An Idea in An Agile World

All new products and new product features start with an idea. This idea becomes the first user story, user story #1, for the product. User story #1 begins a journey that could end with either happy customers and happy business stakeholders or end up in the bucket of disused ideas. So what happens to user story #1 and what do you do with this new idea?

You can find lots of articles on breaking down user stories. You can also find articles on how to write good user stories but you usually don’t see too many articles on how the first user story is used to develop a business case. What follows are some thoughts and insights on how to take user story #1 and developing it for greater success.

User story #1

User story #1 is the idea. It’s an idea to achieve business goals, an idea to solve customer problems, and an idea to create or change a product. We’re all familiar with user stories written with an eye toward solving a customer problem through product updates. User story #1 is different as it’s not so much about solving a customer problem as it is a ‘thought’ experiment to discover what customer problems we can solve. So the question is, how should we go about validating the idea?

Validating

When the new product idea is first presented as a means to achieve a business goal, there will be interest but it’s unlikely the business is going to throw monies your way, at least not at first. The business needs more than just the idea, the business needs data to back-up and justify the idea. This translates to meaning the idea is put through the discipline of Ideation or Envisioning.

The idea is the highest level user story for the product but the picture is incomplete and outcomes uncertain. However, there’s usually enough to the idea to begin analysis and experimentation. The analysis often results in a series of metrics and measures collected during envisioning. These are often measured on a some scale that best serves your business. For example, aligning to company strategy might be scored 0=no alignment, to 5=full alignment. Costs might be 0=<$10,000 to 5=>$450,000. Below are some metrics you might be familiar with.

  • Alignment with the company’s strategy,
  • Moves the product team towards achieving a business goal,
  • Is technically feasible,
  • Product innovation category (new, adjacent, or sustaining),
  • Cost associated with it (implementation is usually the biggest component),
  • Predictable business outcome if implemented (revenue, customers, users, …),
  • The business risk of implementing/not implementing is calculated,
  • The competitive advantage, and
  • The market breadth (new, adjacent, or sustaining).

To do the above takes time and you might look at the list and think, “that doesn’t look too agile to me”. Today’s reality in the digital age is all these items need to be completed in the morning so the development teams can implement and deploy by late afternoon. For most of us this isn’t exactly true, yet. But time is a pressing consideration and being quick is important. What we need to find is a way to do business so we have both enough knowledge to start and we have a clear idea of what further information we’ll need. The key bit of knowledge we need to have up front is that the idea aligns with the business’s strategy and goals.

Big ideas need to align with business strategy & goals

Before the idea is broken down, or before any real effort is made, the idea should be validated against the business strategy and goals. You might be lucky and the business strategy is developed in such a way that the product manager can have their ideas incorporated into the strategy from the start. When the business defines what their goals are, they develop a strategy to achieve those goals.

The three elements of good strategy (source: Richard P. Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy)

  1. Diagnosis: “A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.”
  2. Guiding Policy: “A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.”
  3. Coherent Actions: “A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.”

Working backwards on this list, new product ideas describe the actions needed to deal with the challenges (goals) found during the diagnostics. In this way, new product ideas become an integral part of the company’s overall strategy.

If the product manager can align their ideas with the business, then the remaining items of envisioning can happen relatively quickly. It’s very likely that for most ideas, the effort to define feasibility and cost can occur within an agile team’s iteration. This is a tremendous way to cut the time from idea to completing envisioning. It also provides for giving the customers a chance to evaluate the idea in a practical sense: A/B tests, user testing, or customer interviews. This technique of learning is often used in the Startup world as Build-Measure-Learn cycle.

The product manager will likely obtain full approval for any opportunity that delivers overwhelming value relative to its cost. Kenneth Rubin in his book, “Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process“, suggests that if there’s any discussion over tiny differences in cost or value then it clearly doesn’t deliver ‘overwhelming’ value and the idea should be dropped.

The easiest and best way to determine value is by getting the idea in front of your customers and users and measuring their response.

Using the development team for envisioning

When speed is essential to capitalize on an event or competitive opportunity, get something out in front of the users today rather than waiting until you’re sure. The trick will be to do only enough to answer questions and reduce risks without over committing the team or business. Keep in mind that you and the business haven’t validated the idea yet so there is a risk. If you’re doing Agile then this will fairly straight forward: use build-measure-learn techniques to understand the value of your idea with customers and users.

The product manager works with the product owner, team leads, architects, or full development team to break down user story #1 (the idea) into smaller user stories. These are the fragments needed to showcase the new product or feature idea. These particular stories are not necessarily work to build a product but will often be part of a prototype or demo system to gather information and feedback. Part of the envisioning process is to validate the idea, confirming its potential, with customers and users. To do this, a demo or prototype to showcase new features to potential customers and users can be an enormous asset without spending too much money in the process.

If the product manager has the luxury of dedicated team at their disposal that’s great! However, a new product idea may not as yet have a team but only a handful of senior people to help bring a new idea to life. Assuming there is a team, one approach is to get a team to include some research work along with their normal complement of product work. This is handled as spikes, technical or business exploration, added to the sprint if doing scrum. (If the agile teams are Kanban then there’s less of a concern with disruption and immediate priorities can take precedence.) If there’s a time critical component to the idea and waiting isn’t an option, then cancelling a sprint and pivoting to take on higher value work is an option but not always a good idea. Besides, if doing scrum there’s already a mechanism in place to do research, prototypes, and mock-ups: the backlog refinement sessions.

Using the development team during envisioning helps the product manager answer some important business questions including these 2 metrics from above:

  • technically feasibility-team can better answer this after developing a prototype,
  • implementation costs-implementation is usually the main influence on costs and the team can make a more accurate estimate.

By using the feedback and learnings from the demo and prototype, the product manager can better determine the viability of the idea. Using A/B tests, user testing, or customer interviews, the product manager can:

  • better estimate the business outcome if implemented (revenue, customers, users, …),
  • better assess the business risk of implementing/not implementing the idea,
  • better assess the effect on competition, and
  • better understand the market breadth.

Getting the development team involved with the idea early on will benefit the product manager. This early involvement moves the team from being a partner with the product management into being full members of the business team, bringing along their unique skills and insights into the envisioning process.

Two key outcomes having the development team in on envisioning

One big advantage is the development team is better positioned to undertake the new work if the business decides to proceed. The development team also has more ‘skin in the game’ through early involvement.

Another big advantage is the product manager can determine sooner whether to pursue the idea further. Because the development team has created prototypes or demos for customers, the product manager is better able to collect critical information for the business case. If it turns out there is no profitable business case, the product manager has spent relatively little money to learn a lot. The agile principle of maximizing the amount of work not done is an important one and finding out early to stop is better than running out the budget on a hunch that doesn’t pay off.

In a waterfall environment?

If you’re doing a waterfall type methodology then it’s a given that all envisioning and requirements are defined upfront. This is not bad if there’s little to no uncertainty. However, the early involvement by the full development team to pursue the idea using prototypes is still valid. They’ll not only be putting more ‘skin in the game’ but they’ll improve the accuracy of the estimates and potentially uncover more unknowns.

Summary

To increase your chances of success, get the development team involved during envisioning. They can help the business best if they’re a full member of the business team and not just a partner. Use the full development team to validate user story #1. This includes validating customer problems, potential solutions, development costs, and business value.

 

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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