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Bootstrapping an Agile Team [Part 2 – Product]

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on Bootstrapping an Agile Team. For the introduction to the series and links to each post, go to the first one – Part 1 – People.

Having a shared understanding of your team’s purpose & vision for the product is essential for an autonomous, agile team. Why? Well for starters, its motivating to be connected (and bought-in) to the reason why you show up to work for 8 hours a day (more on motivation below).

It’s also really beneficial in generally building a great product, if your team understand the business reasons for building the product, you are able to harness the intellectual & creative capacity of the entire team, rather than just the Product Owner. If your Product Owner is the only person contributing to defining ‘what’ to build, then you’re missing out.

For more on purpose as an intrinsic motivator, read Dan Pink’s book
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
or if you want the basic summary, check out the video:

When I plan an offsite, I want to make sure that the team walk away from the day with a common understanding of the vision for their product, why they’re building it and why they exist as a team. This can take many shapes depending on what the team is building and why, so its important to choose activities that you feel are appropriate for the situation.

Here are some activities I have used:

Short Lightning Talk

Usually at the beginning of the day, after breakfast and some kind of ice-breaker, I like to kick off the day with a short talk (10 – 15 minutes) by someone that can talk about the history of why we’re here. Sometimes that is the PO, sometimes that is someone senior in the company, really its anyone that can provide a lot of context & reasoning behind why we’re building this product and why we need this team.

In the case of several of my teams, the person has given a short history of the team, the product, how its relevant to the company and why its important now. Finally it is capped off with some Q&As. I try to encourage them to make it funny as well, talk about times when stuff went wrong. It’s usually really inspiring and a nice way to start the day.

Team Name Creation

Even when a team has changed slightly, I do encourage them to come up with a new team name, I find that the new people feel more included into the team if they were there when the team name was imagined.

Prep: It can be a lot quicker if you ask the people involved to come prepared with at least 1 team name they have thought of and like. In the case of the recent offsite I facilitated, they came along with 19 names!
Bring: Whiteboard is useful for this brainstorming activity. You may also wish to do it with post-its and sharpies.
Time: Can vary greatly, the one I ran recently took 30 minutes

Facilitation Instructions:

  • They shout out LOTS of ideas and you write them up on the whiteboard (~5-15 min)
  • They each dot vote for their favourite 3 names each (~ 5 mins)
  • Choose the top 4 (give or take) names & have each person explain the meaning behind it & why its a good name (~ 5-10 mins)
  • Re-vote with a blind vote (i.e. not influencing each others vote, I got them to write on stickies & hold up all at once) (~ 5 mins)
  • You should have a winner!

Product Box

I’m not sure where I got this exercise from but I think it was from Roman Pichler’s book – Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products that Customers Love

It’s no secret that its easy for engineers to get knee deep in code, they have to in order to solve complex problems. This exercise tries to remove them from this world and think about how their product is being perceived by the outside world. Throughout this exercise, it should raise a whole bunch of questions around the purpose of the product, particularly if it is new(ish). It’s these conversations that are valuable, as the team are engaging in healthy debate over the intention and values of their product.

The Product Box is also something they can take away and put on display in their team area as a reminder of what they are trying to achieve. (other than just create beautiful code) Depending on the lifetime of the product, it may or may not be useful to exclude the PO from this exercise as the differences in understanding between the team and the PO could be really interesting to discuss / resolve.

When I ran this activity, I also combined it with a quick brainstorming session around what the name of the product should be (I work with teams that build mostly internal software for the rest of the company to use, sometimes it becomes open source, for example Luigi)

Bring: A box of some sort, loads of different coloured markers, different coloured paper if you have it, glue, whatever artsy stuff you can think off. It can also help to bring a software or video game box to use as an example.
Time: 45 mins (it took them 15 – 20 mins to come up with a name for the product first)

This exercise doesn’t really need facilitation, just explain that they are going to build a product box for their product, provide an example (when I ran this, the PO brought a Starcraft 2 box along) and away they go. At the end, they can explain the product & the features listed on the box. It’s great if the PO can be there to see this (or if its a new product, help them build it!)

Here’s an example from one of my teams, I hope they don’t mind me using it!
(and in case you’re wondering, yes they did name the product after Jim Raynor from Starcraft 2, but don’t tell Blizzard!)

Team Newspaper / Prospective

A common problem associated with agile teams is that they can become ‘too agile’ and lose focus on the bigger picture or become uninspired. This exercise aims to get the team thinking ahead into the future and what they might achieve.

Prep: You could bring your own front-page newspaper, but I refrained as I didn’t want everyone to be unimaginative and copy mine
Bring: Big flip-chart sized pieces of paper for each person, sharpies and/or coloured markers
Time: 30 – 60 mins

Facilitation Instructions:

  • Intro: Explain that each person is going to create the front-page of their team’s newspaper, but for 6 months – 1 year from now. What is the headline? What are the sub-stories? Picture? Basically, in your mind, what have the team achieved during this time? What have they done to celebrate? (5 – 10 mins)
  • Each person goes off to create their own newspaper. I was asked at this stage “Is this my point of view or what I think the team wants?”. I advised that it should be your point of view, so we can see just how wide or narrow the commonalities are and discuss it. (15 – 20 mins)
  • Give them a warning when the time is starting to run out, 5 mins left etc
  • Each person demonstrates and explains their newspaper front-page. (3 – 5 mins per person)
  • Discuss the commonalities and differences in opinion, acknowledge that its ok to have differing opinions, this creates healthy conflict and better outcomes (5 – 10 mins)


It might also be useful to keep these and look back on them as a retrospective.

If you have any useful exercises that have helped you introduce a team to their vision and build common ground, please share in the comments below!

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