There’s a specific agile tool which I think every early-stage product team should use, regardless of whether they’re following the Lean Startup methodology. Lean Startup drew its roots from agile software development. Eric Reis added Steve Blank’s idea of customer development to agile. Assuming we aren’t talking about re-reading Eric Reis’ book for the 17th time, the best Lean Startup tool is the dogeared post-it.
What? Why not some kind of fancy-shmancy online tool that defines, builds, and releases your product? In your sleep. There’s lots of those around. < grin >
Post-Its are placeholders for team discussions. Invented by accident at 3M, having slips of paper with adhesive turned out to be a fantastic tool for organizing ideas.
This harks back to the old Class-Responsibility-Collaboration (CRC) approach introduced in the early days of object oriented software design. Post-its and index cards helped create the internal design of a larger software program. If you don’t understand the problem domain well enough, then it’s hard to design good, clean software. Post-its allowed developers to note that they need to discuss something in detail at a later date. Once developers were ready, they huddled around a problem. They dissected the problem into sub-components. They formulated a solid hypothesis about the best way to solve a technical problem.
Over the years, software teams have attempted to create software versions of the same experience. There are lots of tools which approximate this effect. Of the ones which I think are probably as close as you can get with software: Jira and PivotalTracker.
Unfortunately, as soon as you get a team in front of computer screens you lose a lot of information. This holds true regardless of whether they are in the same room or in different time zones.
Here’s a handful of ways you can use Post-Its for your product development:
- General Brainstorming: A great way to pull out the gems from introverts in a group setting, you can write up Post Its individually, vote on them, and discuss them. In fact, this is a format we use at the Lean Startup Circle London #LeanCoffee sessions I help run.
- Marketing Copy: When speaking to customers, you hear the words which customers use to describe their problem. By tapping into the conversation already going on in their heads, you increase your own ability to convince them. Just because you know your solution will address their problem, doesn’t mean they do. Since you describe the problem exactly how they see it, you draw in their attention and fascinate them. When you have prospect language on postits, it’s easy to group post-its into similar themes. You can reorganize them based on whatever criteria you want.
- Developing An Unfair Advantage: Getting a team to think about their strengths is hard to do. But when you talk about your team’s strength, document them on post its. Have your discovered strengths hanging on a wall. Help everyone with day-to-day decision-making criteria, by focusing everyone on adding to those strengths. By building on your strengths, you are much more likely to succeed. You rapidly develop an unfair advantage, by reinvesting into your strengths.
- Verbalizing Your Unique Selling Proposition: Why should a prospect buy from you specifically? Immediately after they decide to buy your type of solution, this is the next question you must answer. It’s simple. It’s critical for your business. It’s also easy to forget about. Post-Its are a good way to organize your thoughts. You can add information about your competitors and alternatives. This will distill the one sound bite which will convince you and your prospects that your offering the best one possible.
- Identify Unmet Market Needs: Sometimes you may be struggling with identifying a problem worth solving. To build a successful product, you need to be addressing a difficult problem for your prospects. A good example of using post-its for this process is in the book Blue Ocean Strategy. You can map out the offerings of an entire industry against how customers “scratch their itch”. This identifies unmet needs in the customer’s process of solving their problem.
- Feature requests or bug reports: Post-Its are already the bread and butter tool of any decent development team. What about yours? Working from Post-Its, it’s much easier to deliver prototypes or new features faster. Post-Its capture nuggets of wisdom gleaned from direct access to customers or the product owner can be. Post-Its help gather together the relevant considerations for a new product. If everyone is looking at the same wall of post-its, it’s much easier to deliver.
- Long Term Planning and Vision: While there is often a strong focus on increasing certainty and clarity with tools like product roadmaps, you risk destroying value by pre-committing to things which don’t need to be committed to. A good example is the default setting of task dependencies within Microsoft Project. In contrast, if you continuously articulate your vision with post-its, you can adapt your vision as you learn. Even though Agile tends to be tactical and focussed on the short term, you can also track long term visions with post-its.
- Hypothesis Test Backlog: Post-Its help keep track of assumptions and hypotheses you still haven’t proven. This is the valuable “grunt work” which Lean Startup prescribes. A great way to keep track of what you still need to learn about your market, your product, or your business model, Post-Its allow you to adapt Lean Startup to your situation. Launch that product successfully!
- Map Features To Business Goals: Quite often product teams get lost in tons of feature ideas and “things to do”. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The most creative way I’ve applied post-its? Gojko Adzic’ Impact Mapping tool. Impact mapping helps you identify high level business goals. Then you organize your development around reaching those goals. It’s a powerful and subtle process.
More Visibility + Less Structure = More Learning
If your goal with Lean Startup is to de-risk a product idea as soon as possible, you need to identify where you are going. To do that quickly, you need “signal”. Signal will help you achieve that faster.
A smattering of post-its on a physical wall are a true “information radiator”. Anyone and everyone can jump in, comment, or move the post-its around. This means you engage everyone’s head.
Post-Its are a thinking tool. They help your team think clearly about
- your problem
- your product
- your role in delivering a solution to that problem.
With Post-Its, it’s not really about using post-its themselves. Using PostIts means that you interact more effectively: in-person, on-location, face-to-face.