Agile Project Inception with a Press Release

Jun 25, 2012  ·  Sandy Mamoli

I really like Jonathan Rasmussen’s project inception deck as a simple, quick and cut-to-the-chase way of kicking off projects. Overall, I pretty much stick to Jonathan’s content and flow, but sometimes, I use a press release exercise instead of a product box. The idea of refining a product vision through writing a press release has originally been used by as a mechanism to determine whether a product or service should be built.

Ian McAllister, who runs Amazon’s gifting service described the approach as “working backwards”. Working backwards usually starts with a product manager writing an internal press release announcing a finished product or service and describing the benefits the customer would receive from the finished product. If he/she fails to sell the product internally it is taken as a sign that the product is not worth building.

I have used the approach at Snapper and Silverstripe and it has always worked extremely well. In particular it has often helped to:

  • align people’s ideas

  • surface differences in understanding

  • create a shared vision of the future product/state

  • communicate a vision to the development team and the rest of the organisation

Here is an example from NZ On Screen:

NZ On Screen:

Workshopping the press release

The press release, Amazon-style, is a great way to envision a product and as most people feel more comfortable writing than expressing themselves visually it often works better than the product box. However, one of the downsides is that, unlike the product box, the press release is usually written by the product manager/product owner without the rest of the product team. It lacks the fun, interactivity and shared ownership that creating a product vision in a group facilitates.

I have recently tried to run the press release as a group exercise in my project inception workshops. I was quite concerned that a shared writing exercise might turn out to be boring but surprisingly enough it was fun and engaging. We managed to tease out minor differences in understanding and arrived at a much clearer product vision that was shared by everyone.

In fact, it worked so well that the head of corporate communications at my current client has asked for permission to run this exercise in their workshops (I granted it ;-)).

Exercise agenda and howto:

If you want to try it yourself here’s my cheat sheet:

1) Introduction (5 mins)

Explain that we are going to write a press release as an exercise to build a shared product vision. Explain that this this involves time travel and that people should imagine a date in the future where we have launched the product/service.

To paint a vivid picture have them for example imagine it is a Sunday morning in December, close to Xmas and they open their favourite newspaper in bed. One of the first things they see on the front page is this news article …

I try to draw as realistic and detailed a picture as possible to get people’s imagination flowing.

I also mention that this is not a real press release but only an internal exercise (I once had to … go figure ;-))

2) Writing exercise (20 - 30 mins)

Have people “pair up” in groups of 3 or 4 and ask them to write a press release.

The structure for the press release is:

  • Heading - name the product/service

  • Sub-Heading - One sentence only underneath the title. Name the main outcome

  • A picture (hand drawn)

  • Summary - Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.

  • Problem - Describe the problem your product solves.

  • Solution - Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem. (In business terms!)

  • Quote from you - A quote from a company spokesperson

  • Customer quote - Provide a quote from a user/customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.

Remind people not to worry if they’re not a comms person or great writer; this is supposed to be a fun exercise.

I encourage people to use pictures and drawings and to keep it simple and short with max. 3-4 sentences pr. paragraph.

3) Share back to the room ( 3-4 mins per group)

Have every group share their press release with the room. Have one person read it up and pin it to the wall.

During the shareback minor, and surprisingly enough sometimes quite major differences in understanding of the product and its benefits surface. This is the real goal of the exercise and now is the perfect time to discuss these differences.

To me this is such an important part of project inception that I normally don’t close the workshop before we all have a shared understanding of what we are going to build.

I’ve only done the press release as a group exercise a few times and it worked really well. I’ll definitely keep using it in the future. If you give it a try I would love to hear from you and learn about your experiences.

(Credit for the ideas go to Amazon’s Ian McAllister and Johnathan Rasmussen. Thanks for sharing!)

Categories: Product Development.

Tags: Agile, Inception Deck, Press Release, Project Inception, Team.