Strategic Roadmaps are a powerful tool for taking a complex problem and breaking down the solution into a series of meaningful, smaller changes on the way to the big success.
They are a backwards planning process in which we define the big change we want to see in the world and then define the smaller changes that will lead to that big change. While Strategic Roadmaps often include strategies, the strategies are typically only related to the most immediate steps on the road, to avoid the problem of planning yourself into a static response to a changing environment.
Strategic Roadmaps begin with articulating the End-of-the-Road, a specific and achievable, but ambitious change in the world that is critical for solving a complex, adaptive problem. These are typically the systemic changes needed to create benefit for more visionary reasons (e.g. healthy families, health communities, healthy environments).
Example End-of-the-Roads include:
- Statewide sustainable Farm to School
- Improved economic and ecological health of the Mississippi River
- Effective pathways to employment for disconnected youth
The End-of-the-Road is focused on systemic changes because the more visionary change is often influenced by many different things. For example, children eating healthy food in schools is influenced by what they eat at home, time available to eat in school, the presence of vending machines, etc. A group working on Farm to School won’t tackle all of these things, so they keep their End-of-the-Road more narrowly focused, knowing from a vision point-of-view that they are trying to expand Farm to School in part to influence whether children eat healthy food in schools.
Typical backwards planning will help you to articulate where you are today and where you want to go, and then you plan backward from there. These plans, while powerful in their focus on the long-term change, still tend to be filled with strategies – the things you do – rather than the changes you need to cause in the world on the way to the bigger success.
With Strategic Roadmaps, once you articulate the End-of-the-Road, you next ask yourself:
What is an immediate precondition to achieving that end of the road? In other words, what is a change in the world that is necessary to get to the larger change?
You keep asking this question, backing yourself out from the end-of-the-road to smaller changes that are achievable in the near-term. This gives you a clear sense of the path to achieving the End-of-the-Road and confidence that what you’re working on achieving today is directly related to what you care about in the big picture.
Please note: Although Strategic Roadmaps are adapted from Theories of Change, unlike Theories of Change they are not linked to measureable change and are less focused on strategies; rather, they often provide more detail and focus on preconditions.
The preconditions in Strategic Roadmaps are also specifically systemic changes and sometimes movement building or other environmental changes. The preconditions are never the actions the group who is trying to cause change is taking or the steps along the way to get to changes. They are how change needs to happen.
The Colorado Farm to School Task Force, a legislatively mandated group formed in 2011, used a Strategic Roadmap process to guide its work and has continued to update and refine the roadmap every year as their work adapts in response to changing needs and a shifting environment.
The preconditions they identified to their End-of-the-Road are a mix of systemic changes in the food system, changes in schools, and policy changes.
- For more about the Colorado Farm to School Taskforce Roadmap process, and to see some of their early outcomes, check out this blog from the lead staff member on the Farm to School project and Spark Director, Dr. Lyn Kathlene.
- To see the full Colorado Farm to School Taskforce Strategic Roadmap, please visit their website.
Strategic Roadmaps are a powerful starting place for an adaptive planning process. Once you have one, you can integrate learning about the context/environment and design short-term strategies to tackle the earlier changes along the road. You can also predict the higher level strategies likely to be needed over the longer term, knowing they are likely to need adaptation.
Strategic Roadmaps are also tools for telling the story of your work. The Farm to School Task Force uses their roadmap with many different stakeholders, including keeping it on the front page of their website.
In addition, Strategic Roadmaps can be useful in working with your evaluator to make sure they are paying attention to the same changes as the ones you hope to influence. Specifically, they can help in talking with the evaluator about the importance of not holding your group accountable for the “how” of your work, but rather the “why” of it.
Finally, a Strategic Roadmap is a powerful prioritizing tool. When new ideas or opportunities arise, you can ask yourself whether they help you influence any of the preconditions on your roadmap. If not, chances are they may not be the best use of time and other resources.
Strategic Roadmaps emerged from our use of Theories of Change, but they are not the same as Theories of Change. Specifically:
- Similar to Theories of Change, they help participants articulate the change they want;
- Unlike most Theories of Change, they are not limited to measurable change;
- Similar to some Theories of Change, they help to break a significant change in the world into achievable, smaller changes along the way;
- Unlike most Theories of Change, they are focused on meaningful systemic changes, rather than programmatic outcomes or activities of partners; and
- Unlike most Theories of Change, they assume the strategies that are relevant today may not be relevant tomorrow and do not ask you to document what you will do over the life of your initiative or project.