The Big Picture Through Agile Inception Planning

When I was a kid, our family would go for drives out of the city to the countryside. These were more often a prison sentence for me in the crowded backseat with my two sisters. The only consolation was sitting next to a window but being the youngest, well, you can imagine I had the middle seat a lot. If there was a specific destination I was not aware of it until we got there. I was not happy sitting in the middle, the seat was hard as a rock and my sisters pointing out to me that they had the windows. It was sometimes miserable. So when the car got to a special place like the lake, I was already determined not to enjoy myself or at least, I took a while to lose the attitude. But I wonder what would have happened if in the beginning, my parents told me we were going to the lake for a picnic?

When the business starts a project, the project too can be either a prison sentence or an exciting adventure. While there’s no guarantee that everyone will be happy, there are steps the Agile Project Manager can take to help bring everyone on board, answer their questions, and give them an opportunity to participate and contribute toward a successful project. Giving the project team a complete picture of the business reasons for the project is good for business. To make the project goals be meaningful and effective in motivating the project team, they must be tied to larger business ambitions.  Team members who don’t understand the role they play in the business’s success are more likely to become disenchanted and look upon the project as a prison sentence. If however, the team members understand the business goals and how the project will help achieve them, they are more likely to be engaged and equipped to make better trade-off decisions when the project doesn’t go as planned.

An inception workshop is an ideal event that can help give everyone the big picture. The workshop gets the project team members thinking and can set the groundwork for them to make good decisions throughout the project.

Setup the Big Picture Workshop

An inception workshop can be thought of as a two part event. The first part is understanding the ‘why’ of the project from a business and customer perspective. The second part of the inception workshop will deal more with the planning aspects. Setting up understanding the Big Picture happens in the first half of the workshop.

There are several questions that everyone on the team will need to be able to answer at the beginning of the project to give them a better, more complete big picture. These questions are:

  • Why are we here?
  • What will we do?
  • What won’t we do?
  • What trade-offs will we have?
  • Who are our customers/users?
  • Who are our stakeholders?

The inception workshop attempts to get the project team to answer these questions without intimidation. The project team’s participation is essential. To maximize that participation requires openness, trust, respect, and courage to speak one’s thoughts out loud and to listen while others speak.

The inception workshop brings the project team into a large room where people can easily move about. They do not need to bring laptops, pens, paper, or books; they only need to be physically there. The facilitators bring tons of sticky notes, sharpies, flip charts, lots of wall space, phones to speak with customers or stakeholders, projectors, and strong time-boxing skills.

Why are we here

When the project team understands why they are working on the project, it can help make teams do the following things better:

  • making informed decisions
  • making trade-offs
  • being innovative

Getting the CEO or other business officers to describe why the business wants the project and what they hope to achieve, it helps focus the project. If for example the intent is to increase the number of people buying the product, it’s useful to know why they’re not buying it now. Depending on your business, the inception workshop facilitators bring in the CEO, head of Marketing, Sales, HR, Product, Development, and Support to discuss their business goals and outcomes the project will bring them.

When the team understands the intent of the project, they can make decisions based on that intent. To increase the number of buyers might require that customer  testimonials be made more prominent on the home page. If the user story comes up to add additional ad space, the team can decide that this story doesn’t immediately contribute to increasing the number of paying customers and prioritize it lower. Without knowing the intent, they probably would not make good decisions on priorities.

What will we do

During the inception planning workshop, the project team prioritizes business goals and objectives. Creating the elevator pitch is a lean way to get everyone sharply focused on the business intent and be very clear on what’s important.

Source: Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. “Gamestorming”. O’Reilly Media.

An elevator pitch is a description of the problem you’re solving, who you’ll solve it for, and the one key benefit that distinguishes it from other ideas. The project team collaboratively defines this pitch during the inception planning workshop. The product manager and Scrummaster/Agile Project Manager, get the group to answer these questions:

  • Who is the target customer?
  • What is the customer need?
  • What is the product name?
  • What is its market category?
  • What is its key benefit?
  • Who or what is the competition?
  • What is the product’s unique differentiator?

The full group starts by brainstorming ideas on sticky notes for each of the categories. There’s no discussion at first but everyone shares their ideas freely and largely silently. Use a large wall or whiteboard for the project team to stick their ideas for each category.

Once the ideas are up, break into smaller groups of 4-5 to develop an elevator pitch sentence. This is complete when the group reaches consensus. Each blank in the sentence contains at most one idea.

The last step is to finalize the pitch from the group inputs. Although important, it’s not critical to finalize this now, especially if there’s a large number of groups. The important part is the group as a whole have decided what the pitch consists of. The product owner can create the finalized version off-line if necessary.

What won’t we do?

When thinking about the project, we usually think in terms of the future product and new product features. We usually don’t think about what the project won’t do. Listing what features or capabilities the project will not do sends a crystal clear message to customers and stakeholders alike. What the “not in scope” list does is help define and manage expectations in an open way. The “not in scope” list can be the catalyst of conversations for future projects.

This is best achieved if the group uses a prioritization tool such as the MoSCoW prioritization method (Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have). The group is asked to identify the features and capabilities the project could do and place these into one of the four columns. The elevator pitch would have identified the benefits and potential benefits of the product. The product manager will have a list of high-level feature work from the roadmap for the project. The project team spends 10-15 minutes sorting through the items silently or creating their own ideas of what should or shouldn’t be done, placing them into one of the four columns. What results is an MVP from the “Must have” column. The “Should have” column items can be considered for inclusion in the MVP but probably require more information before a decision can be made. The items in the “Could have” and “Won’t have” columns are considered out of scope for now. All of this may change over the course of the inception workshop but initial focus is placed on the “Must haves”.

What trade-offs will we have?

Trade-offs at the project level can become strong influences on how the project team approaches their work. It places priorities on those things that matter and de-emphasizes those things that matter less.

Get the project team to first decide what the sliders are. The example sliders above are probably the most used but the team may have others. The group then silently spends 5 minutes placing sticky notes on the sliders where they feel the trade-off is. “On” means most important and less negotiable while “Off” means less important but more negotiable. The consensus opinion will drive the results. After all the sliders are annotated, there is a discussion of the meaning of each slider selection for 10-15 minutes.

Who are our customers/users?

Understanding who your customers are means more than just having a customer’s name. It’s about understanding their motivations, desires, and pain points. Creating an Empathy Map is a quick and easy way to build a persona and get “inside your customer’s head.”

The product manager starts by conducting customer interviews live or plays recordings of customer interviews prior to doing this empathy map. Most likely these will be recordings as a live interview might be difficult. However, having live interviews with your sales or support team members might help a lot. They can bring to the project team their own experiences and understanding of customers and users. Once these interviews are complete, the group is ready to build empathy maps.

The person in the empathy map is fictional but based on understanding of the business’s customers. Ask the group to give this person a name and define their role with the product. The group will describe what the customer’s experience in each of the categories. Not everyone in the group will define something for each category but if a category is left blank, have a quick group discussion to try and fill it. It should take about 10-15 minutes for each customer/user profile.

The goal is for the project team to form some degree of empathy for the person, understanding at some level: What does this person want? What forces are motivating this person? What can we do for this person?


Who are our stakeholders?

Although the project team has met some stakeholders at the opening, the team will now identify all the stakeholders that have a direct interest in the project and those people needed to make the project successful. This can be by individuals or roles.

The project team members build a list of ‘Who’ and what they do or need to do to help make the project a success.

The group will spend 5-10 minutes defining this list. Have people fill out sticky notes and place these on the wall. Ask a volunteer to do some affinity mapping to group the item by the do’s.


The steps above can be reordered to suit your specific inception workshop need and your team’s baseline knowledge levels. If for example, the team knows nothing about customers, getting a base understanding of the customers through user journeys or empathy mapping before developing the elevator pitch might be the appropriate thing to do.

The steps above define the first half of the inception workshop. The second half has the team using the information gathered here to add detail for project planning and will include: Story Mapping to define the releases, provide high level estimates, identify areas of concerns and risks in Speedboats and Anchors, and provide the project team’s presentation back to the business leaders of what they can expect (and not expect) to happen during the course of the project.

Getting everyone on the same page and understanding the big picture doesn’t guarantee success but doing this can reduce truck loads of risk.

Some resources that can help you include:

Author: Robert Boyd

I'm a CSP (Certified Scrum Professional), CSM (Certified ScrumMaster), and CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner). For 30 years I've been streamlining processes and systems. I've introduced agile methodologies to software and product management departments, resulting in a 300 percent increase in feature deliveries.

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