Tools for Practice

Building the tools you need to develop a skill will also deepen your understanding of that skill.

The pandemic has offered unprecedented opportunity for reflection and self-improvement. Unsurprisingly, most people don’t see it this way and therefore have failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Upsetting the status quo and the familiar – however slight – leads to a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety for many people. The prospect of getting to know their families or themselves better proves uncomfortable enough to drive people toward bing-watching TV, over-eating, alcohol, or any number of other distractions. Anything to avoid introspection. My theory is that this happens because most people have either lost or never had the skills for self-reflection. External validation is the way of the 21st century. That usually ends up with them expending exorbitant amounts of effort justifying their shortcomings or assigning blame to the nearest face they can put on their problems – an “annoying” partner, an “uncooperative” co-worker, etc.

I also believe it takes very little effort to begin the work of reflection, introspection, and self-improvement. Start simple.

When it was clear the pandemic lock-downs were going to go on longer then the “experts” kept saying – evidenced by the weekly movement of the goal posts – I began to wonder how I might use this newfound flexibility for how I organize time. No longer confined to the hours during which I would normally be in the physical office, I could now complete my 8 hours of work – broken into pieces – at almost at any time during my waking hours. Plus the distance I had to commute back and forth from home and work shrank to an incredibly small fraction of what it used to be. This, too, opened up more time. This change didn’t just occur in my world, but globally. And since everyone else still needed to stay employed, many creative people found ways to continue their professions in a virtual environment. Suddenly, engaging in things of interest but were unattainable because of time and space requirements became available.

I had been wanting to rekindle my interesting in playing cello for years. I hadn’t had a lesson in over 10 years and practice had fallen by the wayside. Now, connecting with an instructor was not only possible, but the number of options had exploded. There are now many on-line videos and instructors available. After a little research, I connected with an instructor in New York City and have been taking weekly lessons for the past three months.

The re-introduction of live music – particularly music that I’m playing – has had a surprisingly positive impact on my disposition. As a card carrying introvert, I thought I’d been handling the pandemic lock down pretty well, especially when compared to many of my peers. Yet this small change, focused on personal development, brought warmth and light to mid-winter days.

So that’s the back story. Now that I’m in the groove again with playing cello, I can describe several things about this experience that I’ve learned with respect to practice, particularly deliberate practice.

Along with playing cello, I wanted to deepen my understanding of music theory and learn how to sight read music. During one of my lessons, the instructor and I kicked around the idea of using flash cards. The card would show a single note and the student would play that note. Searching later for such an application was unsuccessful. It probably exists, but it wasn’t something I wanted to spend more than 30 minutes trying to find.

All the flash card programs I looked at are designed to teach things in a question – answer format. They work well for subjects like history or learning a new language. But nothing that would simply show a new card after a time delay. So I wrote my own program to accomplish this. In the process, I developed my understanding of the cello’s range of notes and music keys in general. Here’s a screen capture of the first iteration’s MVP:

At an adjustable interval, a new note within the cello’s range is displayed in the selected key. For my skill level, this is immensely challenging. And I can tell it is developing my skills for sight reading and quickly finding a particular note on the instrument.

Developing tools like this is second nature to me and the result of many years of experience working with wood and solving business problems with software. Each of these activities has a tenet that if you can’t find a tool you need, you build what you need from scratch. This tenet is all the more powerful by having stewed in the mindsets associated with hand tools and open source software. In a very real sense, creating tools that support acquiring a new skill are part of the practice. To build an effective tool, you must fully understand the problem it is intended to solve. An effective tool is the result of having asked and answered many good questions. And, of course, all this is driven by an Agile mindset (iterations, tests, experiments, redesign, retest, etc.) design thinking, and understanding the context in which the tool will be used (systems thinking.)

 

Image by endri yana yana from Pixabay

How to Know You Have a Well Defined Minimum Viable Product

Conceptually, the idea of a minimum viable product (MVP) is easy to grasp. Early in a project, it’s a deliverable that reflects some semblance to the final product such that it’s barely able to stand on it’s own without lots of hand-holding and explanation for the customer’s benefit. In short, it’s terrible, buggy, and unstable. By design, MVPs lack features that may eventually prove to be essential to the final product. And we deliberately show the MVP to the customer!

We do this because the MVP is the engine that turns the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The key here is the “learn” phase. The essential features to the final product are often unclear or even unknown early in a project. Furthermore, they are largely undefinable or unknowable without multiple iterations through the build-measure-learn feedback cycle with the customer early in the process.

So early MVPs aren’t very good. They’re also not very expensive. This, too, is by design because an MVP’s very raison d’être is to test the assumptions we make early on in a project. They are low budget experiments that follow from a simple strategy:

  1. State the good faith assumptions about what the customer wants and needs.
  2. Describe the tests the MVP will satisfy that are capable of measuring the MVP’s impact on the stated assumptions.
  3. Build an MVP that tests the assumptions.
  4. Evaluate the results.

If the assumptions are not stated and the tests are vague, the MVP will fail to achieve it’s purpose and will likely result in wasted effort.

The “product” in “minimum viable product” can be almost anything: a partial or early design flow, a wireframe, a collection of simulated email exchanges, the outline to a user guide, a static screen mock-up, a shell of screen panels with placeholder text that can nonetheless be navigated – anything that can be placed in front of a customer for feedback qualifies as an MVP. In other words, a sprint can contain multiple MVPs depending on the functional groups involved with the sprint and the maturity of the project. As the project progresses, the individual functional group MVPs will begin to integrate and converge on larger and more refined MVPs, each gaining in stability and quality.

MVPs are not an end unto themselves. They are tangible evidence of the development process in action. The practice of iteratively developing MVPs helps develop to skill of rapid evaluation and learning among product owners and agile delivery team members. A buggy, unstable, ugly, bloated, or poorly worded MVP is only a problem if it’s put forward as the final product. The driving goal behind iterative MVPs is not perfection, rather it is to support the process of learning what needs to be developed for the optimal solution that solves the customer’s problems.

“Unlike a prototype or concept test, an MVP is designed not just to answer product design or technical questions. Its goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

So how might product owners and Agile teams begin to get a handle on defining an MVP? There are several questions the product owner and team can ask of themselves, in light of the product backlog, that may help guide their focus and decisions. (Use of the following term “stakeholders” can mean company executives or external customers.)

  • Identify the likely set of stakeholders who will be attending the sprint review. What will these stakeholders need to see so that they can offer valuable feedback? What does the team need to show in order to spark the most valuable feedback from the stakeholders?
  • What expectations have been set for the stakeholders?
  • Is the distinction clear between what the stakeholders want vs what they need?
  • Is the distinction clear between high and low value? Is the design cart before the value horse?
  • What are the top two features or functions the stakeholders  will be expecting to see? What value – to the stakeholders – will these features or functions deliver?
  • Will the identified features or functions provide long term value or do they risk generating significant rework down the road?
  • Are the identified features or functions leveraging code, content, or UI/UX reuse?

Recognizing an MVP – Less is More

Since an MVP can be almost anything,  it is perhaps easier to begin any conversation about MVPs by touching on the elements missing from an MVP.

An MVP is not a quality product. Using any generally accepted definition of “quality” in the marketplace, an MVP will fail on all accounts. Well, on most accounts. The key is to consider relative quality. At the beginning of a sprint, the standards of quality for an MVP are framed by the sprint goals and objectives. If it meets those goals, the team has successfully created a quality MVP. If measured against the external marketplace or the quality expectations of the customer, the MVP will almost assuredly fail inspection.

Your MVPs will probably be ugly, especially at first. They will be missing features. They will be unstable. Build them anyway. Put them in front of the customer for feedback. Learn. And move on to the next MVP. Progressively, they will begin to converge on the final product that is of high quality in the eyes of the customer. MVPs are the stepping stones that get you across the development stream and to the other side where all is sunny, beautiful, and stable. (For more information on avoiding the trap of presupposing what a customer means by quality and value, see “The Value of ‘Good Enough…For Now’“)

An MVP is not permanent. Agile teams should expect to throw away several, maybe even many, MVPs on their way to the final product. If they aren’t, then it is probable they are not learning what they need to about what the customer actually wants. In this respect, waste can be a good, even important thing. The driving purpose of the MVP is to rapidly develop the team’s understanding of what the customer needs, the problems they are expecting to have solved, and the level of quality necessary to satisfy each of these goals.

MVPs are not the truth. They are experiments meant to get the team to the truth. By virtue of their low-quality, low-cost nature, MVPs quickly shake out the attributes to the solution the customer cares about and wants. The solid empirical foundation they provide is orders of magnitude more valuable to the Agile team than any amount of speculative strategy planning or theoretical posturing.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

The Value of “Good Enough…for Now”

Any company interested in being successful, whether offering a product or service, promises quality to its customers. Those that don’t deliver, die away. Those that do, survive. Those that deliver quality consistently, thrive. Seems like easy math. But then, 1 + 1 = 2 seems like easy math until you struggle through the 350+ pages Whitehead and Russell1 spent on setting up the proof for this very equation. Add the subjective filters for evaluating “quality” and one is left with a measure that can be a challenge to define in any practical way.

Math aside, when it comes to quality, everyone “knows it when they see it,” usually in counterpoint to a decidedly non-quality experience with a product or service. The nature of quality is indeed chameleonic – durability, materials, style, engineering, timeliness, customer service, utility, aesthetics – the list of measures is nearly endless. Reading customer reviews can reveal a surprising array of criteria used to evaluate the quality for a single product.

The view from within the company, however, is even less clear. Businesses often believe they know quality when they see it. Yet that belief is often predicate on how the organization defines quality, not how their customers define quality. It is a definition that is frequently biased in ways that accentuate what the organization values, not necessarily what the customer values.

Organization leaders may define quality too high, such that their product or service can’t be priced competitively or delivered to the market in a timely manner. If the high quality niche is there, the business might succeed. If not, the business loses out to lower priced competitors that deliver products sooner and satisfy the customer’s criteria for quality (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Quality Mismatch I
Figure 1. Quality Mismatch I

Certainly, there is a case that can be made for providing the highest quality possible and developing the business around that niche. For startups and new product development, this may not be be best place to start.

On the other end of the spectrum, businesses that fall short of customer expectations for quality suffer incremental, or in some cases catastrophic, reputation erosion. Repairing or rebuilding a reputation for quality in a competitive market is difficult, maybe even impossible (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Quality Mismatch II
Figure 2. Quality Mismatch II

The process for defining quality on the company side of the equation, while difficult, is more or less deliberate. Not so on the customer side. Customers often don’t know what they mean by “quality” until they have an experience that fails to meet their unstated, or even unknown, expectations. Quality savvy companies, therefore, invest in understanding what their customers mean by “quality” and plan accordingly. Less guess work, more effort toward actual understanding.

Furthermore, looking to what the competition is doing may not be the best strategy. They may be guessing as well. It may very well be that the successful quality strategy isn’t down the path of adding more bells and whistles that market research and focus groups suggest customers want. Rather, it may be that improvements in existing features and services are more desirable.

Focus on being clear about whether or not potential customers value the offered solution and how they define value. When following an Agile approach to product development, leveraging minimum viable product definitions can help bring clarity to the effort. With customer-centric benchmarks for quality in hand, companies are better served by first defining quality in terms of “good enough” in the eyes of their customers and then setting the internal goal a little higher. This will maximize internal resources (usually time and money) and deliver a product or service that satisfies the customer’s idea of “quality.”

Case in point: Several months back, I was assembling several bar clamps and needed a set of cutting tools used to put the thread on the end of metal pipes – a somewhat exotic tool for a woodworker’s shop. Shopping around, I could easily drop $300 for a five star “professional” set or $35 for a set that was rated to be somewhat mediocre. I’ve gone high end on many of the tools in my shop, but in this case the $35 set was the best solution for my needs. Most of the negative reviews revolved around issues with durability after repeated use. My need was extremely limited and the “valuable and good enough” threshold was crossed at $35. The tool set performed perfectly and more than paid for itself when compared with the alternatives, whether that be a more expensive tool or my time to find a local shop to thread the pipes for me. This would not have been the case for a pipefitter or someone working in a machine shop.

By understanding where the “good enough and valuable” line is, project and organization leaders are in a better position to evaluate the benefits of incremental improvements to core products and services that don’t break the bank or burn out the people tasked with delivering the goods. Of course, determining what is “good enough” depends on the end goal. Sending a rover to Mars, “good enough” had better be as near to perfection as possible. Threading a dozen pipes for bar clamps used in a wood shop can be completed quite successful with low quality tools that are “good enough” to get the job done.

Addendum

I’ve been giving some more thought to the idea of “good enough” as one of the criteria for defining minimum viable/valuable products. What’s different is that I’ve started to use the phrase “good enough for now.” Reason being, the phrase “good enough” seems to imply an end state. “Good enough” is an outcome. If it is early in a project, people generally have a problem with that. They have some version of an end state that is a significant mismatch with the “good enough” product today. The idea of settling for “good enough” at this point makes it difficult for them to know when to stop work on an interim phase and collect feedback.

“Good enough for now” implies there is more work to be done and the product isn’t in some sort of finished state that they’ll have to settle for. “Good enough for now” is a transitory state in the process. I’m finding that I can more easily gain agreement that a story is finished and get people to move forward to the next “good enough for now” by including the time qualifier.

References

1Volume 1 of Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell (Cambridge University Press, page 379). The proof was actually not completed until Volume 2. (This article cross-posted at LinkedIn.)