My product management toolkit (24): ‘pre-mortem’

As helpful as ‘post-mortem’ sessions can be, how often do you find yourself wondering: “if I’d only thought about that beforehand!” In a medical environment, a post-mortem creates the opportunity for health professionals and the family to establish the patient’s cause of death. With digital products, a post-mortem typically happens at the end of a project or after a big product release. It’s similar to Agile retrospectives which often take place more regularly; the goal is to reflect on areas for improvement and related actions.

With a pre-mortem, the idea is to think about a project or a piece of work before commencing it. A pre-mortem can be done either as a group or as an individual exercise, and participants need to imagine the product or project to have failed (see Fig. 1 below).

For example:

“This product has failed because nobody wanted to pay for it”

“The product was never released in the end because the regulator refused to approve the product and its underlying business model” 

“The product has failed because many of its users complained about its poor user experience”

“The product failed because we the design & build project had to be rushed in the end to get it over the line?”

A pre-mortem thus enables you to start working backwards, and look at the individual factors that could lead to failure as well as the actions to take in order to pre-empt failure. Once you’ve identified these factors, you can start thinking about how to best avoid or mitigate these risks from occurring.

Naturally, it’s up to you to figure out how to best structure your pre-mortem, but these are some aspects that you might want to consider:

  • The product has bombed – Rather than consider the possible failure of a product or a project, in the pre-mortem the product is assumed to have failed. Similarly, if you’re doing a pre-mortem at the start of a project, it’s really helpful if all the participants in the pre-mortem think of any reason why the project could fail dramatically.
  • Categorise failures – When getting people to think about the reasons for failure, I always find it helpful to think about failures in specific areas, dependent on your product, market or organisation (see Fig. 2 below).
  • Does this mean that nothing will go wrong!? – Of course, things will not go according to plan and unexpected things will still happen. However, right from the get go, you’re creating an environment that allows people to think about and continuously talk about risk. You’re effectively creating an environment where people can speak freely about potential risk scenarios, without fear of being seen as impolite or difficult.
  • Identify threats and risks – There are a number of ways to elicit risks and threats from the pre-mortem. You could do a simple ‘brain dump’ for example. Alternatively, you could try a more structured approach whereby people need to come up with risks within certain areas (see “Categorise failures” above).
  • Analyse likelihood – Once you’ve collated threats and risks, you can use a simple scale ranging from “highly unlikely” to “highly likely” to assess likelihood of a specific risk or threat materialising. I’ve found that the activity of placing risks against the aforementioned scale, helps creating a shared understanding of the biggest risks. It also focuses the mind on the actions that need to be taken or things that need to be in place to mitigate risk.
  • Are the right people in the room? – When running a pre-mortem session with a number of people, it’s important to make sure you’ve got the right people in the room. For example, if you’re looking to work on a digital product, it’s important to have developers and designers present. Similarly, if you’re working in a highly regulated industry, having a compliance person brainstorming upfront about potential risks will go a long way.
  • Brainstorm and assess preventative actions – Once you’ve collectively established your highest risks, you can start thinking about ways to mitigate these risks. Realistically, you might not be able to stop all risks from happening  (think about a garden party being impacted by a sudden rain downpour …). In these scenarios, you can still figure out how to best reduce the impact of a risk happening and come up with a ‘plan B’. For example, if the heavens open during your garden party, people could always seek shelter in the tent that you put up ‘just in case’.
  • Not a one off exercise! – The risks and actions that you identify during your pre-mortem are something that you can use as ongoing reference point. “How are we doing we against risk X?” or “We can see risk Y materialising soon, how can best pre-empt things?” A regular product retrospective offers a great opportunity to take a step back from the day-to-day and look at the risks involved with your project or product.

Fig. 1 – Pre-Mortem by Dave Gray – Taken from: http://gamestorming.com/pre-mortem/

Fig. 2 – Possible failure categories to consider:

  1. Marketing – Think upfront about what could go wrong with your product’s go-to-market strategy and the marketing channels that you’re looking to use. For example, what would be the impact be if product messaging fails to resonate with your target audience?
  2. Customer – What if customers don’t want to pay for our product? What if we’re addressing the wrong customer segment? What if we’ve got customer needs wrong?
  3. Technology – The chosen technology implementation doesn’t work, what do we do? The technology isn’t scalable!? At this stage, it’s very valuable to explore the complexities or unknowns related to the technical implementation. As a group, you might agree on running discovery sprints to test certain technologies or non-happy path scenarios to deal with some of the ‘unknown unknowns’ being discovered early on.
  4. Stakeholders – I know some people like stakeholder mapping, but the pre-mortem can also help in figuring out who the relevant stakeholders are and how they’d need to be communicated with. Also, when look at the different risk areas, it can be very helpful which stakeholders have the most knowledge in a particular domain.
  5. Cost – What if our budget gets slashed halfway through the project? What if costs spiral because we failed to budget properly? What if the technology we’ve chosen turns out to be far too expensive or complex to implement?
  6. Compliance – Compliance and regulatory aspects are easy ones to forget at the start of a project. However, compliance can have a massive impact on a product or a project. For instance, I was involved in a project where we only found out halfway through that launching in China would be very tricky from an internal compliance and external regulation point of view. This proved to be a major stumbling block and it would have been good if we could have identified this as a major project risk beforehand.
  7. Competition – What if your direct competitor launcheds the same product as yours, but just a bit quicker? Or we imagine a situation where the product has failed because the competitor lowered its product price. Do we need a plan B for when this scenario happens? If so, what should this plan look like?

Main learning point: Running a pre-mortem isn’t a substitute for fully planning projects upfront. You can do the best pre-mortem possible but things will still happen, and to which you’ll need to adapt. A good pre-mortem, however, will get people to think and be open about risk. It will help significantly in identifying and addressing risk early and often.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://zapier.com/blog/project-retrospective-postmortem/
  2. https://www.cmcrossroads.com/article/when-postmortems-meet-retrospectives-improving-your-agile-process
  3. http://retrospectivewiki.org/index.php?title=Retrospective_Plans
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-mortem
  5. https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem
  6. https://simplicable.com/new/premortem
  7. http://gamestorming.com/pre-mortem/
  8. http://www.springer.com/gb/book/9783319490663

Book review: Yes To The Mess

In May last year, I attended a great talk by Ken Norton – partner at Google Ventures – titled Product Managers: Make Yourself Uncomfortable. In his talk, Ken talked about the book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett, a management consultant and jazz pianist. Ken talked about feeling uncomfortable, his point being that uncertain and unstable times call for embracing uncertainty, improvising, learning and improving.

In “Yes To The Mess” Frank J. Barrett highlights the leadership lessons that can be learned from jazz music and jazz greats. These are the main lessons I learned from reading this fantastic book:

There’s no such thing as making mistakes

quote-if-you-don-t-make-mistakes-you-aren-t-really-trying-coleman-hawkins-54-15-31

Fig. 1 – Coleman Hawkins “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” – Taken from: http://izquotes.com/quote/81208

How often do people get chastised for he mistake(s) they’ve made!? Having to lower one’s tune because of having tried something that ultimately failed? Or trying to cover up a mistake or an error? In contrast, jazz music is all about ‘failing’. Like the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins once said: “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” (see Fig. 1 above). In jazz music and in business, Barrett argues, there’s no such thing as making a mistake.

Instead, the focus is on not missing opportunities and embracing errors as a source of learning. For me, Miles Davies is the ultimate embodiment of the courage to make mistakes; “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake” is one of Davis’ famous quotes. “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” is another one (see Fig. 2 below). As Barrett points out, Davis was talking about the importance of continuing to take risks and to try new possibilities. Because when you do, something new and unexpected is likely to happen.

milesdavis

Fig. 2 – Miles Davis “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” – Taken from: http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/quotes/

Informed risks and constructive learning

If mistakes don’t exist and we should all learn by trying, does this mean that we can just act recklessly and stop caring about what could happen!?

Absolutely not. Barrett explains how well conceived plans not always pan out as expected. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” as Mike Tyson once said (see Fig. 3 below). I came across an organisation once where project people probably spent a good 40% of their time drawing up great detailed project plans and 60% of their remaining time continuously adjusting timings on their project plans and “controlling the message” towards their stakeholders. Perhaps if they’d read “Yes To The Mess” they might have instead embraced unexpected factors or errors, and built on them. In jazz, the artists don’t correct mistakes as much, opting to recognise and ride with them instead.

quote-mike-tyson-everyone-has-a-plan-till-they-get-6007

Fig. 3 – Mike Tyson “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” – Taken from: http://quotes.lifehack.org/quote/mike-tyson/everyone-has-a-plan-till-they-get/

What I like about this approach is that jazz players will learn by leaping in, learn from taking action and adjust accordingly. Barrett describes this approach as taking informed risks, taking action based on something that happen before and discover as you go. Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus once famously said: “You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.” Even improvisation needs rules and some kind of order. As a result, especially in jazz bands, improvisation will lead to collective discoveries.

In my experience, improvisation isn’t easy. It can be pretty daunting when something doesn’t go according to plan – or when there isn’t a plan to begin with. An understandable first reaction is to try and fix the error, make sure the plan can still be executed upon. However, the results of not following this instictive response can be amazing, and can lead to new insights and approaches.

Generous listening

A key point Barrett makes is how improvisation requires jazz musicians to do lots of listening. Jazz players need to be attentive not only to the music they’re playing, both individually and as a group, but also to what isn’t being played. When Miles Davis was asked how he went about improvisation, he explained that he listened to what everyone in the band was playing and would then play what was missing.

Although I’m not yet great at it, generous listening is all about listening more then talking, or asking questions even when you might already know the answer. As a product person, it means not trying to be a rockstar or to push through your opinion. In contrast, it’s about truly listening to what someone else is thinking or might have to offer. In jazz, there’s even a term for this: “comping” – the rhythms, chords, and countermelodies with which the other players accompany a solo improvisation.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-07-17-11

Fig. 4 – Duke Ellington “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen” – Taken from: https://www.apassion4jazz.net/quotations4.html

Affirmative competence

Taking informed risks and listen generously leads to organisations developing “affirmative competence”, where the organisational system is no longer top down and deliberate, but much more emergent. As Barrett stresses, “an emergent system is smarter than the individual members.” Andy Grove applied this approach whilst at Intel when being faced with the challenge of Intel’s existing business drifting away. Since that experience, Grove’s advice is to “set aside everything you know.” Organisations and teams will thus learn while doing and by building up an underlying confidence in the competence of their group of people, taking the following steps in the process:

  • Take action
  • Revise assumptions
  • Value learning from failures
  • Try again
  • Discover as you go

Main learning point: I absolutely loved both Ken Norton’s talk and “Yes To The Mess” by Frank Barrett. The idea that well conceived plans are fallible and that that it’s ok to learn from one’s mistakes really resonates with me. Even if you’re not a jazz lover, it’s really worth reading “Yes To The Mess” and studying the lessons we can learn from jazz and its musicians.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2016/05/product-managers-please-make-uncomfortable/
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2012/08/10/leadership-lessons-from-the-geniuses-of-jazz/
  3. https://hbr.org/2012/08/what-leaders-can-learn-from-ja
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/jun/13/grand-wizard-invents-scratching
  5. http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/pdf/10.1287/orsc.9.5.543
  6. http://fortune.com/2012/09/10/what-biz-leaders-can-learn-from-jazz/
  7. http://jazztimes.com/articles/134503-beyond-the-music-what-jazz-teaches-us

Book review: Sprint (Part 6 – Day 5)

The fifth and final day of the sprint is all about interviewing your (target) customers and learning from how they interact with your prototype.

Interview

“Five is the magic number”, is the point that Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz are making in Sprint with regard to the number of people to interview. The value of this number of interviewees was proven by usability expert Norman Nielsen who found that typically 85 percent of problems were observed after just five people (see Fig. 1). “The number of findings quickly reaches the point diminishing returns,” Nielsen concluded. “There’s little additional benefit to running more than five people through the same study; ROI drops like a stone.”

When it comes to conducting the actual interview, having a structured and consistent way of running these conversations is critical. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz write about the “Five-Act Interview”, which consists of the following stages (see Sprint, p. 202):

  1. A friendly welcome to start the interview
  2. A series of general, open-ended context questions about the interview
  3. Introduction to the prototype(s)
  4. Detailed tasks to get the customer reacting to the prototype
  5. A quick debrief to capture the customer’s overarching thoughts and impressions

The book also provides some useful tips for the interviewer, asking open-ended and ‘broken’ questions (pp. 212 – 215):

  • DON’T ask multiple choice or “yes/no” questions – “Would you …?””Do you …?””Is it…?”
  • DO ask “Five Ws and One H” questions – “Who …?””What …?””Where …?””When …?””Why …?””How …?”
  • Ask broken questions – The idea behind a broken question is to start asking a question – but let your speech trail off before you say anything that could bias or influence the answer. For example: “So, what … is …” (trail off into silence)

Fig. 1 – Why You Only Need To Test With Five Users – Taken from: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/

 

20000319-user-testing-diminshing-returns-curve

Learn

Ultimately, this is what the fifth and final day of your sprint is all about: finding the end to your sprint story. Once you’ve had a chance to see how your customers react to your prototype, you’ll be able to answer your sprint questions and decide on next steps. For example, if you and your team take interview notes as a group during the five interviews, you should be able to do a good recap of all your learnings, answer the original sprint questions and decide on what to next. For example, a common next step would be to make a go/no go decision about a particular product idea.

Main learning point: In “Sprint”, Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz offer a very cost-efficient way to explore product questions and solutions before committing to an idea (and a large investment of time, money and effort). The reality is that as a product manager you’ll almost always will have to take a punt, but being disciplined about doing sprints and continuous discovery will help you make better informed decisions, based on real customer feedback.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/interviewing-customers-to-explore-problems-and-solutions/
  2. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/
  3. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/how-to-do-effective-user-interviews/
  4. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/julia-shalet-explains-about-user-research-at-the-mobile-academy/
  5. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/collaborative-user-research-learning-from-erika-hall/

Book review: Sprint (Part 5 – Day 4)

Once you and your team have created storyboards, you’ll spend the fourth day of the sprint creating a prototype. In “Sprint”, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz talk about a “fake it” approach to turn a storyboard into a realistic prototype.

Fake It

The fourth day of your sprint is all about illusion; instead of taking weeks, months, or even years to create the real thing, you’re going to fake it. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz talk about building a facade (see Fig. 1 below). The main acceptance criterion for a successful facade is that it needs to be real enough to test with real customer on the fifth and final day of the sprint.

Fig. 1 – Building a realistic prototype – Taken from: https://heleo.com/jake-knapp-jake-knapp-sprint/6499/

 

prototype-1

facade-1

You and your team are only allowed to spend a single day on creating a facade, and that’s deliberate. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz explain that the more time you spend on creating a prototype the more likely you are to become attached to it, and less likely to make any changes based on customer feedback (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Becoming attached – Taken from: https://heleo.com/jake-knapp-jake-knapp-sprint/6499/

attachment-1

 

Similar to what Josh Wexler and Mike Fishbein talk about in their book, there’s an explanation of “the prototype mindset” in Sprint (pp. 168 – 170):

  1. You can prototype anything – If you go into the fourth day of your sprint with optimism and a conviction that there is some way to prototype and test your product, you’ll find a way.
  2. Prototypes are disposable – Don’t prototype anything you aren’t willing to throw away. Remember: this solution might not work.
  3. Build just enough to learn, but no more – The prototype is meant to answer questions, so keep it focused. You don’t need a fully functional product. You just need a real-looking facade to which customers can react.
  4. The prototype must appear real – To get trustworthy results in your test on the fifth and final day of your sprint, you can’t ask your customers to use their imaginations. You’ve got to show them something realistic. If you do, their realistic. If you do, their reactions will be genuine.

I loved the concept of “Goldilocks quality”, which was introduced by Daniel Burka. Burka argues that the ideal prototype should be of Goldilocks quality. If the quality is too low, people won’t believe the prototype is a real product. If the quality is too high, you’ll be working all night and you won’t finish. You need Goldilocks quality; not too high, not too low, but just right (see Fig. 3 below).

Fig. 3 – “Goldilocks quality” – Taken from: https://heleo.com/jake-knapp-jake-knapp-sprint/6499/

goldilocks-quality

Once you’ve created the right prototype, you and your team should do a quick trial run on the afternoon of the fourth day of your sprint. This will give you a chance to fix any mistakes or issues with your prototype, before you test it with real customers the following day.

Main learning point: Don’t get too hung up on the realness of your prototype! It needs to be real enough to test with customers on the final day of your sprint, no more and no less.

Book review: Sprint (Part 3 – Day 2)

Once you’ve set a target as part of Day 1 of your sprint, the next step is for you and your team to look at solutions. On the second day of the sprint, you’ll be coming up with solutions, and sketching them. This day consists of two key activities: (1) review ideas to remix and improve, and (2) create solution sketches to feed into your plan for a prototype and customer testing.

Remix and Improve

In “Sprint”, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Brad Kowitz suggest a good technique to collate and assess ideas: Lightning Demos. With this exercise, your team will take three-minute tours of their favourite ideas or products: from other products, from different domains, and from within your own company. The idea here is to encourage the team to throw everything in the mix, but to do so in a short and snappy way. Each person who has suggested an idea will do a three minute demo, showing the team what’s great about his or her solution. As a facilitator, you might want to use a timer to make sure each team member sticks to the their three minute time slot.

The key thing with these three minute ‘lightning demos’ is that you capture the big ideas from each presentation. Start by asking the person who’s doing the tour, “What’s the big idea here that might be useful?” You can then make a quick drawing of this big idea, write a simple headline above it and add the source underneath. I’ve included an example of a way to capture big ideas in Fig. 1 below.

Fig. 1 – An example of capturing ‘big ideas’ from lightning demos, by Karsten Neben – Taken from: https://medium.com/@karstenn/what-we-learned-in-just-5-days-our-design-sprint-report-b9ada5b7f19a#.27wb5fv4e

Lightning Demos

 

Sketch

In the afternoon of the second day of your sprint, the focus is on coming up with solutions. Instead of doing collective brainstorming sessions – which in my experience run the risk of becoming shouting matches or can be dominated by very vocal people – Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz suggest each team member coming up with ideas on their own. People will work individually, thinking about and sketching solutions. I’ve included a simple example of a sketch in Fig. 2 below.

The sketches that people create will act as an important driver for the rest of the sprint. On Wednesday (Day 3), you’ll critique everyone’s sketches and pick the best ones.

If you’re worried about the quality of your sketches, don’t! Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz introduce the four step sketch technique. This approach makes it easy for everyone to take some rough solutions and turn them into a detailed solution sketch (see Fig. 2 below):

  1. Notes  As a first step, the team walks around the room and takes notes from looking at all the post-it notes, whiteboards, flip-charts that you have collated over the first day and a half of your sprint.
  2. Ideas – Each team member individually will look at his or her notes and jot down rough ideas, simply filling a sheet with doodles, headlines, etc. The aim here is not to come up with fully fledged ideas or solutions. It’s purely a way for each person to drop down their thoughts.
  3. Crazy 8s – Crazy 8s is a fast-paced exercise. Each person will take his or her strongest ideas and rapidly sketches eight variations in eight minutes. What I like about Crazy 8s is that it stops you from dwelling on your first possible solution for too long. Instead, the eight minute deadlines forces you to quickly decide whether to move on from your first reasonable solution or to stick with it but iterate (see Fig. 3 and 4 below). I’ve found Crazy 8s to work particularly well if you end up sketching several variations of the same idea, exploring alternative versions. Similarly, you can use Crazy 8s to refine a marketing headline or messaging.
  4. Solution sketch – The solution sketch is each person’s best idea, put down on paper in detail. Up to this point, each team member will have worked individually on creating notes, ideas and Crazy 8s, and won’t have shared anything with the rest of the team. This all changes with the solution sketch; each solution sketch is an opinionated hypothesis for how to solve the challenge at hand. These sketches will be looked at – and judged – by the rest of the team. They will therefore need to be detailed, thought-out, and easy to understand (see Fig. 5 and 6 below).

Once each team member has put together a solution sketch, the sprint facilitator will collate them all and put them in a pile. The team will only be allowed to start looking at these solution sketches on the third day of the sprint.

Fig. 2 – Four step sketch technique – Taken from: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057076/google-ventures-on-how-sketching-can-unlock-big-ideas

4-stage sketch

Fig. 3 – How to do Crazy 8s – Taken from: “Sprint”, pp. 112-113

  1. Each person begins Crazy 8s with a single sheet of letter-size paper.
  2. Fold the paper in half three times, so you have eight panels.
  3. Set a timer to sixty seconds.
  4. Hit “start” and begin sketching – you have sixty seconds per section, for a total of eight minutes to create eight miniature sketches.
  5. Go fast and be messy: As with the notes and ideas, Crazy 8s will not be shared with the team.

Fig. 4 – Crazy 8s example – Taken from: https://www.fastcodesign.com/1672917/the-8-steps-to-creating-a-great-storyboard

1672917-inline-crazy8s

Fig. 5 – Important rules to keep in mind when creating a solution sketch – Taken from: “Sprint”, pp. 114-118

  1. Make it self-explanatory – Your solution sketch needs to explain itself. Think of this sketch as the first test for your idea. If no one can understand it in sketch form, it’s not likely to do any better when it’s polished.
  2. Keep it anonymous – Don’t put your name on your sketch, and be sure that everyone uses the same paper and the same black pens.
  3. Ugly is okay – Your sketch does not have to be fancy (boxes, stick figures, and words are fine), but it does have to be detailed, thoughtful, and complete.
  4. Words matter – Strong writing is especially necessary for software and marketing, where words often make up most of the screen. So pay extra close attention to the writing in your sketch. Don’t use “lorem ipsum” or draw those squiggly lines that mean “text will go here.” That text will go a long way to explain your idea – so make it good and make it real!
  5. Give it a catchy title – Since your name won’t be on your sketch, give it a title. Later, these titles will help you keep track of the different solutions as you’re reviewing and choosing. They’re also a way to draw attention to the big idea in your solution sketch (see the example in Fig 6 below).

Fig. 6 – A solution sketch from Blue Bottle Coffee’s sprint; each sticky note represents one screen – Taken from: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057076/google-ventures-on-how-sketching-can-unlock-big-ideas

Sketch example

Main learning point: The second day of the sprint is very solution oriented. Instead of long brainstorm sessions, the day is filled with more individually oriented activities, encouraging team members to think about ideas and to come up with their own solution sketch.

Related links:

  1. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057076/google-ventures-on-how-sketching-can-unlock-big-ideas
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ITJ5lAXQhg
  3. https://medium.com/@karstenn/what-we-learned-in-just-5-days-our-design-sprint-report-b9ada5b7f19a#.atwi36cd7
  4. https://library.gv.com/the-product-design-sprint-diverge-day-2-c7a5df8e7cd0#.7zmlxd9aq
  5. http://www.yaellevey.com/blog/how-to-use-crazy-8s-to-generate-design-ideas/
  6. https://www.fastcodesign.com/1672917/the-8-steps-to-creating-a-great-storyboard

Book review: Sprint (Part 2 – Day 1)

In my previous post I started looking at doing 5-day sprints to discover and test solutions for a problem that you’re trying to solve. This follows my reading of “Sprint” by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz. Once you’ve set the stage for a sprint, it’s time to kick things off: the first day of a sprint is all about agreeing on the challenge that you’re looking to have tackled by the end of the sprint. On the Monday, i.e. the first day of the sprint, the focus is on the following activities: (1) agreeing on a long-term goal (2) making a map of the challenge (3) asking experts and (4) picking a target.

Agree on a long-term goal (‘start at the end’)

You start the sprint by asking the the team “why”, make sure everyone is on the same page about what we’re trying to achieve. Why do we want to create this product? Why are we doing this project? Why do we want to solve this problem? Where do we want to be in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, even 5 years from now and why? What will success look like? Agreeing on a long term will bring the answers together in a shared purpose.

Once you’ve got a shared understanding of the underlying “why” and have set a long-term goal, you come up with number of specific sprint questions, which you can derive from the assumptions and questions that the team might have. To get the team thinking about some of these questions, you can use the following prompts:

  • What questions do we want to ask in this sprint and why?
  • How will we subsequently utilise the answers to these sprint questions and outcomes?
  • To meet our long-term goal, what has to be true?
  • Imagine we travel into the future and our product or project failed. What might have caused that failure? How can we best mitigate this risk?
  • To reach customers for this product, what has to be true?
  • To deliver value to these customers, what has to be true?

Fig. 1 – Sample long term goal and sprint questions:

Long term goal: More people buying snacks online.

Sprint questions:

  • Are people looking to buy snacks online?
  • What is the experience customers are looking for when buying snacks online?

Map the challenge

Challange Map

Fig. 2 – Example of a Challenge Map: Flatiron Health’s clinical trial enrolment map – Taken from: https://zapier.com/blog/google-ventures-design-sprint/

Creating a map is a great way to understand the steps the customer has to go through to achieve a desired outcome (see a good example in Fig. 2 above). Each map is customer-centric, with a list of key actors on the left. Each map is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. These are the common elements of a Challenge Map:

  1. List the actors (on the left) – The “actors” are all the important characters in your story. Most often, they’re different kinds of customers.
  2. Write the ending (on the right) – Write the outcome that the customer wants to achieve.
  3. Words and arrows in between – There’s no need for any fancy drawings; the map should be functional, and simple boxes and arrows should suffice.
  4. Keep it simple – Your map should have from five to around fifteen steps. If there are more than twenty, your map is probably too complicated.
  5. Ask for help – As you create the map, you should keep asking the team, “Does this map look right?” or “What are we missing?”

Ask the Experts

Nobody knows everything and it’s therefore critical that you engage with a range of ‘experts’. One of the biggest challenges of running a sprint is that you’ve got to gather a lot of information and make sense of it in a relatively short space of time. Having short conversations – approx. 30 minutes per conversation – with experts will help massively in collating relevant detail quickly.

Pick a Target

Selecting one target customer and one target event is the final activity of the first day of the sprint. The Decider needs to decide on the target customer and the customer event. Whatever she chooses will become the focus of the rest of the sprint – the sketches, prototype, and customer interviews all flow from this decision. Naturally, this can be a group decision, but it helps to assign decision-making responsibility to a single person.

Once you’ve selected a target, take a look back at your sprint questions. You usually can’t answer all those questions in one sprint, but one or more should line up with the target.

Main learning point: The first day of the sprint should really lay the groundwork for the rest of the sprint. Avoid the temptation to dive straight into solutions. Instead, spend the first day of the sprint to agree on a long-term goal and selecting a specific target to focus on!

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.nirandfar.com/2016/03/good-products-start-good-questions.html
  2. http://blog.invisionapp.com/inside-design-google-ventures/
  3. https://stfalcon.com/en/blog/post/how-to-quickly-check-startup-ideas-with-sprint

My product management toolkit (13): Continuous Discovery

I know it’s a bit of a bugbear of mine; people coming up with assumptions and jumping straight into solutions to address their assumptions:

“I know what my customers want” 

“I know that I’m right”

“I’ve got umpteen years of experience in this sector, I know what people want”

“We’ve defined all customer requirements, we now just need to implement”

These are some of the comments that I hear quite regularly. Hearing comments like these have made me even more determined to constantly discover.

Discovery is all about about truly understand what your customers want (and why) or validating your assumptions, checking whether what you think is actually true. I learned that “Dual Track Scrum” is a great way to do discovery in an efficient and a continuous way (see some visual breakdowns in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 below). Marty Cagan introduced Dual Track Scrum, citing Jeff Patton as his inspiration. I don’t tend to get too hung up on the word “scrum”, because one might not always be working in a Scrum type fashion. It could be Kanban, XP or any other iterative development approach that you might be using instead.

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Fig. 1 – Discovery feeding into Delivery – Taken from: http://www.slideshare.net/andreaneu/ux-in-a-dual-track-agile-world

Instead, I like talking about ‘Continuous Discovery’, stressing that ongoing learning drives product development. Rather than doing big chunks of customer research at the start and at the end of the product development lifecycle, I prefer to learn ‘early and often’. The key is to spend some time understanding the problem first, before coming up with ideas or solutions to implement. With a ‘dual track’ approach, you’re constantly discovering and validating customer needs which can then be fed into the delivery of working software.

The outputs of a discovery track can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes:

  • A set of user stories and acceptance criteria
  • Design assets or wireframes
  • A prototype of a varying degree of fidelity
  • Learnings about user issues with working software
  • Data from a live experiment (e.g. A/B testing)

I often get asked why and when to best to use this Continuous Discovery approach and I thought to quickly summarise these FAQs:

Question: “Why can’t I just go and build stuff, launch and see what happens?”

My answer: I’d be the last person to stop you from building things, measuring and learn. However, I strongly believe that a large part of ‘continuous discovery’ is about mitigating (product) risk. Instead of spending a couple of weeks or months building something before you get actual customer feedback, I’d rather get customer feedback ‘early and often’, based on an product or a feature that has been used by actual users.

Question: “With these discovery sprints, isn’t there a big risk of ‘analysis paralysis’?”

My answer: No. By time-boxing and fixing the scoping of each discovery cycle, you can make sure that you constantly validate your riskiest assumptions or investigate things that can then go straight into the next development sprint. Each discovery cycle should result in a tested set of customer needs, user stories and/or wireframes which will then be converted into working software the following sprint.

Question: “Aren’t’ we just going over old ground?

My answer: From my experience, even if you have working software, by constantly testing it you’ll be able to fix bugs and develop a better product. It might seem tedious but I feel that this approach is a lot less risky compared to companies just doing a (soft) launch at the end of the development process and hoping for the best. Continuos discovery is not an alternative waterfall type approach,where you create additional stage gates and isolated process. In contrast, since development is still happening in tandem; you’re effectively discovering what needs to developing in the next iteration whilst people are building what you discovered in the previous discovery track.

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Fig. 2 – Dual-Track Development – Taken from: https://confengine.com/agile-singapore-2016/schedule

Main learning point: Instead of gathering customer requirements on a one off basis, I strongly recommend doing this continuously. Having designated discovery tracks that feed into development cycles will help in discovering customer problems and needs ‘early and often.’ This helps you in making sure that you’re building the right product for the right customer whilst you’re designing and building it.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://svpg.com/dual-track-scrum/
  2. http://www.cio.com/article/3075356/application-development/are-you-building-the-right-solution.html
  3. http://johnpeltier.com/blog/2015/07/12/dual-track-agile-better-products-faster/
  4. http://jpattonassociates.com/common-agile-isnt-for-startups/#more-1105
  5. https://www.quora.com/What-is-dual-track-scrum
  6. https://www.infoq.com/presentations/lean-product-discovery
  7. http://aaron.sanders.name/dual-track-scrum-brief/
  8. http://productwarrior.com/blog/2015/4/9/eliminate-waste-in-your-development-pipeline