May 7, 2012

We Bring the Post-its – You Do the Learning

"But one is forced to translate thought into action and action into object… …I am not a teacher who tells his students only to think. I say: act; do something: I ask for result. It may take different forms. It can have the form of sound, or someone can do a book, make a drawing or a sculpture. I don’t care…" Joseph Beuys, 1969
A startup begins with an entrepreneur, having an idea and a question: “How to initiate a change in the world, that a growing business evolves around the initial vision?”. There is no single method or best practices which can guarantee success of such a difficult venture, yet there are several thinking tools which may be helpful when bringing a startup to live. Among others I believe these three are particularly useful for a startup venture: 
  • Design Thinking to understand the user's needs and explore potential solutions
  • Scrum to develop shippable chunks of product in a disciplined and collaborative way and
  • Lean Startup to systematically innovate and bootstrap the ecosystem of an enterprise.
Reading books and blogs to understand these frameworks is essential, though getting the concepts right is comparatively easy in contrast to applying them solving real world problems, which can only be learned by practicing. It takes a few minutes to explain the ingredients of Scrum, doing it just fairly well requires weeks, if not months of continuous practice and learning from failures. Although games and simulations can't substitute fully first hand experience they are a great alternative to expensive trial and error learning on the job.

Just a few days before the Startup Camp 2012 I met with Ahmet Emre Acar and Stefan Wolpers to think about how we may create such a practical learning experience. Our idea to teach Design Thinking, Scrum and Lean Startup was pretty simple: we create the space, define the rules of a game, bring the post-its and cards while the audience will do the learning. In detail the question of “how might we create a first hand learning experience of Design Thinking, Scrum and Lean Startup, where people can use the frameworks and tools in a failure safe environment of a game but still have the chance to generate insights from realistic situations within a few hours of being together on a workshop?” appeared to be quite challenging.  After an afternoon prototyping we became confident that a role- or card game could probably work and started to design the workshop. We decided to split the sessions into first Design Thinking and second Scrum and Lean Startup and experiment with different formats independently but link them via a joint registration/preparation and a shared vision as well as persona.

Plan of the Game Part II
By designing the event we wanted to make use of the frameworks themselves. The workshop should help entrepreneurs to become more successful and we used our network for a story share-and-capture session to identify common success and failure modes. From that we synthesized first a point of view, consisting of the persona Kai, the CEO who wants a vision become reality. Given that the game’s principle is to gather and share insights by applying elements of the frameworks while moving towards the vision of "a new platform to bring people, ideas & capital together to further innovation and create new startups.“. So the teams would be confronted with questions like finding the right hypothesis to validate, building the minimal viable product for testing the hypothesis, growing an agile organization and last but not least organizing themselves while getting started with a minimum of input from outside.

We were so curious how the frameworks, which are rooted in comparable mindsets, would complement one another when used by groups working practically on the challenge. Our hope was that learning from each other and direct experience by just doing would be much more fun than listening to us talking and presenting slides. Since the time we had to prepare the event was short, we were a little nervous, if our first prototype would provide just enough structure for a collaborative game to evolve was really enough.

Fortunately the workshop attracted an experienced and diverse crowd, were about half of the people had applied some days before for a specific role on the game and thus became already familiar with some concepts doing a warm-up exercise I had send around. During the first part of the workshop the teams played a Design Thinking card game to explore user needs, formulate a point of view including a persona as input for the second part of the session. Then after a short briefing of the game structure and mission: “While building the minimal viable product guided by this vision and growing a lean and agile organization the mission of the game is to generate the maximum of insights for the minimum of bucks” the three groups headed off into their first Sprint in the second session. Each startup-team played on their board on the wall consisting of a Product Backlog, Task Board, Org Chart and Insights. For building the minimal viable product we brought large print-outs of the paper prototyping helper kit. For building the organization we used the free Meddlers game by Jurgen Appelo with the additional roles of CEO and User. Everyone could choose a role before the start, switch and extend the role but teams could also hire more members, e.g. Users, just from the attendees of the conference. To trigger hiring, growing the organization and to add randomly complexity, teams had to throw a dice to add skill constraints to each user story during planning. Only stories that fit the team's skill set were allowed to move into the sprints. Each role had a cost assigned but the budget was unlimited and had to be tracked by the CEO. A tough 20 minute sprint structure kept the whole group moving. The main places to gather insights in the form of neon-orange Post-its were testing with people who had the  role ‘User’ whenever possible and Retrospectives during the Sprints. 

One of our main goals was to convey the experience when self organized teams evolve from individuals working together and how timeboxing helps to establish a cadence for groups moving forward under high uncertainty, which actually worked really well on this event. It had helped surely that we involved participants before the workshop by asking them to work on a warm-up challenge. Nevertheless I believe the atmosphere of the conference and kind of people who joined our workshop contributed a lot to the success of the experiment. The teams generated some great insights and thus proved our assumption that most learning will just happen, when people reflect what they experience together and share their knowledge. 

From feedback we have learned that the two sessions need to be more integrated, especially the teams should be kept stable to make the most out of interleaving Design Thinking, Scrum and Lean Startup. The Sprints were too short and we should plan more time for debriefing. We also should plan time for a dry run at the start. We need a better map that explains the game. We need to find a way how to make the diverse roles more realistic and encourage growing an agile organization which actually didn’t work so well. We need to add more challenges from Lean Startup, even though at least one team managed to collect insights from showing product to users within the short time they had. The others actually experienced by failing to do so a common pattern of optimizing product development but failing to spin the whole feedback loop. And it was much fun to see the CEOs pitching their vision to people outside the workshop for ‘hiring’ more users for their team and struggling to keep in touch with their product development. 

The Startup Camp 2012 was a great space to have a shot at the methodologies in a startup like context and to gather at least some valuable practical insights on how it feels to use these tools and why they may be useful. What struck me most was how quick the groups developed an individual style working together for such a short time. The bottom line is that trusting the audience and having a real minimum of structure felt right for this event. For us it was the ideal environment to test our first prototype of the learning game, which we will continue to develop further using the thinking tools themselves. Thanx for everyone, who was taking part in this experiment!

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