Not too many years ago, I was charged with building my first analytics-based product for the company I had just joined.  I wrote user stories, worked with engineers and interaction designers, and visited users.  I did everything right.  

Except I didn’t.

That first time I built a data product, I forgot the most important step: getting the team aligned from day one.  Trying to get moving quickly, I jumped right into the details of the product—I had a wireframe mocked-up within two weeks!  Unfortunately, I found out later that the functionality that I thought was crucial, was different that what the rest of the business expected.  It didn’t align with what Engineering could build or with what Sales wanted to sell.  In hindsight, I wish I’d started differently with more planning upfront.

These days I always begin a project with a “Product Workshop” and I recommend that others do as well.  It doesn’t matter if, like me, you are building analytics products or if you’re part of a team building the next great social platform, the product workshop is where you ensure that the team is aligned on the goals for the product.

But saying that you need team alignment and actually achieving unity of direction are two very different things.  How do you get the team organized and in agreement? 

Ten years ago, you would have started with a “vision” or “mission” statement.  The team would be sequestered in a conference room, flip charts would be assembled, markers would be uncapped, and Post-It notes would cover the walls.  The dominant personalities would, well, dominate the conversation and the majority of the team would say nothing.  Several hours later, the team would emerge bleary-eyed with a mission statement:

MISSION:

To synergistically empower our global customer base to accelerate revenues and obtain greater mindshare through the use of distributed user insights informed by our world-class, market-leading, cloud-based, software-as-a-service platform.

Excellent.  Hours wasted, people frustrated, and no closer to understanding what needs to be built as part of our product.

Instead of these confusing and rarely useful mission-style exercises, I start my product workshops differently.  I use “Product Mad Libs.” 

Remember Mad Libs?  If not, they were sort of “complete the sentence” stories and looked something like this:

As [fill in the blank] walked down the street, he was [fill in the blank]!  What was that?  It looked like a [fill in the blank] but it couldn’t be!  It had [fill in the blank], large [fill in the blank], and [fill in the blank] everywhere.  [fill in the blank] was shocked and confused.

They were a group activity for kids where one person would fill out the book as the others shouted out nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  As a kid, we found these stories to be great fun—the more outrageous, the better.  As an adult, I find them to be a non-threatening way to kick-off a workshop and get useful information out the team in the shortest time possible.  

For my workshops, I use a variant of the Mad Libs concept to help get the group thinking about the product goals, to uncover hidden issues early in the process, and to break the ice at the start of the project. 

A sample Product Mad Lib template looks like this:

 
 

When using the Product Mad Libs technique, start by preparing a template like the sample above that's applicable to your situation.  Print or handwrite it as large as possible and hang it at the front of the room where everyone can see it.  As an opening exercise for the workshop session, have the team work blank by blank through the story—as a group—until you reach agreement on your Product Mad Lib.  

The Product Mad Libs concept is a great way to kick-off the product workshop and get the team to create a product narrative—a simple story about what the product is and does—with little tension or concern about “word-smithing” a mission statement.  You get the team engaged, have a little fun, and at the end of the session you have a story that can be used to guide further product design activities instead of a opaque mission statement that provides little direction.

Next time you kick off a product workshop for your company, try using the Mad Libs concept.  You’ll find it far easier to get started and with much better results than the methods you might have experienced in the past.