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How the Now, Next, Later framework improved Toronto Star’s road mapping

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Over the years, Canada’s Toronto Star has tried different programmes and tools to improve its planning. However, with the implementation of the Now, Next, Later framework, it is better able to understand its priorities at the moment and what should be worked on in the future.

During the Webinar How to define and communicate high-stakes projects, presented by the INMA Product + Tech Initiative, members heard from Laura Bowers, director of digital delivery and product management for off-platform subscription products at the Toronto Star. Bowers explained how the company has improved its road mapping and prioritisation since implementing these processes about seven months ago.

As the name implies, the Now, Next, Later framework identifies the priority of projects:

  • Now indicates something is being worked on in the current six-week period.
  • Next puts it as a priority over the seven- to 12-week period that will follow.
  • Later is for anything beyond that 12-week period.

“We divide ourselves in two phases,” Bowers said. “One is discovery and one is delivery. So ‘now’ is very much in the delivery side of things; ‘next’ will sometimes be in delivery, but for the most part it’s in the discovery phase.”    

Laura Bowers explained the Now, Next, Later framework.
Laura Bowers explained the Now, Next, Later framework.

Where ideas come from

One question facing companies is how to get a backlog of ideas for projects that need to be done. At the Toronto Star, design sprints have been a successful — and fun — way to generate ideas.

“We are a lean, agile organisation — or we try our best to be,” Bowers said. “The design sprint allows you to have a focused group for five days. I’ve been able to do these in three [days], but five is the recommendation.”

One purpose of a design sprint could be to solve a specific problem related to how something will be done.

“Some people will do workshops and brainstorm sessions, but the sprint allows you to go through very focused steps,” she said. “One of the very first questions you ask yourself is: ‘What are we trying to achieve? What are the things that are going to make us successful? What is our vision statement?’”

Understanding and agreeing on that can help keep everyone focused on the same goal as the team moves ahead.

A design sprint can help generate ideas for future projects.
A design sprint can help generate ideas for future projects.

“What typically happens with us at the outset is you may come away with a prototype that you can then test with your users, but in other scenarios, we come up with a list of things that we can get done. So that starts to inform the next step in our process.”

Deciding what comes next

That next step is usually the effort/benefit analysis, which is a visual quadrant used to determine the level of effort and the benefit: “The benefit goes back to … what benefit do we get out of it for our end users? What benefit do we get out of it for our organisation?”

The effort/benefit analysis is effective for determining what should be worked on first.
The effort/benefit analysis is effective for determining what should be worked on first.

To create this analysis, Bowers said they write every idea down on a Post-it note, place them on the screen, and start plotting them out on the quadrant.

“And what you get out of this is a really clear understanding of the things that I should be working on first,” Bowers said. “Maybe something sounded like a really good idea, but as we discussed it, [we realised] it’s something that we probably aren’t going to do.”

The quandrant is helpful for visual learners because it helps them quickly identify what should be at the top of the to-do list.

“Some thought has to go around it because you might have something that is really high benefit and really high effort — so maybe you don’t do that first. Maybe you want to do something that is a little bit more low-hanging fruit.”

That can open up conversations about what people think should be done and what dependencies might be included, Bower said, such as third-party vendors that are needed to help.

Once the list of projects is created, it can then be applied to the Now, Next, Later framework. After projects are categorised as Now, Next, or Later, they can be shared with all stakeholders and the executive level to show the area of focus.

Getting granular

Then each project gets a closer look, with an area of focus being defined and an outcome statement that helps measure success.

Projects are broken down into a focused six-week plan.
Projects are broken down into a focused six-week plan.

Because the teams work in two-week sprints, the milestones are broken down for the next three sprints and revisited every six weeks: “These are the things that I am going to achieve that will support the key results and that those key results will then support the outcome statement,” Bowers explained. “So it all is very cohesive and [we know] that we’re working on the right things.”

On Fridays, a weekly update lets everyone know what has been accomplished and what each person’s priority is for the following week. That it has been important not only to maintain communication and visibility throughout the team but also to ensure that everyone is working on the right priorities.

“Our other teammates are able to see what we’re working on, and we are able to make sure that we have been thinking about what it is we’re working on,” she explained. It keeps team members from getting off track and may uncover any unexpected risks and dependencies that are getting in the way of the plan.

“But ultimately, we’re making sure that the next week is set up for success by working on the right things.”

About Paula Felps

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