Innovation and organizations – Hackathon vs. RocketLab

Innovation is usually part of agile product development methods. Sometimes, however, agile methods just replace other methods. SCRUM replaces Waterfall, KANBAN formalizes previously unordered work. Obviously, the innovation dilemma remains still open. Where comes the creativity from? The ideas? Where to test those hypotheses which are not part of the daily routine?

The hackathon as innovation tool

Some organizations run hackathons once or multiple times a year. We did and are doing this as well. We organized already 6 hackathons in the past. Once yearly. Did we see the innovation boost? Well, yes – and no.

How do we organize a hackathon?

A hackathon at gutefrage.net is a timeboxed activity (usually 2,5 days) and surrounded by a lot of social activities. We cook, we bake, we experience Virtual Reality, we do some board games, we play the football table and have a good time and fun. The whole company participates usually and is excited to validate hypotheses which are usually not part of the product development. There are no limits from a topic perspective. Teams organize themselves via a democratic voting exercise right at the beginning. People pitch their ideas and convince other people to become part of this specific project group.

What’s the typical outcome?

During the hackathons at gutefrage.net one out of five ideas launch during the hackathon. This one idea is production ready and creates value right from the launch. The other ideas typically proof aspects, create prototypes of various qualities, cover maximum the best-case implementation and still need an investment of 80% to be ready. The hackathon is a great team building event, it’s great for the morale, the culture. The hackathon drives people’s motivation and frustrates them if their project doesn’t make it into the finals.

What issues do we see?

The hackathon validates some hypotheses, some not and the question remains open what to do with all the started work? Will we follow some traces? Will we just abandon the work? Needless to say – after the 2,5 days hackathon there waits daily business in form of agile software development work. At gutefrage.net we promised to launch the winning idea and typically abandon the remaining work. We found that’s not the most efficient way to drive innovation.


The RocketLab – our way to innovate

As a learning organization we drew some conclusions from the hackathon experience. Mixed teams with participants from all relevant areas worked very well. The one project going live was a real push for team and company motivation. The others weren’t as good for morale. Thinking about this for a while we came up with a slightly different format – the RocketLab.

What’s different between RocketLab and the hackathon?

The RocketLab stands for outcomes and can potentially solve any topic: Product, Technology or others of cross-discipline relevance. At day one of the RocketLab there is one specific hypothesis the team focuses on. The team exclusively works for a defined period solely on solving this one issue. No distraction, just 100% focus. The team contains all disciplines to solve the issue on hand. They are all committed to create the best solution possible within the given time budget. It’s a team of maker, not talker, not theorists, no visionaries. The hackathon is broad and unspecific by nature, the RocketLab has a given goal to accomplish with the solution delegated 100% to the team.

How do we organize a RocketLab?

It’s typically either Product or Technology bringing up a specific hypothesis (or a technical complex problem to solve). A short discussion determines the amount of time we’re willing to spend on finding a solution – usually 3 to 5 days. The organizers invite people to participate in the RocketLab and the Lab kicks off. It’s never the whole company, only few people but interdisciplinary.

The initial task after kick-off is an intense planning session. The organizers introduce the hypothesis to a greater detail and the team sets goals – together with metrics. Right afterwards with a clear goal in mind and a good understanding of the metrics solution ideation starts. Ideally, the team ends this activity with a solid set of tasks for each team-member.

The RocketLab needs 100% dedicated team members – no excuses – and sits co-located in a special meeting room.

What’s the typical outcome?

The expected outcome of the RocketLab is a solution for the hypothesis from the beginning. The solution is live, up and running. If the team was not able to solve it 100% they have a clear understanding of the remaining efforts and a thorough plan. The plan is then executed in regular agile development work. One hypothesis, one implementation, one proof. The RocketLab is an efficient and effective tool to work concentratedly on a hypothesis – goal-oriented but very intense.

What issues do we see?

We did around 10 RocketLabs for very different topics. Very concrete, technical topics up to very abstract conceptual work. The results were sometimes simply spot on, other times needed further perfection during daily work. In essence, the RocketLab is a tool which borrows aspects from the hackathon but is more effective and efficient. It simply works for us and produced some very surprising solutions.

We still see some issues with the spill-over effect of the RocketLab – but that’s a minor problem. Only 20% of the Labs experienced the spill over.

graphics
rocket – used under creative commons license (CC BY 4.0), non-modified
hackathon logo “The Hacking Dead”: © by gutefrage.net

Design Thinking in a nutshell – what is it and what’s in for us?

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking puts one person group in focus – the user. All activities in Design Thinking circulate around making the user’s life better. Design Thinking is an activity where all stakeholder take part. Not only designers, product owners or developer are part of the group, marketing, community management, finance and even legal should be involved in this very early stage of the product development cycle. Why should they? It’s a matter of understanding and communication. All participants of the Design Thinking process are part of goal setting, reasoning and the detailed planning. They need to share the vision behind the product. Time is wisely spend in the beginning to smooth the following implementation steps. Involvement of participants? 100%. No e-mails, no meetings, just the user and their pain points.

Other names for Design Thinking are “Design Sprint” (Google) or “Iteration 0” (infoq) or “Design DOING”. Design Thinking is a great planning tool to let all people understand what is build when and with what purpose. The process consists of a set of methods typically executed directly before the typical lean and agile development cycles start. It defines what to build and to communicate this purpose amongst the participants in an efficient, effective and fun way.

What’s the result of Design Thinking?

The result of the Design Thinking activity is a verified prototype, common understanding of what to achieve and a plan on how to proceed building the Minimal Viable Product and which features to add after going live. On top of that comes the certainty to build a set of functions that user’s really want and need – not a feature an executive has fallen in love with. Further definition of Design Thinking: IDEO, interaction design foundation or wikipedia.

What’s the purpose of Design Thinking?

  • Customer centricity uncover real user needs
  • Boost communication and understanding bring business and technology together – let the whole team understand what to build and for what
  • Create business value create and test solutions for these user needs
  • Be better and faster build better products and bring them to market sooner
  • Be focused and measurable extract clear goals from real customer needs
  • Get prioritization right feature prioritization gets a lot easier (no “pet” features)

Phases of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a fun exercise, fast paced with the goal to create a concrete problem definition and an implementation plan for the most promising solution.

5 Phases of Design Thinking

Starting with an idea of a user problem in mind the user observation phase results in a better understanding of the real user pain points. The team identifies the root pain points of the users and document them in an experience map. Creation of multiple solution ideas means to apply ideation techniques with the clear goal in mind of not implementing the first-thought-about solution. The paper prototype challenges the solution idea from ideation with the lowest possible effort and tries to resolve the user’s pain points. The implementation planning starts right after the finalization of the paper prototype. The result of the Design Thinking process is an implementation plan.

Implementation Guideline – Design Thinking in 10 Steps

1 – Identify user pain points

Go out of the building, watch, observe and interview real users experiencing the problems to solve by the solution you’re about to build. Watch at least 8 individuals! User’s verbal feedback usually contains their thinking of solutions, not their problems. The understanding of the team prior to the user observation is significantly different from it after watching and talking to users.

2 – Show the customer journey on an experience map

The experience map shows the current product experience (if any) and the user pain points. Organize notes from the team’s observation phase on sticky notes on a wall. All members of the Design Thinking team take part in the observation phase and make their own notes. The experience map shows the flow from the beginning (left) to the end (right) of the user journey.

Experience Map

From top to bottom the experience map shows the separate steps (above in blue) in the user journey. Below the user journey steps yellow notes represent the observations from the team members. Themes / cluster – represented in green – create an umbrella for the various observations. Additionally, emotional states – e.g. with smileys – enrich the overall journey and make it more visual.

3 – Extract and prioritize pain points

At this stage the experience map contains contains a lot of observations from various people. The next step in the process is to extract the pain points to focus on during the remainder of the process. “Dot-voting” is the tool of choice here. Each participants gets 4 to 5 dots. The biggest pain points receive the dots. Dot-voting happens all at once – at the same time. Observations may receive none, one or many dots from each participant. Counting the dots identifies the most important pain points.

4 – Goal and metrics setting

Having the ordered list of pain points extracted, the next step is to convert them into goals and make the progress measurable. Setting the goals can result in either quantitative or qualitative metrics. If possible assign real numbers to the goals. Orientation criteria for setting the goals can be:

  • efficiency (e.g. time spent on task)
  • effectiveness (e.g. reduction of # of errors)
  • satisfaction (customers’ happiness with the solution)

5 – Create example people – personas

Instead of developing a product for anybody – and hence most likely nobody – define real people, personas. Be specific and narrow user segments down. The persona should include the name, attributes, goals, concerns, quotes and other emotional elements. Ideally extract only 2 to 3 personas either individually or in small groups. Share the results afterwards with the rest of the group.

6 – Ideation – create ideas to solve pain points

Now it’s time to think about multiple solutions to address the user’s paint points. Don’t jump to solutions – don’t build the first “obvious” solution. Most likely there are more clever approaches available. All participants take part in the solution creation phase. Individuals create ideas time-boxed (e.g. 15 minutes). Afterwards they share them with the broader audience. There are no stupid ideas – it’s important to listen carefully to all ideas – some of them will stipulate further thinking. After the individual session a group session to detail the most promising ideas follows. Involving all team members creates shared ownership for the solution.

7 – Reality check

During ideation the goal is to create a lot of ideas. Are they all feasible? Can they really solve the issue? How does this look in reality? Since the ideas are in early stages we need to check them with reality. Place the ideas on storyboards. The storyboards show the interactions of the users with the idea. They are a sequence of scribbles which fit easily on a sheet of paper and focus on the positive user path. Let all edge cases, negative paths, recovery steps aside. Just focus on the positive user experience path associated with the idea. Reality check happens as an individual task or in smaller groups.

8 – UI Paper Prototype

The reality check sketches the user flow on a very high level – only focusing on the positive path and keeping intermediate screens aside. With the Paper Prototype the user flow should be as realistic as possible. Now the team members need to think through intermediate screens and pop-ups, edge interactions with the user and error cases as well. They transform the high-level storyboard an user interface. Sticky notes represent the UI elements – so the elements can change easily.

9 – Usability testing

Now it’s time to get real feedback from real users on the ideas developed. Any feedback is welcome and influences the prototype iterations. Feedback is usually more open since the prototype signals “Hey, we’re still in early phases. Don’t hesitate to give honest feedback!”. For the overall product changes at this stage are ways cheaper than rework done in later phases. Identify around 5 test participants – ideally based on the persona descriptions used so far in the design process. The storyboard serves as the base for tasks for the participants. The UI needs to change as an answer to the actions of the participants. Do so by exchanging notes or other elements of the UI manually. During the Paper Prototype testing give the participants no hints. The overarching goal is to identify gaps or errors in the user flow and collect feedback to improve the prototype.

10 – Implementation planning

The last step to finish the Design Thinking process is to come up with an agreed-upon implementation and launch plan. The plan is incremental in nature, delivers business value as early as possible and involves all disciplines. Implementation planning usually results in a story map which reflects the desired state of future interactions. Jeff Patton explains story maps in great detail in his book “User Story Mapping”. Here are only some important aspects.

Story Map

What’s the story map?

The story map is a one page explanation of the big picture and shows details of the planned product or feature. It includes a release strategy, describes iterations around the minimum viable solution and identifies areas for additional research. First of all list all stages of the user journey as they use the product. This is usually similar or equal to the blue sticky notes produced in the experience map. Below, in green, put the concepts of the UI which help to fulfill the step in the user journey. Yellow notes hold capabilities of the product extracted from the paper prototype. Take a note on the sticky notes of the expected outcome the capability delivers to the user. The yellow notes usually translate into implementation epics in agile development. Put pink notes on capabilities marking additional research need.

With the finished story map, you have a quite comprehensive view of what needs to be build for a perfect solution. To further mitigate risk of failure you want to start with the least minimum effort in development – identify the minimum viable product feature set. Now, it’s time to sort the yellow sticky notes below the UI areas according to their criticality to the product success. Sort them into these categories having the question in mind: “How necessary for users is this capability to fulfill their task?”:

  • critical: absolutely necessary for user to get tasks completed
  • commercially acceptable: adding these features will allow commercial success
  • later: add capability later
  • nice-to-have: capability which can be added in later phases if time allows
Story Map with prioritized capabilities

When finished with the prioritization, you have your iteration planning finished. The top lane includes all capabilities needed for the minimal viable product. Next lane adds functions to enable commercial success. Later lanes store further functions to add to the product to become a full solution.

Find some videos on lynda.com by Chris Nodder on the specifics of each step and the applied technique (need a Lynda.com subscription).

Design Thinking – Timeline

Typically Design Thinking activities fit into a 5 days week. You might want to organize them like this:

Design Thinking – week template

Measuring your product performance – PULSE vs. HEART

PULSE vs. HEART – an overview

Tracking of product metrics occur on various levels. PULSE and HEART stand for a logical structure of metrics to measure several aspects of your web product performance. PULSE reflects a more low-level and direct approach to performance figures. HEART on the other hand focuses on the customer experience.

Find an in-depth description of both performance frameworks in this paper from Google “Measuring the User Experience on a Large Scale: User-Centered Metrics for Web Applications” by Kerry Rodden, Hilary Hutchinson and Xin Fu.  How did I came across the HEART framework? Well, I found this inspiring talk by Roan Lavery, co-founder and CPO at freeagent: “Driving Growth vs. Building Core Value” at a mindtheproduct conference in 2018. In the video he describes – amongst other aspects – how they applied the HEART framework at freeagent.

PULSE – low-level and direct

The PULSE framework focuses heavily on direct impact KPI’s to measure the performance of large-scale web products. They typically reflect technical or business aspects of the performance. PULSE stands for Page views, Uptime, Latency, Seven-day active users and Earnings. 

Page views reflects the amount of users visiting your site. Uptime gives the percentage of time the server infrastructure is up, running and serving content. Latency gives a proper indication of the performance of your site infrastructure and your overall software development efforts on execution speed. Seven-day active users says a lot about retention – the ability of your site or product to motivate people to come back multiple times within 7 days. Even if seven-day active users looks like an user centric KPI it doesn’t tell anything about the level of satisfaction of your users. Earnings, finally, gives a good indication if the product works – or not.

These dimensions of a product are definitely worthwhile watching and should be observed thoroughly. But – are they good candidates to focus on user centered product development? Are they any good when it comes to value generation?  

HEART – higher level and user focused

The HEART framework is less generic, it costs more work to identify the right metrics – but it helps a lot to focus on users and makes value generation the most important goal. HEART is more adjusted to the individual product, it’s less direct and needs a good understanding of the product to measure. HEART stands for Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention and Task Succes. 

Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention and Task Success in a nutshell

Happiness is a very fluffy description of a very important state of mind of product users. If the product touches people, if it really helps it makes user more happy. A variety of KPI’s express the happiness of your users. The KPI’s are very product specific – in our case we took “Net Promoter Score”, “User Survey”, “#Bugs on the board” and “Upvote index” to measure this very qualitative dimension.

Engagement measures the level of engagement of users with your site. It’s not overall engagement with a site in general, it’s engagement with the core aspects of the site. Focus is on specific pages and sections that are critical for the value perception of the user. We track “PI per Visit”, “Engagement on QDP” (our most important page type), “User activity”.  

Adoption focuses on the amount of new users discovering the product and actually decide to become active. We decided to go with “#Registrations” and “Daily Activation”.

Retention measures the amount of users coming back to the product and use the product over a period of time. We measure retention with “Stickiness 30d” and “Churn Rate”.

Task Success measures the amount of tasks completed by the users. Not any tasks – those tasks providing most value to our users. It’s important to understand how many users are really engaged with the product and perceive value from the most valuable functions of the site. We are looking at “Q&A Index” (ratio of answers and questions per user), “Time 2 Answer” and “HA Ratio” (ratio of helpful answers to all answers).

Final Thoughts

Engagement, Adoption and Retention metrics are typically measured over specific periods of time. For some products it might be worthwhile to focus on a 7-day-period others might need a 30-day-period.

We’re still fresh on HEART but I strongly believe it will change the way we develop our product in future. 

Are you a mercenary or a missionary leader?

Ever asked yourself what you’re after eventually? Are you working being “involved” or “committed”? Are you a mercenary or a missionary? What’s your leadership style and where does it make a difference. All these questions were picked up by John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers) in April 2000 and put in relation.

A great article to read: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/mercenaries-vs-missionaries-john-doerr-sees-two-kinds-of-internet-entrepreneurs/

In Doerr’s view there’s a fundamental difference between mediocre organizations and real value driving – great – ventures. He mentioned five dimensions to look at:

  1. led by missionaries, not mercenaries
  2. top-notch, passionate leadership
  3. operation in large, rapidly growing and under-served markets
  4. reasonable financed
  5. working with sense of urgency

Especially the missionaries vs. mercenaries caught my attention. Marty Cagan from Silicon Valley Product Group wrote about the importance of people’s attitude in product development with a reference to missionaries vs. mercenaries (https://svpg.com/missionaries-vs-mercenaries/).

How does Doerr characterize the two M’s?

mercenarymissionary
driven byparanoiapassion
thinkingopportunisticallystrategically
going forthe sprintthe marathon
focus ontheir competitors and
financial statements
their customers and
value statements
arebosses of wolf packsmentors or coaches of teams
worryabout entitlementsabout making a contribution
motivationlust for making moneydesire to make a meaning

Where are you? And more important – where do you want to be?

Understanding the difference is equally important for leaders in organizations as for leaders in technology or product development.

Toolbox, Best Practice, Tools, HowTo’s – agile practices and how to apply them

The internet holds quite a lot of information. Here’s my favorite collection of tools, toolboxes, methods, best practices and howto’s from various fields of application. Most of them have a tight coupling to agile software development, agile organization development, product development and cross those fields.

Following a list of links and a short description of what to find on the site.

Open Practice Library, https://openpracticelibrary.com/

The site contains methods and tools around product Discovery and Delivery practices. The methods are collected by the community and serve to inspire seeking minds to test them in various situations. The methods are positioned in 4 main areas: Discovery, Delivery, Options Pivot and the Foundation.

Discovery contains methods like:

Options Pivot holds tools like:

Delivery contains these tools:

Foundation hold something like these:

Ideo – Design Kit, http://www.designkit.org/methods

This is a collection of tools around Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. The kit is provided by IDEO.org.

Inspiration

Ideation

Implementation

Other Tool Sets