting all of the pieces in your innovation engine is a hard problem. You need a guide. Strategic roadmapping links the why of innovation to the value to the enablers and capabilities over the horizon of opportunity.

  • John is an SVP of engineering for a large rolling stock manufacturer supplying the rail sector and is charged with building new momentum into the product pipeline in the next 7 years. But the relationship between new technologies and the commercial gains are fuzzy: the CEO wants to cut his budget.
  • Frank is a business development director in a growing mid-size in the chemicals sector and is seeking growth options, chemical technologies and digital applications. He wants to communicate the commercial gains for the R&D programmes and create buy-in from the board. He fears they are being left behind in the innovation race.
  • Anna runs a corporate innovation centre looking into new 2D materials and their applications. To reengage existing and new users of the centre she needs to describe the vision and opportunities to boost new signings and show the business potential of the centre.
  • Marshall runs an international standards agency responsible for setting standards for transportation. With an innovation portfolio of projects, he needs to work out where the best return on investment can be made.

The Innovation Problem

Companies looking for innovation-based growth realise that the returns on innovation are rather poor. The barriers to habitual success are found in the innovation strategies the companies adopt and how they are organised. The further the horizon the worse the returns.

Governments and agencies are constantly looking for ways to create industrial strategies that move the dial on growth, jobs and productivity puzzle. They want to back “winners” of the future like in digitalisation and the energy transition. With more technologies and continually evolving societal demands, it’s tough to be sure where to invest.

How can we as business and innovation leaders do better? Better means better innovation leadership in the business about innovation systems, better alignment between the functions and better synchronisation or orchestration about when those activities can bear fruit.

From a process perspective, better means the right input activities, the right in-process activities will deliver the right outputs or performance.

Tools for Strategic Roadmapping

Strategic Roadmapping is a tool but like any tool, it relies on the user to use it correctly to get the best possible results. What innovation leader ultimately want is to achieve business objectives, such as,

  1. Where can we build a stronger competitive position taking on deep customer, market and competitor insight?
  2. What ideas can we deliver to capture new value?
  3. How do we prioritise new value creation ideas for development?
  4. How do we build the capabilities needed to deliver our strategy?
  5. How do we make it all happen?

Pioneers in strategic roadmapping for strategy and innovation

Pioneered by Motorola in the 1980s and Lucent in the 1990s, Strategic Roadmapping sometimes knows as Strategic Technology Roadmapping is a solution to these challenges.

Whether it be developing a company-level innovation strategy, a product technology pipeline, a national industrial strategy, or an industrial sector technology plan, roadmapping is a flexible and scalable choice.  It’s very legitimate to refer to roadmapping as an “agile” strategy tool where the innovation leader can start small, iterate fast and scale-out.

In the mid-2000s, the Institute of Manufacturing at Cambridge University massively developed and improved the art and science into how roadmapping is useful for companies conducting hundreds of strategic roadmapping exercises for companies and government agencies and this is our GoTo approach when designing and facilitating a roadmapping service.

The approach works by combining strategic thinking, innovation process design, knowledge management and collaborative facilitated workshops. It works because it can scale up to cover a whole sector strategy through to technology development project teams.

The Essential Concepts of strategic roadmapping for strategy and innovation

Two things are going on. There’s the process of roadmapping and the product of roadmapping; the roadmap.

While roadmapping is a process of strategy development, the roadmap is the output that takes to form of a highly visual connected graphic.  But this simplicity of the outcome underplays its rigour in its development.

A roadmap makes explicit the key information and organizes that information in a highly structured way. A roadmap is not a plan or a report and you will see the word used almost disposably. It is not a Gantt chart for a project.  You know you are looking at a roadmap when it combines information answering the Why, What and How and the When things need to happen.

Taking a look at the graphic below we can see several aspects.

Central to a roadmap, and how we would build one, is the template combining layers of information over time. Time normally flows left to right from a Now state to some desired future state, or vision of that endpoint.

The layers from top to bottom, comprise the Why, What, How questions. Market, business and competitive knowledge through the What layer of value creation – the products, services and systems. And the How layer with the enablement of technologies, science, and a host of resources.

A strategy motivation for the production of the roadmap may be A Pull for the market strategy or a Push from technology.  Technology managers may ask, “we have all this great technology, how can we leverage it?”

People involved in building a roadmap will naturally come from different perspectives of business. They look at the world through a “lens” which might include a commercial or strategic Lens, a design or product Lens and a Technology or research Lens. All are valid, but no one Lens has all of the answers to a strategic question.

The external perspective comprises what are the trends and drivers that affect our markets?  Next, the Internal perspective, what are the technologies, projects and resources we need to deliver new products and services? And showing how we can Know Why, Know What, Know How and When we need to deliver.

We can also describe a roadmap concerning information types.  The top layer is about trends and drivers, change and competition.  The middle layer is about the form and function of innovations and speaks to Value. The bottom layer is about capabilities and resources.

Finally, the job of the roadmap is to create a narrative or story about where we want to go, where we are now and how do we close the gap.

Figure: Adapted from Roadmapping for Strategy and Innovation [1]
Strategic Roadmapping is a powerful strategic tool for several reasons.

First, the roadmapping process brings together all the current knowledge, people and needs and assembles it into the product we call the strategic roadmap.

Second, the product is, of course, important because it represents the plan the company needs to execute – already, we’re dealing with that problem of strategy usually failing.  But perhaps a more important outcome is the engagement of the people involved.  Bringing technical, operational and commercial functions together to co-create the strategy is part of the strategy-planning challenge.

Roadmapping workshops are highly social ways that engage the mind and the heart which can be highly motivating. There are important psychological reasons behind why strategic roadmapping works and these are behind the increased “stickiness” of the roadmap [2]; it’s not just dry strategy and analysis.

Third, building strategic planning capability is a core skill and in a rapidly changing world where the volume of data increases every 18 months and more technologies are available than ever, we must ensure that precious resources are deployed on doing the right projects.

Use Cases

If you already use strategic roadmapping, then that is a good result.  But we also know that many organizations do not reach full potential or might start and then fall back.

This article describes the S-plan or strategy planning format which has been used countless times for organisations of all sizes and in many strategic planning situations.

Examples from real projects.

  • New technology planning – how to create new revenue streams for further digital services
  • Corporate technology strategy – Multilyer nested roadmaps for a large materials company as part of an innovation improvement project.
  • A national digital innovation infrastructure for a transportation system to improve passenger experience and engage the public and supply chain in innovation.
  • IP strategy for a national government innovation agency.
  • Communicating the history of how a research technology organisation came into being for knowledge transfer to a corporate.
  • Refreshing a national university consortium roadmapping to win next start funding.
  • Producing a roadmap for sea rescue services incorporating digital technologies.
  • Using roadmapping to embed roadmapping in the corporate innovation

What are the Results?

A very important output from roadmapping is the roadmap itself. This is often the motivating factor.

Roadmaps come in different forms depending on what it needs to do.  For a product-technology plan, the map will show the key elements and the linkages between them. The roadmapping sponsor may also choose to produce a simplified graphic for wider communication.  In the case of a sector or regional map, there may be more graphical design, almost pictorial.

A second result is enhanced engagement and better strategy with greater longevity.  And better strategy links directly to better business results right at the bottom line. Twice as many companies in the best performing categories use roadmapping [3].

By the design of the roadmapping process, we get more and better options for using new technologies.  The process is not an easy ride – it is very much designed to challenge and ultimately get better results. But also it focuses idea generation on real and tangible opportunities.

  • With correct preparation in the weeks leading up, a Roadmap can be produced in a few days.
  • It makes visible what you know and what you need don’t, but need to.
  • The strategy becomes “sticky” – more likely to create buy-in and last over the long term.
  • Makes complex issues easy to understand and communicate.
  • Ensures effective use of your precious resources: Know Why, Know What, Know How and Know When.

Revisiting our innovation heroes after the roadmapping service for Anna

For our national innovation centre, we could help Anna design an effective strategic technology roadmapping process that brings together scientists and engineers with a commercial representative from her company members. With solid preparation, we scope out the objective and set the exam question and homework for workshop attendees in the 6 weeks in the run-up to the one-day roadmapping workshop.  At the workshop, a skilled facilitator leads the activities for the day by inviting delegates to share their knowledge and experience.  Since roadmapping is a highly visual and dynamic process, the delegates can get hands-on, co-creating the options that show where new products and technologies come from and what projects and resources are needed to develop them.

Do you need a Strategic Roadmapping?

The following questions are helpful if you are considering getting into roadmapping,

  • Is the pace of innovation and technology development increasing, creating a danger of you being left behind?
  • Do you know where and when the new products will flow out into the market and are they backed up by technology acquisition?
  • Is the R&D strategy well-aligned to your commercial objectives, or does it need better coordination?
  • Do you struggle to get buy-in and alignment in the company to innovation activities?
  • Is your innovation strategy complete, or in need of a refresh?

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Want to know more?

Rob Munro is an innovation strategist and consultant focussing on improving innovation results for organisations. I deliver strategic roadmapping services through my association with IfM Engage, the knowledge transfer business of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University.

Read more about my service to organisations for Innovation Planning in improving innovation results.


Further Reading

  1. Roadmapping for Strategy and Innovation, Rob Phaal, Clare Farrukh, David Probert, University of Cambridge, 2011
  2. Cogitate, articulate, communicate: the psychosocial reality of technology roadmapping and roadmaps, Clive Kerr, Robert Phaal, David Probert, R&D Management, 2012
  3. Product innovation and technology strategy, Robert Cooper, Scott Edgett, Product Development Institute, 2009