Whether your design team is just you, or a team of 15, there always seems to be more than enough work to go around. And while everyone should be focused on keeping the lights on, driving your designers to think proactively (rather than reactively, like service providers) is a big part of building a design culture within your company.
Although Google got rid of its "20% time" concept a while ago, there's a still a push within many tech companies to recognize the value of side projects, whether focused in-house, or personal. And, to even focus a bit more closely, just the idea of being able to think beyond what's currently in your Work In Progress column can drive curiosity, creativity, and engagement.
For my teams, I try to structure our workload around what I call Now, Soon, Next, New — where we keep the trains running on time with the work that needs to be done right this moment, but conscious attention is given to design that's on the horizon, as well as blue sky work that may never make it off our desks.
Now the time ranges I've put around these sections are somewhat arbitrary, and might not apply to your product lifecycle — if you're building web applications, you may move much quicker; shrinkwrap releases of major software, possibly slower. But I hope you find the overall section breakdowns, relevant.
Now (up to three months out)
This is the work that's front of mind — your current release, your latest Scrum. Knocking out wireframes, interviewing customers, running through test cases, tying off localization efforts with in-country reviewers. This is obviously where most of our time and cycles need to spent, but regardless of what your calendar is screaming at you every day, I think it's a mistake to spend ALL your time and cycles here as a long-term goal. Focusing only on what's due today or tomorrow can create a myopic, reactionary environment on your design team, and it can definitely suck a lot of the fun out of the work, because this isn't where all the creativity is happening. The design thinking that got you here, happened a while ago. What's you're doing now is the tactical "moving the mouse" that delivers on the creative problem solving that already happened. That isn't to say there's zero creativity happening now, but most that design work is either iterative, where you're riffing on previous work, or reactionary, where you're required to start from scratch due to a change in requirements or schedule, or a technical constraint. This isn't the time when the magic happens. And the magic is what makes your designers get up in the morning and come to work.
The other problem that can happen if you spend all your team's cycles here is that all work turns into a game of inches. It's pretty common to find a perfectionist streak in people who take on design as a career, and when you can't take the time to think broadly, that streak can be focused in nonconstructive ways. Focusing on nothing but details means that 95% is never enough, because 96% is just around the corner somewhere. What initially looks like pragmatism, ends up as paralysis.
In short: get the work done. Crank out great stuff. See your tough decisions come to fruition. But don't keep your head down so long that you don't look up over the next hill.
Soon (six months out)
Whether it's the next version or the next milestone, designers here are testing new design patterns, tweaking and perfecting visual UI updates, validating their own assumptions against user feedback and pain points, and working with their product management and engineering colleagues to groom user stories. Design work is more strategic and less tactical — you're drawing the map that others will use to navigate, later. Concept reviews, brainstorming sessions, and design sprints are the engines that power the work happening here.
Next (12-18 months out)
Maybe it doesn't exist yet, but it always should have. Maybe the guts are right, but your analytics tells you the structure needs to be torn down to the studs and rebuilt. Maybe your customers are showing you where they need to be, but someone's always said it's too expensive, or too risky, or too time-intensive to get there. This is where you're asking big questions of your users, your colleagues, and yourselves, and deciding where your big bets are. Your team is creating high-level design "What If?" scenarios, blue sky ideation exercises to help clarify ideas, and design studies that gather up best practices around patterns and functionalities, and then focus them for your team's needs and asks.
New (who the hell knows, or non-product entirely)
This is where the blue sky meets the horizon. Designers are designers because they love to create new things, and this is where many designers feel they're at their best. These can be company-organized opportunities for teams to come up with entirely new ideas around existing applications or processes (or envisioning entirely new ones), or it can be chances to work on side projects with colleagues that spur design thinking. From donating design time to places that need it through AIGA's Design for Good, to building RPG gaming tools, to vampire fantasy dating apps (don't ask), giving your team a chance to work on things that really matter to them, or that inspire them to be at their best, or make them laugh until milk shoots our their noses, are the kinds of things that make your team strong and connected.
Now, Tomorrow and the Next Day...
Good design teams stay hungry and inspired. And continuing to look forward and designing for the future is a way to feed that need.