Why using a Now/Next/Later roadmap might be right for you

I was recently asked by a colleague to write up our team’s reasoning for using a Now/Next/Later roadmap to plan our work (instead of quarterly/annual roadmaps with dates). If you already use Now/Next/Later nothing in here will be new to you, but I thought I’d share what I wrote for this internal document in case it’s useful to anyone hoping to make this shift as well.

We use an adapted version of a Now/Next/Later roadmap to plan our work. You can read more about this approach in Introduction to Lean Roadmapping by its creator, Janna Bastow. In short, here are the guiding principles for using this roadmap and why it is effective:

  • Deadline-driven development is fraught with issues that make it a fairly ineffective way to plan delivery work. This includes:
    • Long-term priorities frequently change based on new data and developments, so any planning past a few months out is mostly fiction and rarely happens as planned.
    • Deadlines are often set without input from the delivery teams who are building the product, which makes estimates inaccurate and difficult to attain.
    • Because deadlines are often arbitrary, delivery teams have to make quality tradeoffs to meet the dates, which introduces unnecessary technical debt into the system.
  • Using a Now/Next/Later approach helps delivery teams know what is most important to work on, and what is coming down the road.
    • “Now” means Now–it is literally the work that is in flight. This work should be limited to 1–2 projects per team to ensure effective delivery.
      • Changes to “Now” should only happen in the rarest of occasions so as not to interrupt work in flight.
    • “Next” means anything from 2–8 weeks from now. This is work that is planned and ready to go as soon as a team becomes available. It has been spec’d and scoped, and everyone agrees it’s the next important thing. We limit not only Work In Progress (Now), but also Work in Next, so that there are not too many priorities vying for attention.
      • Changes to “Next” should happen infrequently since the work is planned and the team will be ready to go at any moment.
    • “Later” means anything from 2–6 months from now. This is work we believe is important to be prioritized, but it hasn’t been fully spec’d and scoped yet.
      • Changes to “Later” can–and often does–happen whenever new data becomes available that makes us shift priorities. This is expected and encouraged, until the project moves to “Next” where it gets locked in and fully spec’d.
    • We cheated and added “Much Later”, which lists things that we think will be 6–12 months out. The likelihood of these projects changing are high, but it is good to have a long-term view on what we believe, with the current information we have, will be important for the business and our customers to work one.

We do acknowledge and recognize that delivery dates are important. We prefer to work with high-integrity commitments, which are dates that delivery teams commit to once they have had a chance to properly scope out a project (which sometimes means getting started without a completion date set).

The teams are accountable to these dates because they have been involved in setting them, and though they can change based on unknowns, these changes should be infrequent.