Agile Inception: Facilitating Innovation Towards Valuable Results

I recently had the opportunity to help facilitate a client’s “Innovation Challenge”.  Basically, the concept is to get a bunch of people in the room, give them a business challenge and see what they come up with.

I have to say that the format of the workshop that I used is heavily inspired by a training that I did recently called Specification By Example by Gojko Adzic.  I strongly recommend this seminar as well as the book.  Another strong influence is The Inmates are Running the Asylum… by Alan Cooper.  The workshop that I have developed is a sort of hybrid approach, with my own flavour added to the mix.  During an early iteration of the workshop, I didn’t have a title and one of the participants suggested “Agile Inception”.  I think that title works in a space where Agile is established and well understood (e.g. hopefully this blog).  At the same time, this workshop can be run with people who have no prior experience or knowledge of Agile and without even mentioning the word Agile.  This is also good in certain environments where people have developed an Agile allergy.

Anyhow, my goal for the day was to facilitate the building of shared understanding of the challenge itself as well as some ways that the organization could innovate around that challenge through conversation and collaboration.

From the opening remarks it became clear that the product at the centre of the “challenge” was actually in deep crisis:  a shrinking market combined with shrinking market share.  The product had generated approximately $18M in revenue in 2009, compared with $10.4M projected for 2014.  That’s half dead in some people’s books.  The clear Goal was to reverse that trend, starting with at least $11M in 2015.  They needed a powerful jolt of life-giving innovation energy to defibrillate their failing product’s heart.

There were no shortage of ideas about how the product could become better & more profitable.  In fact, there were many, many ideas.  Too many, perhaps.  Once we had established our working agreement for the day, we did a Starfish Retrospective exercise to make visible all of the things that the group wanted to keep doing, start doing, stop doing, do more of and do less of.  Many post-it notes were stuck on the board and we left them there as a reminder of all of the things that people were thinking about that could help us to consider how the product and ways of working on it could be improved.

Then we talked about the Goal.  True innovation—that is, tangible, innovative results with clear benefits—requires a group to focus on a single, clear, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) Goal that everyone in the organization understands and is committed to achieving.  Often times, as was the case with the group on Thursday, taking time to establish shared understanding of the goal can seem redundant and tedious (“we already know what the goal is…”).  However, as we learned through the process of working in small groups to re-articulate understanding of the Goal back to the “customer” (the person paying for everyone to be there) this often requires some further conversation.  Indeed, when the groups presented their understanding of the Goal, there were gaps that needed to be filled by the “customer”.  It took less than 30 minutes to discuss, adapt and confirm the Goal with the customer.  The value of this investment of everyone’s time was tremendous.  The conversation made it clear that shared understanding had already been established to a degree and enabled the group to build on what was already there to make the Goal “SMARTer” in the minds of all of the participants.

A single, transparent business Goal helps us to innovate with focus—to create the right thing.  In addition, we need to develop a single Persona—the ideal, “imaginary” user of the product.  The larger group broke into smaller groups for the subsequent discussions.  The groups worked separately and generated a the details for a few personas.  All 3 personas added value to the conversation.  The Persona of “Lisa” was particularly compelling to the “customer” because she had a clear goal of her own and through innovation, her goal could be aligned with the overall business Goal to create a powerful, “new” product that just might reverse the downward trend.

The next step in innovating with focus in order to generate the best ideas possible: build shared understanding of how Lisa can pursue her goal through her experience of the product in order for the business Goal to be achieved.  In other words, Lisa needs a story.  Her story needs a beginning and an end (for now, until the next story) and all the stages of her journey need to be integrated into a coherent whole.

The last step was for the groups to brainstorm and come up with different ways that the product can deliver Lisa’s story in order to realize the Goal.

I wish I could say more about the really cool ideas that the group came up with, but I am erring on the side of caution when it comes to protecting my client’s competitive advantage.

To wrap up the session, we took a quick, anonymous gauge of how confident the participants felt about achieving the Goal.  Of the 13 participants, two gave their confidence a score of 8/10, six gave a score of 7/10, four scored themselves a 6/10 and one was a 3/10, for an average of 6.5/10.  Not bad, but clearly some work still to go.  So what’s next for them?

Next steps:
  • Get the technical folks involved in the conversation (ideally, they are there from the beginning)
  • Build an increment of their solution
  • Review
  • Continue the conversation and collaboration to build shared understanding 
  • Re-gauge the confidence score
  • Iterate  
  • Repeat 
  • The likelihood of achieving the Goal increases with every iteration

 

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The Start of a True Team

I wrote this article for our Real Agility Newsletter, but I wanted to share it here too, just in case some of you don’t get it.  I think this is important to share because it gets to some of the deep values of Agile and good teamwork.

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The team really is important. Last month I wrote about love. This month, I’ll write about commitment. Our team has gone through some extreme tests this last month. Commitment kept us together.

Our business has been through crisis before. In the second half of 2005, my own financial mis-management led to near-bankruptcy for the business and for myself personally. My dear long-suffering wife and business partner, Melanie, kept things under control as we recovered. In late 2009 the Great Recession hit us hard and we had to cut our staff back to just Paul and myself by laying off three talented friends and cutting work to a loyal subcontractor. That was incredibly painful for everyone involved. A similar crisis occurred again in late 2011, although it wasn’t as severe. In September last year, our projections were showing a looming crisis… but we narrowly averted any layoffs when a smaller consulting deal closed and one person was let go for unrelated reasons. We still needed more work, and in late fall we were expecting to close three important deals.

In January we knew we were in trouble. Business was not booming. In fact, those three important deals had fallen through with nothing obvious on the horizon to replace them. Our office management was in a shambles with two recent changes in staff and very little continuity. Our accounts receivable had several items that were waaaay overdue. We were starting to dig deep into our operating credit with no obvious way to climb back out. The partners, Paul, Travis, Melanie and I started to talk about serious stuff: deep layoffs. We were worried we may even have to cut all the way back to just me doing work (mostly CSM classes) – a staff level we haven’t seen since 2007!

Two weeks ago, the four partners had an emergency weekend meeting after our early February attempts to build sufficient immediate cash flow failed. We consulted for over four hours around a single question: what should we do? Our projections were showing us running out of credit in just four weeks, our business development pipeline was almost empty and the few things in it were clearly long-shot deals, at least in the timeframe we needed. It seemed almost impossible to avoid deep layoffs. Our love for each other seemed almost irrelevant to the crisis, despite the depth of our feeling.  The consultation was difficult and filled with despair.

My memory for exact words is poor. I remember concepts, relationships and feelings. During that weekend consultation, one thing really stood out: we started to talk about commitment. We talked about what it would mean to be committed to each other and to the business vision of transforming people, process and culture. Most powerfully, we talked about the commitment of our newest employee, Nima, who seemed determined to go to the ends of the earth, to the very last moment to help us all succeed. As we talked about commitment, we came to our most powerful decision: sink or swim, we are all in this together to the end.

After that critical point in our discussion, we set some goals, determined some important activities, and decided to go literally day-to-day in deciding if it was time to wrap up the business. And, strangely enough (I say ironically), we decided we needed to shorten our planning cycle from a month to two weeks, increase the discipline of our team’s interactions to bi-daily check-ins, create a detailed set of dynamic plans for the two weeks, and have a review meeting at the end of the two weeks. Sounds a bit like an Agile team, doesn’t it?

What happened? Well, we’re still around. We’ve closed enough business that our projections are now showing us staying in a steady state financially for the next three months. That’s a dramatic turnaround from just two weeks prior. We aren’t going to run out of credit. In fact, we now have enough prospects that we expect to be extremely busy in just a couple more weeks. Our end-of-cycle review, which happened on Friday, was still difficult. There is still great uncertainty about many things. But the one thing that is crystal clear, strong as steel, and deep as the deepest ocean is our commitment to each other to succeed together. We are a true team.

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If you have similar stories to tell, I would love to hear them!

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