Making the most of the mental shift:

Our experience as consultants developing our own products.

We recently took five weeks off from billable work to develop our own products. While we do spend most of our time in a consulting capacity, teaching clients to move from idea to product is one of the most important things we do. Setting aside five weeks to iterate on an idea together allows us to refine our approach and solidify how we communicate product development strategies. Here are some of our deeper learnings from bringing our consulting team together to build products for five weeks.

Our team is geographically separated, split between NYC, Seattle and SF, and we often work remotely over video. For our product push in January & February, we decided to work in-person from a rented Airbnb in SF. When possible, we always prefer an in-person approach as we find communication to be more efficient. We are also quite social, so being around each other is really nice!


Eat Your Own Dogfood

There’s a long held tension between product and consulting, but at Citizen Code, we treat consulting like any other product. In our five week product push, we treated ourselves as a client which helps us to iterate on our own offering. Try doing the same by drawing up a proposal and designating a project lead. Have the lead be responsible for establishing and communicating a structure/flow for the work, keeping people focused, making sure everyone is heard, and delivering on agreed-upon outcomes.

Our team used 101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar to provide a sense of place and direction for our iterations. The book exposes eight “modes” — you can think of these as ‘ways of knowing’ — that help teams build a foundation around an idea. There are several activities for each mode, and also examples of each activity applied to a real product. Our team found Mode 4, Framing Insights, to be particularly helpful as it addressed a problem we’ve experienced for a while, which is that early attachment to a solution can kill idea generation. When framing insights, the goal is to generate as many insights as possible from each observation or learning. Often, you wind up with 100 or more insights from research and a handful of interviews. This mental shift from scoping down to intentional expansion is a great for thinking beyond preconceived solutions.

Take Frequent Breaks

This may come as no surprise, but when you want to collaborate intensely all day for several days in a row, you need to take breaks. Everyone works at a different pace and each person has a different threshold for absorbing different types of information. Some of your team will find an activity energizing while others find their energy sapped by the very same activity. We found it best to institute a ‘call a break when you need one’ rule. It may also be nice to extend a ‘come back when you want’ paired with a ‘the group can start with a couple people missing’ rule. The goal is to find a balance between healthy minds and shared context.

Collaborate on User Research

As you start to develop an understanding of a problem, you’ll want to also understand the people and institutions that relate to that problem. Each member of our consulting team participates in user research. If someone on your team is more comfortable behind the scenes, they can help develop the research plan, schedule interviews, record the audio, take pictures/notes while interviews are in progress or transcribe observations from recordings. If someone wants more direct contact, they can help receive people, lead focus groups, or lead 1–1 interviews. It is important for everyone on the team to stay embedded in direct observation.

The more context you discover together, the deeper and richer your discussions become. It is not uncommon for several members of a team to hear the same interview and interpret it in opposite ways. Make space for these conversations — they help you understand each other’s biases and consider previously hidden opportunities.

Get Uncomfortable

As consultants, we are trained to specialize in a particular skill (or limited set of skills), and to execute with absolute precision. In contrast, bringing an idea to market is not an exact process. You’ll need to work together to get comfortable with ambiguity. It may seem like a small point, but when members of your team are able to be vulnerable around each other, they will share openly, judge respectfully, and iterate through ideas much more effectively.

Don’t forget the importance of emotions when discussing ideas or the opportunities they expose. If you have team members who are inclined to think about ideas only in their area of expertise, pair them with someone of a different skill set for a brainstorming session. You can also be explicit, setting rules of engagement and expectations around understanding bias. Or you could reveal this with a fun exercise: practice general observation by having your team take turns eating yogurt in front of each other and then sharing what they observed. This exercise gives everyone on the team a clear understanding that they are different and that those differences lead to a well-rounded understanding.

Go Back When Needed

There will be one constant as you develop a product: a feeling that you’ve missed a greater opportunity and that you need to explore something else. This feeling intensifies and is disruptive when each member of the team feels this and wants to pull in a different direction. Moving from idea to prototype can take months, years even. As you iterate, changes in technology, politics, the economy or even the home lives of your teammates will influence the proposed direction. You will need to incorporate these shifts while staying true to your original intent. Sometimes, this means incorporating a learning and returning to an earlier stage in the development flow. Some things that make us take a step back are:

  1. We cannot reach anyone in the ecosystem of our idea using traditional means or market research firms.
  2. Insights from our interviews pull us strongly in a different direction.
  3. The opportunities we are considering are not interesting for the team on a personal level.
  4. The proposed solutions take a form that requires resources that are unavailable to us.

As a team, we make hundreds of decisions a day based on what we’re hearing, learning and synthesizing in our conversations about products. We have a good intuition for when to keep on and when to turn back, and we know that intuition is a learned skill. With time and a big dose of humility, being able to distinguish between distractions and opportunities becomes easy.

Great consulting and great product development have more in common that not. Both require massive vision, great execution and the presence of a team who knows how to go between those modes elegantly. The elegance comes in developing soft skills — in understanding the many modes of communication and expression that underpin a robust and valued product.

In five weeks, we built a strong foundation to iterate on as we return to our consulting work. We spent our time researching, interviewing, brainstorming, and have started prototyping a few proposed solutions. If you are interested in seeing a detailed outline of our research as we dialed-in on an idea, we’re always happy to share!