A little more than five years ago, Conteneo introduced the first scalable platform for visual collaboration, now called Idea Engine. Since then, we've built two other products, Strategy Engine and Alignment Engine, made drastic improvements to Decision Engine, launched a nonprofit to bring our techniques to the public sector and a whole bunch of other cool stuff! Unfortunately, along the way, Idea Engine received less love than it deserved and become a little stale. So stale, in fact, that we've decided to redesign and rethink the platform, reset our technology stack and create some powerful new capabilities that promote even more scalable collaboration and innovation. This is Idea Engine 2.0, and this is the first of several stories we'll share about its creation. Our hope is that you'll find techniques that you can leverage for your own products and services.
We kicked off Idea Engine 2.0 by "Drinking Our Own Champagne" and holding a Design Jam with our customers, strategic partners and advisors. A Design Jam is a special kind of Customer Advisory Board meeting in which we use collaboration frameworks like Prune the Product Tree to explore the next generation of our platform.
It's critical to define your desired outcomes when planning an event, whether it's in-person or online. Our desired outcomes for the Design Jam were:
- Develop a shared understanding of required/desired functionality for Idea Engine 2.0.
- Review and improve design prototypes.
- Develop a milestone-driven release plan to make sure we have reasonable agreement on what we need to deliver first based on customer needs.
- Develop a set of boundary situations; for example, what did we agree to do that we're not doing?
The milestone-driven release plan is a really important distinction between Agile planning and traditional planning. In a traditional process, we'd try to estimate the actual delivery dates, making premature and incorrect commitments to stakeholders. In a milestone-driven plan, supported through the collaboration framework Prune the Product Tree, we can confirm the sequence of value that our stakeholders need, safe in the knowledge that our development team will be working as fast as they possibly can.
Helping Stakeholders Help You
Because our customers and partners believe in our larger mission of using collaboration to solve technical and wicked social problems (see my Agile 2015 keynote for more on this), they regularly ask me how they can help. So, we asked our customers to prepare for the Design Jam by:
- Bringing an example of how they've been using Idea Engine 1.0.
- Bring an example of a framework or interaction model that you'd like to use but can't.
Here are two examples:
- I want to add an anchor to a Speed Boat and then drag that anchor on top of a Prune the Product Tree and have it show up as an apple.
- I want to build a document-centric collaborative framework. Instead of "icons" like apples, I want "sticky notes" that look and act like notes.
Adjusting on the Fly
We also shared our agenda for the two days ahead of time (see right).
As common in these settings, we made a few adjustments. One worked poorly, four worked very well. Let's start with my mistake.
I had intended to start the first session with the Innovation Game® Show and Tell, in which participants would show us positive uses of Idea Engine 1.0 and tell us what they wanted in Idea Engine 2.0. When we started though, we veered off track. What I should have done was facilitate the session more vigorously! Specifically, I should have pulled the room back into the game.
Unfortunately, I didn't. I was working with an experienced team of facilitators, and I thought the "energy" of the room was such that they wanted to have a more open-ended discussion. I made a mistake, and we lost a bit of time.
Fortunately, after the session corrected itself during the initial design review, our customers provided a lot of terrific feedback on our new designs. I'm lad we did this, because we learned right away that one of our choices was incorrect. Somewhat surprisingly for me, the design review evolved into a discussion that included a review of our gaps. So, we had unexpected time in our agenda.
The first adjustment that worked well was adding a Cover Story/On the Cover activity to help us better understand how to communicate Idea Engine 2.0 to the market. We got a lot of terrific insights -- some applicable right away and some applicable when we release some of the super cool ideas in Idea Engine 2.0.
The second adjustment was adding two Prune the Product Tree sessions. This activity not only helped us understand evolution, it resulted in a mutually agreed upon milestone-driven release plan.
The third adjustment was adding a super fun Magic Wand game in which stakeholders grabbed an imaginary wand and started submitting magic ideas for Idea Engine in the future. Surprisingly, some of these magic ideas turned out to be pretty feasible, and we're adding them to our roadmap.
The most important adjustment was turning over the facilitation of a few activities to Deb Colden and Peter Green, two of our most senior and skilled facilitators.
8:30 AM Assemble as a team and get to know each other
9:30 AM Review existing uses of the platforms: What works.
11:30 AM Break
11:45 AM Review our understanding of key requirements for Idea Engine 2.0
12:30 PM Lunch
13:30 PM Overview of our proposed designs for Idea Engine 2.0
15:30 PM Break
16:00 PM Compare "desired uses of the platform" with our proposed designs to identify gaps
18:00 PM Dinner as a team
8:30 AM Assemble as a team
9:00 AM Update/review designs and build a milestone-driven plan for implementing new functionality
12:00 PM Design Jam ends
12:30 PM Optional Lunch
13:30 PM Continued work with the Conteneo team to enhance and extend our designs for those available.
Deb helped us dig through a technique to challenge orthodoxies I learned from Scott Gilbert (presently working for the Salesforce Ignite team) and Peter guided us through a technique the Agile4All team uses to help Product Managers/Product Owners slice stories. Both proved tremendously valuable.
I also feel compelled to mention that Fallon Murray from Transamerica using the Idea Engine during our Design Jam to collaborate with her colleagues and provide real-time feedback from a lot of the Transamerica team. It was clever and something I'll borrow in future sessions.
Key Themes And Results
Two days with customers generates a tremendous amount of data, and we're still working on making sense of the results. However, we can report a few key themes: Job #1 is to make the current platform beautiful. Our stakeholders asked us to defer dramatic improvements in functionality and instead focus on a sleek, modern user interface.
However, there are a few key improvements in functionality that we need to address sooner, rather than later, and we'll be implementing these in Idea Engine 2.0:
- Adding the "Central Question" to the game board.
- Providing better "onboarding" for new users.
- Keep the count of items, but pave the way for more flexibly adding items.
- Build in-place and then extend.
Our stakeholders asked us to be as agile as possible, ideally building in-place on the existing stack. This is like replacing the engine of the car while you're driving, which we're able to do because our dev team is so awesome. We've also integrated these results into our market-driven roadmap, and we're looking forward to the next several months of hard work.
There is no settling of the dust, because we moved right from the Design Jam into a series of sprints to implement Idea Engine 2.0. We're building and releasing in chunks of business value, and the dev team already has working software. Let me know if you'd like to join our Sprint/Design Review meeting: We're eager to collaborate with all of our customers!