How to run a product vision workshop

Hey! You! Yes, you! Welcome! If you came here that means you must be interested in facilitating workshops either for your team or a company. And that’s great! However, it’s not that easy.

COVID-19 initiated a large shift in the way we work. We had to make a shift from sitting in the same room with our teams to sitting in your room. Alone. Sad. But we liked sharing the same floor. We got used to our open space offices. Hell, even Agile told us that co-located teams are more productive than remote ones. Although not everyone has such a strong opinion on this matter.

And then in April 2020 remote work has become our new normal. And that’s where the problems have begun. How should we communicate with our teams? How do we make sure people do their job? It was a nightmare for managers, and a huge challenge for Agile folks to figure stuff out. Luckily, Scrum’s Inspect & Adapt approach worked.

We almost instantly shifted to remote-first tools such as JIRA, Miro, Zoom, Mural, and many more. It took us a year, but I think as a community we’ve finally figured it out.

Today, we’d like to focus on one of the bigger challenges facilitators had to face during this phase — Workshops. We were used to whiteboards, colored markers, and people in the same room figuring stuff out. Now we have to deal with distributed teams, poor Internet connection, and low-quality video. And it’s challenging. But not something you can’t prepare for!

There are multiple types of workshops that you can run, but we don’t want to focus on all of them. Our today’s focus is running a Product Vision workshop for your team! And we’re going to give you a reusable framework to help you get through it.

The workshop

Hope for the best and prepare for the work

In the business world, every meeting requires preparation. Preparation ensures a nice flow and helps people stay on topic to achieve tangible outcomes.

The value of preparation only increases with the number of participants and the complexity of the meeting. Everyone brings their attitude, agenda, and ideas to the meeting. As the facilitator, it is your job to align those people.

Having a productive conversation between two colleagues is hard enough, let alone successfully conducting something more complicated, like a workshop. With more experience and practice, it may be tempting to just “wing it”, but prep work always makes a meeting more enjoyable and productive.

So how do you prepare for a workshop? You start by choosing the right tool for the right job. Get a pen and a blank piece of paper. Take some time to write down the answers to these questions about the meeting:

Who should attend?

  • Who has the necessary knowledge or skill for the topic at hand?
  • Should you invite someone with decision-making authority?

What about timing?

  • Can you maintain the attention and collaboration for 90 straight minutes?
  • Should you spread the meeting into several occasions or even throughout several days?
  • Should you schedule it right after lunch when people are generally nicer or in the morning to set the mood for the day or week?

What should the outcome be?

  • Are attendees required to make a decision together or solve a problem?

These answers should inform your choice of tools, activities and goals. Then you have to make sure the meeting environment is set up — make sure participants have access to the online whiteboard and all the online tools you will ask them to work with.

BONUS TIP: You might want to ask participants to use physical paper during the workshop even in an online setting. This helps them engage their brains differently and creates a couple minutes free from the screens

In case of a product vision workshop, it is strongly recommended to ask people to prepare for the session(s). Ask them to do their homework — maybe in the form of one or two open-ended questions. This primes participants’ brain for the meeting and saves time during the workshop.

Set the stage

There are a magic few minutes right after a meeting starts. People might arrive a bit late, or come right out of another long meeting. To protect the energy of your meeting, you need to make sure everyone is present before you start. Things like small-talk, chit-chat, showing your dog through the camera helps participants tune in.

Once you have everyone’s undivided attention, set the stage by laying out what the rules of cooperation are during the meeting — e.g. The Prime Directive in case of an Agile Retrospective. Then you can go on to discuss the agenda, maybe tell people what you expect them to do during the meeting — like keep time, make notes, not take phone calls, etc. Then tell them firmly and assertively what the meeting outcome is supposed to be answer the question of “why are we here?”.

BONUS TIP: Overcome chit-chatters with a gentle phrase like “Is this a bad time for you guys? Because this is important.” Of course, the meeting has to be important for you to say this.

Warm up

After all that, the work part of the workshop starts. You might want to start with something light. A simple ice-breaker or a warm-up exercise might go a long way in getting people involved from the start.

Study shows that if a person says even one word at the very beginning of the meeting, the chance of them actively participating increases! But where do you start?

As with almost everything in life — that depends.

If your team has never worked together before (they only know each other from the company’s Slack), maybe a quick session of Impromptu Networking to get everyone fired up?

Two truths / one lie is also a great ice breaker if you don’t want to spend much time getting people to know each other.

Or the most minimal approach could be “Use one word to describe how are you feeling today?” Or any other simple check-in exercise you might know from your Sprint Retrospectives ;)

What if there are 40 people in the “room” but some of them probably were forced to come? (oh yeah, that happens too) Simply try the ESVP format. Anybody who feels like a prisoner should be able to leave without any push-back from other attendees. After all, you want your workshop to be productive and fun.

And if you’re looking for other fun activities, you can check out SessionLab’s library for inspiration!

Teach people how to interact with the board

Once everybody’s fired up, it’s time to make sure everybody knows how to use the tool you chose for this workshop. People need to understand how to write, copy, delete, and edit text. They need to be able to drag & drop things or add new items when needed.

And they need to do it efficiently and without breaking your workspace.

If you’re using Miro, Jen Goertzen created a brilliant introduction on how you can set this up. And if you’re using any other visual tools, the template presented in that video might still be useful to you (but you won’t be able to copy it to your Miro’s workspace).

Only when you ensure people understand how to interact with the board, you can move to the core part of the workshop.

Dive in

Your specific situation might be different, but the general layout of a product vision workshop consists of 2 parts:

  • Understanding where the product currently is and what it represents in the market
  • Ideating about where the product should be in a few months or years

Understanding the strength of the product

The goal is to get an unbiased opinion from participants about what they think contributes to the success of the product. One of the many tools you can use is to create a word cloud as suggested by this amazing article. This technique levels the playing field for those who are less likely to speak during meetings — the ones with the most brilliant ideas usually.

Once you have a list of key characteristics, you want participants to discuss and group these. This, with the help of the differently sized words in the word cloud helps participants understand where the group agrees or disagrees.

Next, you want to create the opportunity for participants to prioritize these characteristics. Use dot-voting or 1on1 comparisons — the latter is very similar to bubble sorting where you compare items to another single item at once, repeating the process for all items. This, again, will create a discussion where people can argue for or against the importance of each item, thereby creating a shared understanding of what each item means for different people.

Now the group has an idea of what the most important factors in the product are.

Ideating about the future of the product

Any ideation technique should do well here. The 2 crucial things to consider for you as the facilitator are to

a) keep everyone at vision-level instead of doing down to implementation-level and

b) keeping in mind what the deliverable of this meeting should be — maybe it’s enough to have a laundry list of items in JIRA, where ideas can be expanded, commented, deleted later on during the project.

Take a break!

You should also consider taking frequent breaks. The frequency depends on your circumstances — e.g. if it’s a 2 full-day meeting, taking a break every hour or so is necessary.

Also consider the quality of the breaks. 5 minutes is usually not enough, but most people should be fine with 10. Don’t let people stay in front of their computers, have them move around, drink coffee (so 20th century), eat something, and get some fresh air.

If you’re not sure how to proceed, read this beautifully crafted article from Psychology Today on “types of breaks.” And then decide with the team which one would be appropriate in your situation. It is crucial to remember that all people are different, which means our needs are too. And it’s your job as a facilitator to discover those needs and act accordingly.

Bonus question: You can always ask the team during warm up about how they’d like to proceed.

Concluding the workshop

In case of a product vision workshop, the output of the meeting is the work created by the participants and the shared understanding they have built up. Still, the materials will later be used for either sparking further conversations or as input for planning — be it a product roadmap or a sprint plan.

If ideas are not enough and you’d like to have a tangible result, consider one of the popular prioritization exercises; either as a last step of the workshop or something you can do on your own. Provided that you have enough data and domain knowledge.

Some of the more popular methods are MoSCoW, Impact-Effort Matrix, or Kano Method. All of these and more are described in the Product Prioritization article from UXDesign.cc!

Summary

Woah. You made it! Congratulations. We truly hope this article will help you prepare and run better workshops. They don’t have to be Product Vision workshops! We believe a lot of these materials and references can be easily used to run almost any type of workshops you want. It all comes down to your creativity.

However, no matter how many resources you have, running a great workshop requires good preparation. If you’ll try to put something together 30 minutes before the meeting, we guarantee that it won’t be as productive as it could be. Or even worse — it’ll be a failure. We know. It happened to us before.

But we know you’ll do just fine! Good luck!

PS: If you’re interested in further reading on Product Vision workshops, we have a great blog series created by Valentina Thoerner specifically dedicated to Product Vision.

And if you like presentations instead, here’s a The Product Visioning Workshop framework created by Perfetti Media to help you get started.

This article was created together with András Bozzai as a part of the Grow Together Academy challenge!

IT Project Manager.