Jean-Charles Samuelian
Co-founder & CEO @ alan
21 mars 2017, Startup

Strategic Product Planning as a Team / part 1

Created on February 10th last year, Alan is just one year-old 🎂. And what a year!

It has been very very intense, and we are very proud of where we are today. That being said, it is only the beginning of our very ambitious journey to change the way you live healthcare towards simplicity and transparency.

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It is very important for us at Alan that the company be this living entity capable of re-inventing itself over and over again to deliver the best value and the best health experience to our users. Every day, we are spending time on ways to improve the way we work to be more efficient and be an even better place to work. We are amazed at how everybody in the team is working on making Alan a better company.

That is why we decided to spend one week off for our one-year anniversary in a remote place đŸŒ” where we would focus on our next year roadmap.

It is not often that startups take that kind of time with their entire team to do the thinking that will redefine its goals for the next 12 months. We learned a lot while building this “Product Strategy Sprint” and we felt it would be worth sharing.

You’ll find here illustrated details, on how we worked, what we could have done better and what are our key advices to roadmap a very ambitious future for your own start-up, project, or company.

We have been inspired by several companies, and among them the excellent Sprint from Google Ventures (buy it and read it) from which we adapted key methods.

What were the objectives of our “Product Strategy Sprint” week?

The goal of the week was to define a product strategy for the year to come.

It usually is something done by a handful of persons in closed offices, even in startups. We wanted it to be a team effort so everyone shares the same vision and understanding of our goals.

That means a large first “discover” phase:

  • Re-explore and share the mission of the company
  • Gather all ideas, big and small
  • Select the most promising ones
  • Split the well defined ideas from the ones that need exploration
  • Explore, define and storyboard ideas

Then, once every idea is defined, build a common understanding among the team:

Evaluate the value and complexity (cost)

  • Select the ones we want to work on
  • Prioritize
  • Build an actionable and ambitious roadmap

During this week, we tried to accomplish all that by creating methods and processes that reduce friction, use time effectively, allow every member of the team to give opinions freely and are reusable.

We hope, you can learn from those, do your own Product Strategy weeks and share your improved methods so we can run our next one even better!

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”, Benjamin Franklin

Preparation is key to the success of the week. It is all about ideas and logistics.

We think everyone should have ideas and we cultivate curiosity by encouraging reading about subjects closely and broadly related to Alan’s areas of interests, sharing those on slack, meeting with persons of interest over lunches on monthly bases and doing field trips.

One month ahead of the week, we shared this email:

From Saturday 28th to Saturday 4th we will be in Tenerife to think about the future of the company and our 2017 roadmap.

It will be a very important week that will shape our product strategy. So I would like all of you to take some time to think about it before we are there. Please put a slot in your todo / calendar so you do it 😀

I want to ask you to think about the important topics that will make Alan better for our users (and for us as well). Please share all your ideas to tenerife@alan.eu.

Ideas are about product features, improvements, organisation. Every idea is welcome. If you can also share who do you think should lead the initiative and how it should be done, that would be great (but not mandatory).

The final question is: “We are in February 2018, what company do we want to be? How did we achieve that goal?”

thanks!

What should your team do with that email?

  • Start 1 month ahead and not 2 days before
  • Do research on their ideas (not in great depth, but check the internet, read about it, list competitors
)
  • Field studies (see Creative Inc which describes them well)
  • Extract ideas from your existing iceboxes
  • Analyse current user behavior through user research and analytics

On logistics, you need to to have all the right tools to work efficiently. Our check-list is:

  • Whiteboard / paperboard
  • Papers
  • Pens, whiteboard markers (several colours)
  • Post-its: several sizes and colours
  • Timeclock (see Sprint from GV)
  • Chromecasts for TVs
  • Black painter scotch

Coloured sticker dots (different sizes and colours)

Sprint Week!

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Like in Google Venture’s Sprint methodology, we think 5 days is a good duration. It could be one day longer or shorter but not much more (beyond, you’ll lose momentum, under, difficult to do extensive work). As, it is very intensive, we took a day off in the middle (between 3rd and 4th day). 😎

Days are split in two, morning and afternoon sessions, both between 3 and 4 hours tops including 15-min break at some point. In our case, 10AM to 1PM, 2PM to 5PM, adding 30min to 60min if necessary.
We will describe the Sprint half day by half day to give you an overview on how we worked, what were the objectives, the way we achieved it.

The team

To paraphrase Google Ventures Sprint, a good Sprint team is a mix of people (ideally 7, but we were a bit more, 9) with:

  • A decider (capable of taking the final call)
  • A facilitator whose job is to make sure we keep the schedule and the different tasks
  • Experts (People from tech, design, marketing, sales, regulatory so we have different approach on the same question)

Day 1

Objectives of the day:

  • Have a clear and shared view of the week planning
  • Everyone understands the company goals
  • Have all ideas that were prepared shared among the team

Morning:

  • First, review the Sprint calendar with the team before starting the work
  • Define what you want to be in one year, in terms of company objectives and values
  • Everybody write them down 
    ⏰ 10 minutes
  • Everybody shares it to the team 
    ⏰ 3 minutes each
  • The decider (CEO in our case) summarizes them and share them with the team 
    ⏰ 10 minutes to prepare

The result for us:

Be the best health insurance for our users (from v0 today to v1).
Every new companies chooses Alan.
Every freelancer chooses Alan.
Great visibility on the market.
We have signed more than XX,XXX users.
We have an amazing user experience and customer service.
We have set up scalable back-end / admin tools to manage this volume of users (and even more) and to be ready to open new countries.
We have just launched a new killer feature in health management.
We are still a great place to work with a small and efficient team regarding the size of our problem.

Then write the goal definition on a wall and read it again every morning!

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK 🍉 🍇 🍓

Discussed and finalised decision framework for estimating the value of ideas:

  • Each one writes separate post-it on how to value a project
    ⏰ 15 minutes
  • Everyone explains a question, the question is rephrased in a post-it. 1 idea per person.
    ⏰ 1 minute per idea
  • List and vote for the ideas with 5 dot-stickers each
    ⏰ 10 minutes
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Post-it process to define how we value projects

The result of this grid really depends from your company, project and ambition. Ours is:

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Our grid to value “projects” and “ideas”

đŸœ đŸ± 🍩 ☕
Afternoon:

Now it is time for a big round table of ideas.

First, everyone uses their list prepared for the week, and translate every idea on a post-it. Ideas should be written as a short user story and should be precise. It means they need to have a clear scope by listing the problem you are solving and the solution you are proposing.
⏰ 30 minutes

Then it’s presentation time!

  • Team is in circle
  • Turn by turn, everyone presents 1 idea
    ⏰ 1 minute max per idea
  • Questions (if any)
    ⏰ 1 minute max
  • If one of your ideas is close to the one presented, you can choose to either trash it or present the differences at your turn
  • No interruptions
  • Stops when no more ideas

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK (in the middle and at the end) 🍉 🍇 🍓

Organise the ideas in different categories. The goal is to group similar themes physically in the same place
⏰ 15 minutes

  • All the ideas are gathered on the wall with no particular organisation yet
  • The themes will emerge as you’ll progress
  • 2 persons put the ideas together and another one check the consistency and write titles to groups on the road

Last check:

  • Separately look at all the post-its (stories)
    ⏰ 5 minutes
  • Ask questions about it to be sure everybody has full comprehension
    ⏰ 5 minutes
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All our ideas grouped by categories

At the end of this phase, everyone shares a basic understanding for all ideas brought up by the team.

Assignment for the next day: think of new ideas for the next morning, inspired by ideas shared this day.

Day 2

Objectives of the day:

This day is about removing a first selection of ideas and handpick the ones that need to be explored and defined with more depth:

  • Split ideas between the one well defined and the ones that needs more study
  • Filter ideas and remove a first batch of them
  • Organise the team to work on different “big new ideas”
  • Work and sketch a first “big new” idea

Morning:

  • Look at the museum (all the post-its on the wall)
    ⏰ 12 minutes
  • Think about new ideas
    ⏰ 10 minutes
  • Present them using the 1 minute / 1 idea format
  • Decision process: 10 blue dots to vote for “well defined idea” that we already started to work on in the past and 3 green dots for “new ideas” that we want to investigate

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK 🍉 🍇 🍓

  • Take all “new ideas”, put them on a whiteboard, and let people add their name if they are interested in doing it
    ⏰ 7 minutes
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3 topics per person
  • If some topics have not been chosen or only by one person, see if you can remove the projects from the list. The process of choosing a project really helps prioritizing. We removed 4 projects out of 11.
  • For every topic, list all the questions you have and you want to ask to the rest of the team to see if there is already expertise
    ⏰ 10 minutes per topic

This last step also helps to see if questions are relevant for specific topics. Keep it short and effective, you can do that by splitting it in two subgroups.

đŸœ đŸ± 🍩 ☕ 
Afternoon:

  • Finish questions on the different projects
    ⏰ 10 minutes per topic
  • We decided to go from 3 to 2 projects by individual

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK 🍉 🍇 🍓

Sketch phase on your first project (directly based from GV Sprint)

  • Look for answers to questions, search for data (computer allowed). Structure the results of your research
    ⏰ 20 minutes
  • Share knowledge about your research with people on the same topic
    ⏰ 5 minutes
  • Doodle — start writing about your ideas
    ⏰ 20 minutes
  • Crazy 8s to iterate on it (for more information crazy8s, look at the Google Ventures Sprint)
    ⏰ 8 minutes
  • Final sketch, use post-its on A4 paper (3 per page, only one page), describe the user journey, on the right put some comments to make it self understandable if someone reads it
    ⏰ 30 minutes

Day 3

Objectives of the day:

  • Sketch your second project
  • Choose the best “new big ideas”
  • Give a value to all ideas following your framework!

Morning:

  • Sketch phase on second project: same as above
  • Put everything on the wall
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Samples of projects sketched

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK 🍉 🍇 🍓

Blue dots
⏰ 20 minutes

  • Put blue dots on the very specific parts of every idea sketched that you like
  • Number of blue dots is unlimited

Wall Review

  • Facilitator describes each sketch entirely in less than
    ⏰ 1 min. 10 sec.
    The facilitator doesn’t have to be always the same person, and she cannot be the author of the sketch
  • People asks questions, says what they like, and don’t like, didn’t understand. The writer doesn’t have the right to answer. 1 subject per intervention
  • The author of the sketch discusses the topic and answers the remaining questions
    ⏰ 40 sec

đŸœ đŸ± 🍩 ☕
Afternoon:

First, finish review of the wall with same method.

Then, review to chose complete user journeys
⏰ 10 minutes

  • 3 big dots per person
  • Note your choice on a paper (so we are really independent in terms of choice)
  • Put the dots at the end of the process
  • Remove the ones with one or zero dots
  • 7 projects remaining out of 20

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK 🍉 🍇 🍓

The idea for this part of the afternoon is to value every ideas in subgroup. We believe that we work better independently when we have a shared knowledge of the way we should think. We have created subgroups and we trust the other subgroups for their review of the value of the other projects.

  • Merge the “new big ideas” with the “already defined ideas” from Day 2
    5 minutes
  • Make groups of 2 persons. Ideally one engineer with one non-eng.
    ⏰ 3 minutes
  • Split all the ideas within these Groups (36 ideas remaining our case)
    ⏰ 5 minutes
  • Each subgroups scope the topics with a user story in one sentence ‘a user can 
’. (in which ‘user’ has to be precise)
    ⏰ 3 minutes per idea
  • Quick review and questions per user story
    ⏰ 1 minute per idea

This task is very very important because it will be a key element of decision when we will compare value to cost, and where we’ll need to be sure we have priced what we have valued.

🍐 🍋 🍌 BREAK 🍉 🍇 🍓

Then, Value:

  • Fill the value grid from Day 1 for every idea
    ⏰ 10 minutes per idea
  • Use a shared Google Sheet with a “total column” per category (growth, scalability, etc
)
  • Notes from ‘-’ to 2. Be really clear within the different subgroups so everybody gives note the same way. “-” is not applicable, 0 is no impact, 1 little impact, 2 big impact.

Day 4, OFF to take some fresh air

We visited the Teide volcano 🌋🌋🌋🌋🌋🌋

You can access to Part 2 here for the last 2 days of the Product Strategy Sprint and our conclusions.

Please feel free to share, comment and contact us to improve our methodology!

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