Skip to Main Content

What is an innovation roadmap, and do we need one?

Maybe you heard about innovation roadmaps from Googling “innovation process.” Maybe you read on LinkedIn that they’re key to successful innovation. Or maybe you heard about innovation roadmaps from another key stakeholder at your organization.

Whatever your background, you’re in the right place. Here, we’ll explain (and show you!) what innovation roadmaps are and walk you through how to use them in the innovation planning process to maximize your odds of success.

Briefly, an innovation roadmap is a visualization of the innovation process – which is probably what you thought from hearing the term.

But what does that actually mean? And how do roadmaps function in the work of product innovation? The best answers are complex because product innovation itself is complex. The first thing to know is that, for any given innovation project, you’ll likely need many roadmaps to get you from where you are today to your successful endpoint.

The starting point in many product innovation projects is a roadmap like the one shown in Figure 1, which lays out a rough time frame for various stages of the product innovation lifecycle.

This initial roadmap helps set expectations for stakeholders and serves as a kind of overview for the innovation manager in charge. As a project progresses, most teams will develop additional roadmaps to guide their work.

The catch: because the whole point of product innovation is to discover new things as you go, you won’t know what your roadmaps look like until you start. But an experienced innovation manager will have plenty of tools and strategies to draw on to create subsequent roadmaps as the project progresses.

This quote from E. L. Doctorow may be helpful here: “[It’s] like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Doctorow was talking about writing a novel, but he might as well have been talking about product innovation. You can’t expect to see the end from the start, but if you’ve got the right competencies and tools at your disposal, you’ll get where you want to be.

Now let’s take a look at how innovation roadmaps can function.

Roadmaps to de-risk the innovation process

Roadmaps are valuable to the folks actually doing the work of innovation because they help clarify the process. But they can also be a valuable tool for getting buy-in from other stakeholders, including executives who may be skeptical about investments in innovation.

When you can show a concrete timeline like the one in Figure 1, you give decision makers something to hold on to. You can affix milestones to each phase in your roadmap and explain to stakeholders how you’ll show that you’ve reached these milestones.

Just as a roadmap for a cross-country trip helps you know you’re on the right path by flagging important landmarks, an innovation roadmap offers key innovation goals along the way. It makes a journey less risky because it offers check-in points so you can adjust course if and when you’re not hitting the milestones you planned to.

Another way to get stakeholder buy-in for innovation is to illustrate how roadmaps can de-risk the process of innovation. They do this most effectively when an experienced innovation manager is the one building the roadmap and keeping the team on task.

To understand how, let’s do a deep dive into the “synthesis” phase of the innovation process (in the roadmap above, happening in late March and early April). In this phase, an experienced innovation manager will help their team bring together (aka synthesize) all the information they’ve gathered so far and use it to build a roadmap for the next phase of the project.

That’s no easy feat: our head of design once described the process as akin to “building cubes from fog.” But it’s highly effective: because the roadmap built during synthesis is informed by user conversations, stakeholder interviews, and in-depth industry and market research, it is a key de-risking tool. It puts the innovation team on a path that they are confident will lead to a solution that works (e.g., a product people love).

Let’s take a look at how innovation teams use a series of evolving visualizations to transform lots of unstructured information into a clear wishlist of opportunities.

As you may have gathered, the role of the innovation manager is really important in getting from raw research to a list of the highest-value innovation opportunities: the manager uses their experience of innovation to not only make sure the team sticks to the timeline outlined in the high-level roadmap, but also to act as a sort of innovation cartographer, developing roadmaps for the best path forward as the team gathers more information and insight.

Roadmaps to optimize the innovation process

In any context, roadmaps help eliminate the risk of building the wrong thing.

But they’re also essential for optimizing the innovation process: roadmaps help define the way forward, which looks very different for, say, launching an entirely new service than it does for improving the feature set on an existing product.

Let’s take a moment to consider how roadmaps can benefit each of the three types of innovation organizations commonly undertake: disruptive, radical, and incremental.

Innovation-type roadmaps: disruptive, radical, incremental

A roadmap can keep an organization on track no matter how it plans to innovate. And it’s important to remember that not all innovation is dramatic; in fact, there are three distinct types of innovation, all of which involve creating something new. Let’s look at Netflix to illustrate how each type of innovation functions:

  • Disruptive innovation: This happens most often when a new entrant to an industry operates with a new business model and completely (you guessed it) disrupts the status quo. This happened when Netflix offered to mail DVDs to customers for a monthly fee rather than asking them to come into stores to choose movies to rent (which was the standard Blockbuster model at the time).

  • Radical innovation: This type of innovation often involves a business offering a new technology to an existing customer base. When Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, it radically innovated the way it delivered content (and helped usher in a new era of media consumption).

  • Incremental innovation: This type of innovation often involves improving an existing model to offer greater value. Changes to Netflix’s recommendation engine over the years are a great example: as the company gathers more data about user behavior and preferences, it tweaks its algorithm to make better and better recommendations.

As you might have guessed, the innovation roadmap looks different for each type of innovation – and even for each specific project.

For example, both Netflix’s shift to AWS servers and its decision to start producing original content could be considered examples of radical innovation. But the roadmap for the former would be much more of a technology roadmap focused on the organization’s digital transformation, while the map for the latter would be more of a creative and financial map focused on reimagining how it sources the content it offers.

Which brings us to another important concept.

Roadmaps for new products vs. existing products

Innovation roadmaps can greatly improve the success of product development, but they look different for developing a brand-new product than they do for improving an existing product. If building a new product is like building cubes from fog, improving an existing product is more like stacking those cubes better.

In Figure 1, the innovation activities laid out on the roadmap include…

  • Preparation.

  • Immersion.

  • Research.

  • Synthesis.

  • Exploration and prioritization.

  • Concept and assessment.

  • Design and testing.

A team working toward innovation success in the form of creating a new product might need more time for immersion than a team that’s already immersed in an existing product and industry.

And while research is important in every product innovation project, the research on an existing product may be more targeted and efficient than one for an entirely new product. The roadmap may end up pointing to subtle changes rather than dramatic ones (see Figure 8).

As we saw with Netflix, even radical technology innovation (like moving to AWS servers) may not impact the product in ways customers can appreciate. In all cases, though––new or existing, customer-facing or not––product managers can increase the odds of innovation success by embracing a roadmap approach.

But not all innovation roadmaps are created equal. Let’s take a look at what the best innovation roadmaps have in common.

The best innovation roadmaps

First, a caveat: the best innovation roadmap is entirely context dependent. Just as you wouldn’t use a Rand McNally fold-up map of the US to navigate from your home to the grocery store, you can’t assume that a roadmap that worked great for one initiative will yield similar success with another.

What's more, the map itself is only as powerful as the person using it (usually an innovation manager). If you’re not sure which direction to hold a paper map, you may want to bring along a navigator. And if you’ve never led a team through a product innovation project before, you may need some support translating a roadmap to real-world innovation success.

And that’s a good thing! Because it hints at the bigger reality that innovation is not a magical talent some people have and others lack. It’s a way of working that anyone can learn. And when you learn it, you can apply it over and over to consistently create new sources of value and keep your organization ahead of the competition.

Okay. Big wind up. Now let’s get into elements that the best innovation roadmaps share.

What critical components do the most effective roadmaps all have?

At their simplest, successful innovation roadmaps are some variation on the double diamond model (Figure 9).

This model has two phases: identify the problem and define the solution.

In each phase, innovators rely first on divergent thinking to bring in as many ideas as possible, then convergent thinking to identify the best. In the first phase, research leads to identifying lots of problems that users are having. Innovators must identify the one that will be most impactful to solve.

From there, they identify as many solutions as possible, then choose the one that works best for three measurements: user desirability, business viability, and technical feasibility.

Then they build the thing.

As you can imagine, the innovation manager plays an important role in guiding the team in using this roadmap, helping decide when they have enough research, when they have enough ideas, when they’re on to something, when to move past an idea that’s not working.

In the wrong hands, an innovation roadmap like this could serve as window dressing to legitimize the same ideas that always win (e.g., those of an executive) rather than a proving ground for finding the ideas most likely to yield success.

How do you know if you have a good roadmap?

The bad news: there's no objective test for innovation roadmaps.

The good news: an experienced innovation manager can assess whether an innovation roadmap makes sense for the work you’re undertaking.

That said, here are a few red flags that your roadmap will not lead to successful innovation:

  • There's no time allocated for research. Research is critically important for innovation because it’s where a lot of discovery happens. The most impactful innovations often happen when organizations solve real problems people have. But you won’t know what those problems are unless you talk to the people you’re building for.

  • The roadmap outlines how to build a specific product or feature. This is more of a product roadmap than an innovation roadmap. It assumes too much to allow for any innovation. Before you know what to build, you have to first understand what problem to solve. Then you can figure out the best way to solve it.

  • It’s your go-to roadmap. There is no single path to innovation. Reusing the same roadmap over and over will likely lead you to the same results over and over––and innovation is all about building something new.

What should you do if you don’t have a roadmap or your roadmap is lacking?

If you don’t have an innovation roadmap or you suspect your roadmap won’t lead to success, we’d love to help. We have a proven track record of leading successful product innovation efforts by collaborating with our clients’ talented teams.

In many cases, we both help clients do the work of innovation and teach them how to innovate so that they can continue to do it after our engagement ends.

Want to hear more?

Read about our approach to work that consistently yields innovative outcomes or get in touch to start a conversation.

Published by TXI in Product Delivery

Let’s start a conversation

Let's shape your insights into experience-led data products together.