The Now/Next/Later roadmap exists because timeline roadmaps aren’t effective, simple as that. Timeline roadmaps insist on deadlines, which means product teams are deprived of the flexibility that allows them to do their best work. 

I invented the Now/Next/Later roadmap because I believe that, rather than focusing on deadline-based delivery, product teams should stay focused on discovery.

Discovery means staying aware of customer needs and business opportunities, and ensuring that the company is building the right thing according to recent data. Not churning out-of-date stuff from last year’s to-do list.

There’s plenty to say about why timeline roadmaps are awful and how your team can ditch the timeline roadmap. But this post is all about the Now/Next/Later format, how to use it, and why it’s the better choice.

Let’s dive in!

What is a Now/Next/Later roadmap?

The Now/Next/Later roadmap is a product management tool that organizes work into three-time horizons, from immediate to long term, starting with the most urgent problems to solve. This roadmap format conveys the overall product vision, as each element of work is tied back to a business objective.

An example of a Now/Next/Later roadmap

Why use a Now/Next/Later roadmap?

Now/Next/Later roadmaps are lean by nature, so they are a great fit for product teams that work in a lean way. The format keeps you moving forward without wasting precious resources.

Here are five more reasons why you should use a Now/Next/Later (NNL) roadmap:

  1. More human and flexible
  2. Allows for different levels of certainty
  3. Saves time
  4. Ties back to objectives
  5. Informs more impactful product decisions

1. More human and flexible

The fundamental thing about the NNL is that it removes the constraints of the timeline and gives you something much more human: time horizons. Time horizons are powerful because they allow you to move forward, yet only make commitments to what lies directly ahead of you. You can’t make decisions far off in the distance or future, because you can’t see it clearly yet. And because you’re not making hard and fast decisions about the future, it remains flexible to your needs when you get there.

2. Allows different levels of certainty

No one is 100% sure all the time. NNL allows varying levels of certainty, and product teams can differentiate and prioritize their work based on that. The Now column is definite, while the Later column is full of possibilities. In a way, certainty is portioned out over time horizons – which gives you the chance to become more certain, rather than commit too early.

3. Saves time 

The NNL roadmap saves time because you don’t waste hours planning stuff into the future that you ultimately might not (or should not) build. It doesn’t make sense to go into detail about big, far-off ideas – just like it doesn’t make sense to assign them deadlines. With the NNL, instead of plotting out a tedious delivery schedule, you spend your time researching, building, and fine-tuning the product work of the present moment. 

4. Tied back to objectives

The NNL roadmap forces you to stay in touch with your business objectives and build with them in mind. Is the company prioritizing user growth or revenue? Trying to get market share or brand exposure? The product initiatives you prioritize will change depending on these objectives, and ultimately, your roadmap will reflect your company strategy.

5. More impactful product decisions

Because you don’t get distracted or lost in details, and you spend time more wisely on things that are clearly tied to business objectives, you make more impactful product decisions with a Now/Next/Later roadmap. The format helps you focus on the goal, so the team makes choices that push the product forward.

What belongs in the Now, Next, and Later columns?

The Now, Next, and Later columns each contain product initiatives or ideas. But these initiatives and ideas vary in their level of certainty, scope, and how fully they’ve been specced. The columns don’t need to be equal in size, and they definitely are not set in stone.

The Now column contains the initiatives that you are working on, well, now. These items are clearly defined, much more detailed, and completely specced out. They are clear and defined initiatives and ideas that are broken down into more granular pieces of work – because they’re in front of you and you can actually start on them right away. You’ve got more confidence and clarity around what this work requires and what it will impact – as you should! Because this is the stuff happening at this very moment.

The Next column is what will happen once everything in the Now column is complete. These are broken down less finely, with fewer specifics and details. They’re not right in front of you yet, so you don’t need to spend much time fully figuring them out – they might be reliant on the success or failure of an initiative or idea in the Now column. But you understand that, at this moment, they’re next on the list.

The Later column is everything else you’ve proposed doing, but it won’t happen until sometime in the undefined future. These items are hazy; they’re big boulder blocks that you can see in the distance but don’t need to break down yet. You know the general problems you want to solve but don’t have details about exact solutions yet. The Later column keeps these problems on your radar – this is so important for ensuring your product vision stays consistent – as long as you know where you’re going you don’t have to know how you’ll get there. And as Later columns move closer, you will continue to explore and spec them out in a more concrete way.

How to use a Now/Next/Later roadmap?

Using a Now/Next/Later roadmap is very simple once you know how, and there are three steps you need to follow to do it correctly:

  1. Prioritize at the problem level
  2. Define product initiatives
  3. Tie them back to business objectives

1. Prioritize at the problem level

You should prioritize problems, not ideas. This ensures you are building useful solutions into your product, rather than loads of nice-to-have features. Once you’ve identified the problems you need to solve, you can log them in the ProdPad roadmap. To each problem, you attach all of the different ideas, potential features, and experiments you could run in order to find a solution for it.  

2. Define your product initiatives

Product initiatives are the tasks you’re working on to actualize any solutions and reach any goals. “Initiatives” are the prototypes, the experiments or tests, and the final solution you’re pushing to development.

You need to define these initiatives in the NNL roadmap, and then sort them based on urgency and certainty. If an initiative is time sensitive and does need a certain deadline, you can communicate that within the roadmap.

3. Tie them back to business objectives

You should be able to glance at the roadmap and understand what high-level success looks like for the business. Each product initiative must connect to a business objective, and this needs to be clear. Best practice top tip: make it visual and obvious on your roadmap. In ProdPad tag each objective and relevant ideas with colorful labels and – boom – the business objective is clear. The colors delineate “the why” behind each product idea.

How to talk about your roadmap to stakeholders?

Talking about your product roadmap to stakeholders can be tricky or even daunting, especially if you (and everyone else) are new to working without deadlines in a Now/Next/Later format. The truth is that most of the company is experiment-driven, and the product team should be no different!

Because this entails a whole shift in mentality, you will likely need to change the product management vocabulary you use when you speak to stakeholders. We’ve also put together some tips on how to communicate the roadmap status to your team, as well as five ways to communicate new product features to business-facing teams.

What methodology works best with a Now/Next/Later roadmap?

The Now/Next/Later roadmap is lean at its core, so it works with almost any methodology out there, including lean methodology or agile. It’s designed to be flexible, so you aren’t putting a fixed scope and a fixed deadline on work that you have already promised to stakeholders. Elements can be removed or reordered without disrupting the cadence.

Even if a team works in Kanban, Scrum, or a classic waterfall style, the NNL roadmap still allows you to prioritize in this flexible, problem-oriented way.

What pitfalls can you avoid with a Now/Next/Later roadmap?

There are many pitfalls you can avoid with a Now/Next/Later roadmap, but here are three of the most important ones.

  1. Endlessly shifting deadlines
  2. Low team morale
  3. Becoming a feature factory

1. Endlessly shifting deadlines

Deadlines are the root cause of so much product management pain. They create a vicious cycle of the timeline roadmap. Customers and management are confused or disappointed. Work estimates are artificially extended, the timelines are bloated, and the team moves slower. And yet still deadlines will be pushed!

Ultimately, due dates are a distraction. They make everyone feel very busy and important, but they are an illusion. And sometimes, they actually make people feel bad. On that note…

2. Low team morale

Missed deadlines and constantly reorganized workloads take a toll on morale. The team is doing its best, but they feel lousy – and they suspect the rest of the company (or customer base) perceives them as incompetent. Simply because the work is not suited to hard deadlines in the first place!

Not to mention the blame culture that can arise from a vicious cycle of shifting deadlines. No one wants to work in a place like that. Read on about how our own Liz Love saved her team by switching to a horizon roadmap like NNL.

3. Becoming a feature factory

If you are hitting those deadlines and you are totally driven by output, guess what? You’re likely a feature factory. Sometimes referred to as the “build trap,” this mode of product development is dangerous because teams lose touch with the market and lose sight of the overall strategy. More features do not equal more success. Learn more about how to avoid becoming a feature factory but still achieve product differentiation

Outcomes over output: Why OKRs and Now/Next/Later roadmaps are best friends

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are meant to be guideposts and benchmarks for the company at large, so you know where you are aiming and how well you are getting there.

There is actually a third component, initiatives, which I’ve mentioned throughout this post and which I liken to a forgotten middle child in the OKR discussion. Initiatives are the actions you are actually taking to achieve results and hit goals. Initiatives are the game plan. These are items you’ve spelled out on the Now/Next/Later roadmap.

This is why OKRs and NNL are BFFs. Your business objectives are baked into the product roadmap, so your team works toward outcomes – not just output.

To learn more, read on about how OKRs and lean roadmaps work together, how to write good Objectives and Key Results, as well as some pitfalls to avoid when implementing OKRs. Lastly, if you want to explore and give a Now/Next/Later roadmap a go without having to import any of your own data into it have a look at our sandbox.

The post Why I Invented the Now/Next/Later Roadmap appeared first on ProdPad.