Thoughts on minimum viable products and riskiest assumption tests.
Always these misunderstandings
Some of you surely know this drawing by Henrik Kniberg on the subject of minimum viable products. (By the way, Henrik is a software developer for the best-selling video game of all time - Minecraft. Just to make sure we are collecting enough useless knowledge here too.) And in itself, and in theory this MVP is not such a bad idea. But as so often, when our beloved scrum-agility-buzzword-coaches are involved, it is turning into one big misunderstanding at the end. And as so often, there is an alternative that is actually more suitable to produce iterative and incremental products: riskiest assumption tests, short RAT. Those who mainly care about sounding competent should incorporate the term "RAT" as often as possible into their sentences in the near future before it is becoming the next big buzzword and can otherwise stop reading now. All others are going to learn more in the next paragraphs. You are still all aboard? Very nice!
Minimum Viable Product
Before we talk about beautiful shiny new things, we should ensure that we are all on the same level. What is an MVP? I don't want to be a smartass (pardon my French!) here, but I have seen teams dashing against exactly this question because no one has thought about the literal meaning of the phrase. The MVP is the "minimal survivable product". The idea behind it is quickly explained. The phrase was coined in 2001 by Frank Robinson, who, inspired by the bursting dot-com bubble shortly before and based on the Sharp Ratio - simplified, a return-on-risk analysis - has thought about how to give his customers a product which has just enough features to be viable. So maximum profit with minimum risk.
And what is the suboptimal part of such an MVP now?
The idea per se is, as I said, not bad - quite the contrary! But even its inventor says about the concept of the MVP:
"Too large or too small a product are big problems. The MVP is the difficult-to-determine sweet spot between them. Teams flounder tactically in trying to determine the MVP." - Frank Robinson
So as so often the implementation is the problem. The misconception that the MVP is the minimal variant of a product. Quite simply dashed off. And not enough, I often see organizations slipping into the Product Death Cycle attempting to work after the idea of an MVP.
And even if the implementation should work. Even if the mindset is recognized and lived as such, the MVP often does not really work. Because such a minimum viable product is poor in features by definition. This is not a big problem for new products. But in 99,999...% of cases we are in areas where there is competition. And in the long run, the product with the most sensible features and the highest quality prevails. And not the MVP.
The road to Riskiest Assumption Tests
Especially software developers have quickly come to the conclusion that the MVP is indeed a great concept, but just has its weaknesses. So they tried to develop the idea of an MVP further. Entrance Minimum Viable Experiment. The MVE takes an MVP to evaluate a product idea. True to the premise, "Nobody expects an experiment to be a complete success." That sounds complicated at first sight, and at second sight one notices that the MVE is nothing but the good old banana principle.
I see RATs.
So, Riskiest Assumption Tests. RATs. I do not know if Rik Higham invented the concept, but he was the first I heard speaking about it. Rik is asking a simple question:
"What's the smallest experiment you can do to test your biggest assumption?"
When you are building a new product, you have to start with a whole bunch of assumptions. We project workers even have our own tool for that, the Assumptions Log. The big disadvantage of such assumptions is that you just do not know anything about it. Of course. So you take the assumption that carries the greatest risk for you and test it. Without much effort, just as easy as possible. Test early instead of Fail early so to speak. (That should be printed on t-shirts, I know.)
That is, I build a product that just tests my assumption. Quick, easy, and inexpensive. Need an example? Google Glass. Such smart glasses are an incredibly complicated and, above all, complex thing. Not just the technology, but also the whole surrounding environment. Legal, cultural, social. What do you think, how long did it take to get the first Google Glass prototype ready? I tell you: one day. 1 day. (By the way, Tom Chi is the courageous product developer in this case.) And yes, we are very close to rapid prototyping here and we should take rapid prototyping as a role model more often I think. If you have an idea, but you are not sure if it is going to work, just quickly tweak something together and test your assumptions.
Is MVP a bad approach now?
No. At least not if it is interpreted and lived correctly - as a mindset in product development. And, if you choose a strategic approach. I think a variant like this might be a good idea:
When I do this and listen to my customers, I will have created my MVP in one of the first sprints. You notice, this is not a thing that you have done quickly in one refinement. This is hard (product development-)work.
And here riskiest assumption tests are a good alternative if I want to quickly and efficiently test my assumptions. Just dare it more often.
Of unpleasant surprises
Imagine yourself managing a project where not a single problem arises during progress. No issues, no uncovered risks, nothing. A nice idea, right? And now reality. Each and every one of us encounters problems and obstacles throughout every single project. Even with the best and most granulated Risk / Impact Probability Chart, we won't have all the risks on the radar. And even if we capture and reduce risks before the project's executing phase starts, over time all kinds of hurdles will be popping up.
Of course, you can handle it in a way that seems very prevalent to me. Just ignore the issues and hope that they will disappear. Funnily (or actually tragically) they never do that by themselves.
Let us have a look at Scrum
Old project stagers have to smile when Scrum Masters are proudly showing their impediment backlogs. Because, even if the average Scrum Coach is trying to tell us that collecting problems that are slowing down the team is an invention of Scrum, such lists have been there since project management exists: Issue Management is the magic word here. Such emerging problems have to be
And most importantly, they have to be managed. As always and everywhere in project management: it needs someone to take care for. Someone who is collecting and maintaining these issues. But which format is the right one for such an issue list?
Let's take a closer look at the Impediment Backlog format. Because we can find several takeaways there. But first things first, what is that? An Impediment Backlog is a document (analog or digital) in which a Scrum Master captures all the stones that are in the way of the team and that have to be cleared away. These are usually collected during the Daily - the brief meeting during mornings where everyone tells what was done yesterday, what's going to happen today, and what's stopping them from being productive (or even more productive).
Many small stones are cleared away easier than a big one
And here we can notice something. Such a Scrum Master does not (only) project work, but also a lot of operational work. Daily business. Of course inside a project environment. And, of course, the border is indistinct and depends a lot on people, phases and, above all, needs. But such an Impediment Backlog is mostly consisting of "small" problems. Issues at the daily business level. We won't find many huge - and huge means insoluble in that form - chunks there. In other words, in such an Impediment Backlog we have many issues that we can get rid of very quickly and easily. Many small stones are cleared away easier than a big one.
Prioritization is half the battle...
Another big advantage of such an Impediment Backlog is that it is not just a list, but a backlog - that is, a prioritized list. The most important - in our case the most serious - problem is always to be found at the top. This helps me to help my team. The issue that bothers them the most is the one I am going to tackle first.
..and clarified responsibilities are the second half
And such an Impediment Backlog is also a very elegant and easy solution for responsibilities: the Scrum Master is responsible for all the impediments that are on the backlog. No RACI matrix, no pushing around and no denying. There is one person and that one takes care. This does not mean we can not delegate topics that are on the list. But the responsibility should lie with the project management.
That may seem out of place at first glance. Why should we, as project managers, carry the can for other people? But we are talking about issues here. These are either risks that have become alive or even problems that have arisen unexpectedly. In my opinion, we are facing a roof that is on fire in that case. And the solving of such issues should be a particular concern for project leaders. But you all see it that way, right? And so it is only fair that we have the responsibility for resolving the impediments in our own backlog. My two cents.
Where there is light, there is also shadow
That sounds almost too good to be true. And in my experience, Impediment Backlogs also have some weaknesses. Or to be more precise, their handling has. I often see well-behaved Scrum Masters who are writing down all of the topics their team tells them about. In fine writing, with a box to tick it off. And then they grab all of their colorful marker pens and start drawing circles around and lines between those list items. In my opinion, impediments (or issues in our case) are tackled the moment we hear about them. They are far too important not to start immediately. Only when I have to wait for something - that is, a dependency - the issue becomes part of the backlog.
"Open your eyes, open your ears, Helmi is here"
Back in my childhood days (a long time ago) there was a television series in Austria called Helmi, which had the purpose to teach us careless children the responsible use of the traffic regulations. And in the show's title song, it said, "Open your eyes, open your ears, Helmi is here." And we should all take that to heart. Even if my team is holding a Standup Meeting where they are talking about any stones in their way every single day. Who says that they really are thinking of every single one? And who tells me that an issue does not show up two minutes after the meeting ends? So we should always keep at least one ear on the team.
And an important notice (a point that is discreetly concealed in the Scrum Guide). We should not ignore the distinction between issues and risks just because one is using an Impediment Backlog. Even if the two words are used quite synonymously. But a risk has no business on an issue list or in an Impediment Backlog! For risks we have our good old Risk Management, all with plan, identify, analyze, execute, and so on. Only when a risk becomes alive it becomes an issue.
Maybe we project managers should include the term Impediment Backlog in our vocabulary. Such a prioritized listing of all issues that are blocking our team - and thus jeopardizing our entire project - and that we can (gradually) work off is a valuable tool for our daily project work. Because even without such a list it is already complicated enough.