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7 Activities for Product Managers to kick off their next project

George Brooks
October 2, 2018

Kicking off your product development?

The early days of an idea are so exciting. Whether you’ve been thinking about your idea for years, just came to you, or something told you to do it. How do you get started?

We get to experience this moment over and over again with our partner companies. Each project starts pretty close to the same way.

  • The idea
  • Team alignment
  • A plan

Ideas come from all places


Sometimes an idea comes out of a personal frustration. An event or recurring annoyance that drove the person to believe that if they don’t solve it, someone else will, and won’t do it as well as they would.

Other times it comes out of a demand. They’ve been working in the industry or in a company, and the client or customer keeps asking for a better way.

Or maybe they see the future. A future where the idea they have will change the way things are done today. Forever changing the landscape of how we communicate or do business, or sell things, or hire people, etc.

A few caveats. I run an a product agency. Our job is to accelerate the creation and validation of an idea. Taking it from a good idea and turning it into a great product experience that has traction and product-market fit. We get paid to do this. So most of the clients that are at this kick-off stage with us either have budgeted for research and development or some time of innovation investment into technology.
The entrepreneurs that we work with either have their own personal capital or are seed funded to invest in the value of a full stack team. Take this for what its worth, but the day that they show up to our office, they basically have a fully stacked start-up team ready to go.
A strategist kicks off a session listening to the product owner give the pitch. We all know the basics of the idea, but for the entire team, including their peers or co-founders, to hear it first hand lets us catch the subtle details. The passion behind a certain pain point, feature, or opportunity.

1. Business Model Canvas

Tools to consider: Stickynotes, Taped off Business Model Canvas Wall, or a printed Lean Business Model Canvas sheet.

Guide the team through a (Lean) Business Model Canvas. Quickly get a shared understanding of the customer, the problem you’re solving for them, and how what alternative solutions solve this problem for them now.

Work as a team to make sure that everyone buys in on the core solution you are suggesting. Does everyone understand your unique value proposition and unfair advantage this team has to create it? What key metrics are needed to measure success? And finally, what are ways to generate revenue, and what are the costs that it might take to keep going?

This gives you one big snapshot business plan to point us all in the right direction. This is a staple of the lean startup movement, and we still feel that no matter the size of the company, if you don’t know the couple top sticky notes that goes in each of these boxes, then you’re team is probably not aligned. Keep a timer to get through this. Don’t get caught on it being perfect. It’ll change over time. The goal is to get everyone on the same page.

2. Elevator Pitch

Tools to consider: Marker board, and markers. Or Pencil and Paper.

Eric (Our Product Strategist) dove into this much deeper here.

Now boil this down into a great elevator pitch. ​​FOR: Who is your product for?​​WHO: What that person’s need or problem is?​​THE: What is the product called?​​IS A: What kind of product is it?​​THAT: What is the outcome of the product?​​UNLIKE: What are Existing Alternatives or Competitors to your product?​​OUR PRODUCT WILL: What does your product do?

3. Worst Idea

Tools to consider: Sticky notes, markers, and a wall.
looking down from the top of a building

This is a simple design thinking exercise. Each person writes down what they think is the worst thing that we could do. Something that would most definitely cause the project to fail. This points us in the opposite direction. This quick exercise will help put you a good frame of mind to move toward an awesome product that best solves the problem for you audience.

4. User Journey and Story Spine

Tools to consider: Sticky Notes, Markers and a Wall
sticky notes

One of the fastest ways to brainstorm through the functionality of your product is to create a story spine. Tell the journey of how your users will interact with your product. Across the top of a wall use one color sticky note and make a card for each feature or step in the process. Start with how the user gets to your product all the way through to the tasks they will do over and over as they come back.

Don’t spend too much time in detail. Get the high-level story out quickly, and then go back to the beginning. Now go down under each top-level story with a different color sticky. Describe the details. What types of data needs to be collected? What details down below the top spine will help the team to understand the goals of each step in the user journey.

Step back and look for staged groups ie; On-boarding, authorization/sign in, profile creation, alerts, settings, and data collection. And finally. Draw a line across, and pull down spine elements or details below that are not mission critical and can be done later.

5. Epics and Stories.

Tools to consider: Jira or ZenHub mostly for velocity burn down charts. If you don’t use story points. Trello, Asana or Basecamp is great! User story mapping is a great book on the topic.

The top level of your story spine often will become your epics. A high-level bite-size story that tells who will be doing the task, what will happen, and the outcome of that thing.

As a (user) I want to (activity) so that (outcome)

The sticky notes down each column under the top of the spine usually get worked in user stories. Same as the Epics, but get a bit more specific about the description of each step in the story.

We don’t get too stuck on the format of a story. Does everyone understand who will do this thing? Do we understand what the the action is? And what might happen next. Also consider referencing your design assets, wiki resources, or considerations in your story description.

6. Designing and Refining

Tools to consider: Sketch and InVision

At this point, our team can’t help start to make. Be spending time looking at competitors, gathering inspiration for other experiences both online and off, then we start to pull together a vision for the experience of the product. We move as fast as possible so that we don’t get stuck in the details, but instead get the core of the product concept out for testing.

With Sketch and Invision, we create rapid design mockups. The majority of our effort at first is in the core of the purpose of the product. Get past for just one moment the sign-up screens and get to the horsepower inside. Start with the engine, and then build the body around it. Let’s say your building Airbnb. Start with adding a listing. Gather the info, post photos, dates, and locations. Then build the search. Finally, create the request and fulfilment flows. Don’t get too stuck on privacy layers yet, or if you’ll use facebook sign in. Get the base idea up and out.

Now test these ideas. Run your design and your flows past someone you don’t. That’s right. Don’t show your friends, your spouse, or your mom. Show it to a guy on craigslist. Show it to someone at the coffee shop, and gather honest feedback. Are they concerned about security? Great, we’ll design that next. Are they confused about how to list a property, dig deeper and understand why? Would education help, or is your user experience confusing? Design fast and test. Look for trends in your feedback and refine your direction.

7. Backlog and Roadmap planning

Tools to consider: Jira or ZenHub mostly for velocity burn down charts. If you don’t use story points. Trello, Asana or Basecamp is great! Better software and Stronger teams is a short easy read on best practices here.

planning a trip

If you aren’t agile and you’re building software……. um…. just stop. Anyway.

As an agile team, you’ll now be working from your designs, your epics and your stories. As a product manager, it is your responsibility to help align the team, customers, and/or clients around the priorities of what will help you iterate your product forward. Try grouping stories into themes, or chunks of work that would be shippable for testing or release in the course of days or weeks. Not months. Work with the team to estimate using story points. (more on that later)

Make sure that the product team is aligned on the level of effort in each story, or any gaps that might keep them from understanding the next couples weeks of work. But help the team to understand release goals, constraints, or milestones and why these are important. Just saying, “I want it asap is the worst!” Keep it simple and get to work. Measure how many points you accomplish each week and then start projecting out further what you can accomplish.

Originally posted on Ideas by Crema - Medium Dec 12, 2017

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