As a part of our series on Scaling Agile to the Strategic Level, I have invited our product lead on this project, Catherine Connor, to tell us about her experience in creating Project Stratus. Thank you for the great work and help on this series Catherine.
Project Stratus was conceived over a year ago from numerous customer discovery interviews geared at understanding the challenges of strategic planning with agile execution. From these interviews we started to form an idea of what an agile strategic planning tool could look like, but we also knew that we would need to do serious customer validation before getting to productize a solution.
We’d already selected a disciplined approach to customer validation based on The Four Steps to the Epiphany – Successful Strategies for Products that Win by Steven Blank. Although the book focuses on startups, many of the ideas, such as diligently conducting customer validation and creating a sales roadmap (i.e. a repeatable process to sell your product) can also be applied to new products in existing compagnies. The basic premise of Blank’s approach is that if you solve a problem for customers (called “earlyvangelists”) who are so acutely affected by that problem that they are willing to build a solution themselves, you are more likely to deliver a product that will solve that same problem for many more customers.
Project Stratus was drastically accelerated in April 2010 at the LeanSSC conference in Atlanta, when one of our customers unveiled the agile product portfolio scheduler application they’d built to solve their own strategic planning needs. Not only did the application visualize where we were heading, it also happened to be built on the Rally Platform. We’d just found our first earlyvangelist.
Four months later, at Agile2010, we privately introduced Project Stratus to a handful of industry analysts and customers to gauge their reaction. Based on their overwhelming excitement, we proceeded in identifying additional earlyvangelists from past customer interactions. An earlyvangelist is like a P1 defect, when you find one, you know right away. These customers are so excited to see a provider like Rally think up a commercially supported solution to the problem they have been trying to solve themselves, they are anxious to guide you, and some are even irritated by the fact that the product is not out yet; when all along we’ve been thinking not to deliver such a thing! I could tell when I first engaged with Paul, Dale, Nina, Christophe and others, that they would be partners in shaping Project Stratus to become a valuable product. The beauty of Blank’s technique is in its reciprocity. We, the solution provider, get to build a product that solves real needs, earlyvangelists get to shape a supported solution to replace their manual solution, and customers get to benefit from their peers’ expertise.
With earlyvangelists on hand, we sat down to define the set of hypotheses to validate. This is an important step to ensure that interviews provide meaningful outcomes. Nothing is more deflating than spending an hour with a customer only to find yourself with no good answer to “exactly what did I learn from this call?” Listing hypotheses is also a great way to communicate to yourself and others in your company what you are trying to find out and what you are purposefully setting aside for another time. This is very much like “theory-based decision making”, one of Rally’s corporate core values.
Since August, we have been incrementally evolving Stratus, one weekly build at a time, diligently validating our hypotheses one at a time. Earlyvangelists’ real-life experiences combined with our coaches yearning to apply agile and lean principles to the strategic level are informing the direction of Stratus. I feel really good about where Stratus is going.
As an agile product manager who has seen several projects being productized prematurely, I am truly enjoying following Blank’s rigorous Customer Development approach and definitely would recommend it to my product manager comrades. You do need executive support which thankfully Rally provides me. Following Blank’s technique is no small feat however, it is hard and diligent work with no guaranteed productization plans until you pass his customer validation final exam: “you have proven you have understood customer problems, found a set of earlyvangelists and delivered a product that customers want to buy, developed a repeatable and scalable sales process and demonstrated you have a profitable business model.” Then, and only then, will we graduate to Blank’s customer creation step, aka the delivery of an official Rally offering for Strategic Planning.
The customer validation step for Project Stratus is going full steam. We welcome more earlyvangelists to partner with us in this exciting endeavor. The more input we receive, the more valuable the product will be. If you have strategic planning challenges and a passion for applying agile principles for solving them, I invite you to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. – Catherine Connor
The work done by Steve Blank on this method is fantastic. In addition to Project Stratus, I have used it with our large on-premise customers and with TechStars companies in order to keep from leaping to conclusions and trying to by-pass the customer creation stage. I hope many of you can empathize with the discipline required to do both of these things in the world of product development.