How to conduct a Product Inception Remotely?

To come up with the Product MVP and its success metrics

Why do we need a Product Inception? We know all the requirements for this product, we can give you the same and this is the Product launch date. Why don’t you start planning on the number of people we require for this and come up with a roadmap plan to implement the Project. How often do we hear this from our Customers?. I’m sure, Quite Often. But, Considering the situation they are in, with a constant pressure to satisfy existing customers and acquire new customers, gain market share from the competitors, and most importantly the expectation within the company itself to launch a successful product. Certainly, we can’t blame them.

But the problem is that, if we jump into Product implementation directly as suggested by Customers, without a proper discovery or Inception, then there is a very high chance that we will not be able to help them to meet any of the above said goals. Reason being, Although the problem seems obvious most times, it might be just the tip of the iceberg if we are not addressing the root of it. This is why having perspectives from multiple stakeholders becomes important.

Each stakeholder may look at the problem differently, and they will bring a diversified view of the Problem which will help us to narrow down to the root cause of the problem. Similarly, once the problem is defined, there could be multiple ways in which it could be addressed. Again, having multiple stakeholders will enable us to generate various ideas to solve the problem and then choosing the most Optimal one. Last but not least, we need to have a ‘Shared Understanding of Product Vision’ aligning with all the stakeholders who are involved in the product in order for us to make the product successful. Inception with its collaborative nature helps us to achieve all these by ensuring that the stakeholders bring in their perspectives which then gets converged into a Common Understanding.

Stakeholders Getting into Shared Understanding. Pic Courtesy: DigitalstockPort

So, in order for us to build the right product matching the customer expectation, we need to ensure two things happen before the start of actual implementation: Firstly, ensuring the different stakeholders involved in the project are all on the same page with regards to the Product Vision, Goals, Strategies and their success criterias. Secondly, the technical team which is going to implement the Product is able to create an execution plan demonstrating the high level design and proposed roadmap with a good understanding of the Product and the complete business context in which the customer is operating.

Now comes the question of how do we do Inception in this New Normal where everyone is remote. Is it really required? Answer to this is, YES, It is absolutely required .

Given the unprecedented situation we are in, Inception becomes even more critical. Because the world around us is changing a lot in recent times in terms of the business operation and market trends. Adding to this, with the remote client stakeholders and distributed teams, the reason to align on common goals, strategies and execution plans has become paramount now.

With that being said, the next question that might pop-up in your mind will be, How do we run an Inception remotely. Even if our customers agree to conduct a Remote Inception, will it be as effective as Face-to-Face. Again, Answer to this question is YES. We can run a Remote Inception effectively. Just that we might need to consider different processes, tools and techniques to do this. In this article, I will give you some of the prerequisites and steps to follow for conducting a remote inception successfully.

Pre-Requisites:

  • Deciding on the key stakeholders who should attend the inception (Ideal customer size will be 10. But ensure you don’t have more than 20, Otherwise it will become difficult to Handle). Some of the Stakeholders who should be part of the Inception:

I) Project Sponsors (Empowered Designate, if the sponsors can’t make it),

II) Customer stakeholders: Product Manager or Owner, Marketing Team (As they have a direct link with the customers) , Technical team (Tech team is a must if the product is going to have a Upstream / Downstream)

III) The team who is going to do the work: Business Analyst, Tech Lead.

  • Deciding on the dates based on the availability of all the stakeholders. Once the dates are decided on, ensure that we block the time of all the needed stakeholders.
  • Do some research on the customers: Their as-is state, competitors, market in which they are operating. Business Model Canvas and SWOT could be a good starting point.
  • Since the inception is going to be remote. Choose the right tool for virtual connection / collaboration and ensure the participants have the needed context on the tools:

I) For VideoConferencing: Zoom, Microsoft Team Rooms

II) For Visual collaboration: Some options could be: MURAL, Miro, Conceptboard and Jamboard.

  • Once the tool is selected Ensure that stakeholders get comfortable with the tool. An email on the tool overview should be helpful
  • Come up with the Agenda items beforehand with sufficient breaks in between and circulate the same with the Stakeholders
  • Last but not least is to identify Facilitators for the workshop. As there are going to be lots of stakeholders participating, it will be the role of the Facilitator to keep the discussions together aligning with the goal and timing of each session. It will be advisable to have a pair of Facilitators for the workshop. One of the main reasons is to have the Anchors rotated between the sessions alternatively so as to ensure that no one person is taking the complete pressure.

Key activities in a Remote Inception to arrive at a MVP:

  1. Break the Ice
  2. Agenda and Ground Rule setting
  3. Vision Exercise — Elevator Pitch, Plane Map
  4. Product Definition — What Product is and is not
  5. Identifying the Target users and Profiling — User Personas, Empathy Map
  6. High Level Design — User Journey Map, Service Blueprint
  7. Feature Breakdown
  8. MVP Definition

1.Break the Ice:

As the inception is going to be a lot intense, it will be better to start with an Energiser activity everyday (as the Inception is going to stretch across a number of days). And in case, if we feel the participation of stakeholders is coming down, we can have an energiser activity to bring back the momentum. There are so many activities which we can conduct in virtual teams.

In case if the participants are new to the tool we are planning to use, then the icebreaker can be done with the tool itself, by asking the participants to do certain things in the Tool and ensure that they are doing it correctly.

2.Ground Rules setting:

Since the Remote Inception requires a lot more discipline, it is better to state the Agenda and rules upfront. So it will help the participants to abide by them.

Some of the Ground Rules that need to be set:

  • Set the expectation and ground rules for the Inception (like following the timeliness and not to interrupt when others speak etc) and keeping it Visible in the Tool
  • Ask all the participants to choose the gallery mode in the VideoConference tool so that everyone can see each other
  • Parking lot for any questions that is getting into an extend discussion
  • Starting a day by explaining the agenda of the workshop
  • Ending a day by having a quick recap of the workshop

3.Vision Exercise:

Product vision is a critical element in the inception which we need to get it right before we go ahead and build a product. Hence getting a ‘Shared understanding of Vision’ will play a pivotal role in the success of Inception.

Techniques: Elevator Pitch and Plane Map.

How to run the Vision Exercise through Elevator Pitch:

  • Facilitator Splits the stakeholders into equal sized groups (Ideal size would be 3 member team. But definitely not more than 5)
  • Facilitator explains them about the Elevator Pitch and about the digital section of each team where the team needs to add their inputs
  • Facilitator sends the individual group members into a separate breakout rooms
  • Individuals in the group brainstorms and fills the details
  • There will be a time limit set for the activity, upon which the individuals in the breakout room will join the main virtual room
  • Once all the group members joined back, facilitator can ask someone from the team to walkthrough their Elevator Pitch
  • Once all the teams done with the presentation, facilitator will open the discussion to all the stakeholders and ensure that everyone agrees to what will go on each of the section
  • In case of any concerns or difference of opinions for choosing a particular item, Facilitator can initially ask someone to summarise the ‘Pros and Cons’ of the particular item, if no consensus were reached even after that, then the facilitator can come up with a ‘Voting Option’ to choose accordingly.
Virtual Elevator Pitch Exercise

End Objective: A well articulated and agreed Product Vision

4.Definition (Is) & Characterisation (Does) of a Product:

In order for everyone to visualise what the product is and come up with its characteristics, it will be better if we understand what the product is (& is not) and does (& does not).

Techniques: Product Is (& Is Not) and Does (& Does Not).

How to run a Product definition exercise:

  • Facilitator Splits the stakeholders into equal sized groups (Ideal size would be 3 member team. But definitely not more than 5). Facilitator can form new teams or can also proceed with the same team depending on how well the each team is contributing
  • Facilitator explains them about the Product Is (& Is Not) and Does (& Does Not) and about the digital section of each team where the team needs to add their inputs
  • Facilitator sends the individual group members into a separate breakout rooms
  • Individuals in the group brainstorms and fills the details
  • There will be a time limit set for the activity, upon which the individuals in the breakout room will join the main virtual room
  • Once all the group members joined back, facilitator can ask someone from the team to walkthrough what they had come up with
  • Once everyone done with the presentation, facilitator will try to group the same / similar points into a cluster with the consensus from everyone
  • In case of any concerns or difference of opinions for choosing a particular item, Facilitator will go through ‘Pros and Cons’ and ‘Voting Option’.
Product Definition Exercise

End Objective: Coming up with a Product Definition and set of its Characteristics (Features & Benefits)

5.Identifying User roles and Personas:

For us to come up with an impactful product, we need to have empathy for our user. We need to understand ‘who they are’ and align our Product with the user needs, pain points and goals they are trying to achieve.

Techniques: Personas and Empathy Map.

How to run Persona exercise Remotely:

  • Facilitator Splits the stakeholders into equal sized groups (Ideal size would be 3 member team. But definitely not more than 5). Facilitator can form new teams or can also proceed with the same team depending on how well the each team is contributing
  • Facilitator explains them about the Personas and Empathy Map and about the digital section of each team where the team needs to add their inputs
  • Facilitator sends the individual group members into a separate breakout rooms
  • Individuals in the group brainstorms and fills the details
  • There will be a time limit set for the activity, upon which the individuals in the breakout room will join the main virtual room
  • Once all the group members joined back, facilitator can ask someone from the team to walkthrough what they had come up with
  • Once all the teams done with the presentation, facilitator will open the discussion to all the stakeholders and ensure that everyone agrees to what will go on each of the section
  • In case of any concerns or difference of opinions for choosing a particular item, Facilitator will go through ‘Pros and Cons’ and ‘Voting Option’.
Persona Mapping Exercise

End Objective: To come up with a mental map of the intended users of the product, their behaviour and characteristics, and the underlying needs.

6.High Level Design:

For us to identify the key features that go into a product, we need to have an understanding on the sequence of steps which the users take and their product interaction points to achieve their goals.

Techniques: User Journey Map and Service BluePrint.

How to run User Journey Map Exercise:

  • Facilitator Splits the stakeholders into equal sized groups (Ideal size would be 3 member team. But definitely not more than 5). Facilitator can form new teams or can also proceed with the same team depending on how well the each team is contributing
  • Facilitator explains them about the User Journey Map and about the digital section of each team where the team needs to add their inputs
  • Facilitator sends the individual group members into a separate breakout rooms
  • Individuals in the group brainstorms and fills the details
  • There will be a time limit set for the activity, upon which the individuals in the breakout room will join the main virtual room
  • Once all the group members joined back, facilitator can ask someone from the team to walkthrough what they had come up with
  • Once all the teams done with the presentation, facilitator will open the discussion to all the stakeholders and ensure that everyone agrees to ‘A Ideal User Journey
  • In case of any concerns or difference of opinions for choosing a particular item, Facilitator will go through ‘Pros and Cons’ and ‘Voting Option’.
High Level Design through User Story Mapping Exercise

End Objective: Arrive at the sequence of steps which the user takes to reach his /her Goal through the Product.

7.Feature Breakdown:

Once we finalise the User Journey, Each user steps will be broken down to features in a way that they deliver a Business value by solving the User needs and help them to achieve a goal. Once the features are broken down, the next step is to come up with the score to identify the priority for the same. i.e) Feature Score = [B+T-U] , Business Viability + User Desirability And Technology Feasibility. You can also refer my previous Article for Scoring Ideas — Link.

Techniques: Feature-storming and BTU Score.

How to conduct Feature Storming and BTU Score Exercise remotely:

  • Facilitator Splits the stakeholders into equal sized groups (Ideal size would be 3 member team. But definitely not more than 5). Facilitator can form new teams or can also proceed with the same team depending on how well the each team is contributing
  • Facilitator explains them about the User Journey Map and about the digital section of each team where the team needs to add their inputs
  • Facilitator sends the individual group members into a separate breakout rooms
  • Individuals in the group brainstorms and fills the details
  • There will be a time limit set for the activity, upon which the individuals in the breakout room will join the main virtual room
  • Once all the group members joined back, ask someone from the team to walkthrough the Feature Breakdown and the respective Score (Business, User and Technology)
  • Once all the teams are done with the presentation, the facilitator will ensure that everyone agrees to what will go on each of the sections, based on the corresponding Feature Score.
  • For each features, the team will be coming up with a Priority list: ‘High’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Low’
  • In case of any concerns or difference of opinions for choosing a particular item, Facilitator will go through ‘Pros and Cons’ and ‘Voting Option’.
Deriving a Score and Priority for each Feature

End Objective: To come up with the Features breakdown with the Priorities and high level estimates.

8.Coming up with MVP Canvas:

From the previous session, we would have a set of features and their priorities, we will bring the element of Time and Cost to finalise the MVP.

Techniques: Estimation and MVP Canvas.

How to run Estimation and come up with a MVP Plan:

  • Facilitator Splits the stakeholders into equal sized groups (Ideal size would be 3 member team. But definitely not more than 5). Facilitator can form new teams or can also proceed with the same team depending on how well the each team is contributing
  • Facilitator explains them about the Estimation and MVP Canvas and about the digital section of each team where the team needs to add their inputs
  • Facilitator sends the individual group members into a separate breakout rooms
  • Each team will brainstorm and come up with the estimation plan for the set of features for defining the MVP by considering the Time (S / M / L)& Cost details ($, $$, $$$)
  • Once the team finalised the list of features that gets into an MVP, the next step will be to fill the details in the MVP Canvas
  • There will be a time limit set for the activity, upon which the individuals in the breakout room will join the main virtual room
  • Once all the group members joined back, ask someone from the team to walkthrough the Canvas
  • Once all the teams done with the presentation, facilitator will ensure that everyone agrees to what will go on each of the section
  • In case of any concerns or difference of opinions for choosing a particular item, Facilitator will go through ‘Pros and Cons’ and ‘Voting Option’.
Feature Estimation with Time and Cost
MVP Canvas Pic Courtesy: Martin fowler

End Objective: To converge on the features that get into the MVP, along with its corresponding assumptions, metrics and cost/schedule.

With the steps listed above, we will be able to clearly define the MVP with the hypothesis involved and the metrics we will be tracking as part of it. Once the MVP is defined, the next step for the Technical team is to group them in a roadmap plan considering the Business and Technical dependencies.

I have used ‘Jamboard’ for explaining most of the techniques in this article. If you need the digital copy of the materials which we have discussed in this article, kindly drop me a message.

Experienced Business Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the IT industry. https://www.linkedin.com/in/bagavathydurairaj/