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The Inception Deck

Applying Principles from The Agile Samurai: How Agile Masters Deliver Great Software by Jonathan Rasmusson

To be very clear the concept of the Inception Deck is something I read about in Mr. Rasmusson's book The Agile Samurai.  So the first thing I want to do is explain what is the purpose of an Inception Deck, what is in the deck and how to create one.

The Inception Deck provides the who, what, why, where, when, & size for a project.  Some might say think this is a project charter but it is not a project charter.  The most important difference is that the right people (more on this in a moment) create the inception deck, the inception deck is only valid for about three to six months, and it generally takes anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks to create.  Ideally the entire team works together in a conference room with flip charts and white boards to create the inception deck until they have it right.

Who are the right people?  The right people include the customers, stakeholders (operations, IT management, business, sales, etc), developers, testers, analysts, help desk, documentation, and anyone else who can "materially contribute to the effective execution of the project."

Right away some people will be uncomfortable because putting all those people in a room to do this work will cost $1k(s) per day.  The money spent up front getting the Inception Deck right will insure that the $10k(s) spent per month on the project will be spent on the right project goals.

Inception Deck

  1. Why are we here - Why did we decide to do this project in the first place
  2. Create an elevator pitch - Create a classic 30 second (i.e. two sentences) description of the project that everyone on the team can repeat
  3. Design a product box - If our software was sold at best buy what would the product box look like to encourage people to buy it
  4. Create a NOT list - What is not part of the project
  5. Meet your neighbors - Who are the other teams that we will be impacting?  Maybe we should have 'informal' get togethers with them and get to know them.
  6. Show the solution - Show a high level blueprint of the technical architecture
  7. What is going to keep us up at night - What are the 'scary' project things that go 'bump in the night' which keep you up at night?
  8. Size it up - Is this a three, six, nine or twelve month project
  9. Be clear on what's going to give - Which of the Furious Four (Time, Budget, Quality, Scope) is least important at this time.
  10. Show what it is going to take - How long? $ ? What kind of time?

I am going to focus on how to create just two of Inception Deck Items, the elevator pitch and product box.

The Elevator Pitch

A good elevator pitch brings clarity, forces the team to think like the customer, and gets to the point.  To help do this Mr. Rasmusson provides a Elevator Pitch Template.  Here it is:

  • For [target customer]
  • who [statement of need or opportunity]
  • the [product name]
  • is a [product category]
  • that [key benefit, compelling reason to buy].
  • Unlike [primary competitve alternative]
  • our product [statement of primary differentiation].

Details for the less than obvious items.

  • For [target customer] - who is the product for and who will benefit from using it
  • who [statement of need or opportunity] - explains the problem or need the customer is looking to solve
  • is a [product category] - what does this service or product do

An example from The Agile Samurai

  • For [construction managers]
  • who [need to track what type of work is being done on the construction site]
  • the [CSWP*]
  • is a [safety work permit system],
  • that [creates, tracks and audits safety work permits].
  • Unlike [the current paper-based system]
  • our product [is web based and can be accessed any time from anywhere].

*CSWP : Construction Safety Work Permit

Product Box

By designing a product box the team will be focusing on the compelling reasons why the customer is buying the product.  The team will also help keep the customer focused on those reasons as the project progresses.

The first thing to do is to brainstorm the product benefits.  The first thing the team needs to understand is that customers don't care about features.  Customers care about benefits.  How does this product benefit me.  For example a feature in a car - 245 horsepower engine is less important than the benefit - Pass easily on the highway.  Why are customers going to want to use your product?  Create a list of those items and make sure they are benefits and not features; or turn the features into benefits.

Next create a slogan for the product.  Good slogans convey a feeling/emotion with very few words.  For instance FedEx - Peace of mind.  Nike - Just do it.  Creating great slogans is something people do for a living.  We just need a slogan for our product and our inception deck.  Take 10 or 15 minutes to do this.  No slogan is to cheesy.

Now design the actual box.  Include a cool picture (either one someone has drawn or a photograph to capture the 'feeling or value' of the product), the product name, best slogan, and the top three benefits.

Putting it all together

In my case I am the Scrum Master for two teams which are almost all offshore teams.  The Agile Samurai suggests having a team wall where everyone can see the Inception Deck.  In my case that is not practical or useful.  We are also in the middle of the year which was planned for a whole year.  I am going to suggest we do a mini-planning session and bring as many people as we can do an Inception Deck in the next month or so.  Then I plan on putting the information onto the team's Wiki page.  If anyone has any suggestions please add them to the them comments to this article.

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