What Is an MVP?

John Cutler

So! You have arrived at this post for the definitive MVP definition. The definition to rule them all. An answer to your pent up MVP angst. The “I TOLD YOU SO!” fodder for your Slack #product-articles cannon.

I am here to disappoint you. Here’s the deal. You need to have a conversation with your team. This is one of those things where five people can read the same article and walk away with very different definitions. Experience is everything. After thousands of posts, talks, and books, we aren’t getting closer. We may be getting further away.

So you need a new tactic. A conversation.

Try this:

Introduction: 5 minutes

  1. Get your team in a room. The whole team. Stickies. Sharpies.
  2. “Team, we’re going to spend ninety minutes coming up with a working definition of an MVP. It doesn’t need to be perfect. As we learn more about what works here, we can adapt it accordingly. Before we start, does anyone want to continue the circular debates and passive aggressive blog-post-with-infographic Slack mic-drops?”
  3. Hopefully, no one raises their hand.

Individual brainstorming: 5 minutes

  1. “Individually, I’d like you to spend three minutes brainstorming the following question: if this MVP thing is working and providing value for our customers, our teams, and for you individually, what will become possible? What will we observe? Be as specific as possible. If you don’t particularly like the idea, forget the concept altogether and talk about what it SHOULD do.”
  2. 3 minutes of silent brainstorming.

Pair discussion and sharing: 25 minutes

  1. “Please pair with another team member. Spending five minutes comparing your notes. Note where observations converge, and where they diverge.”
  2. 5 minutes of boisterous conversation.
  3. “OK. Great. Can each pair talk us through their discussion? While you do, I’ll do some affinitizing here on the whiteboard.”
  4. 15 minutes of sharing. Clusters form on the whiteboard.
  5. “Thanks. I’d like everyone to spend three minutes reviewing what is here on the board. We have some areas of convergence, and some areas of divergence.”
  6. 3 minutes of perusing the board.
  7. “Now that you can see this is all in one place, does anyone think we are missing something? It is entirely possible that we overlooked something.”
  8. If someone mentions something, note it.

Recap: 5 minutes

  1. “OK, let’s recap. We agree about some things. We disagree about some other things. It is probably safe to say that some disagreements are more like healthy tensions we must navigate, and other disagreements are showstoppers. We need to work through them.”

Areas of agreement and healthy tension: 15 minutes

  1. “For the stuff we seem to agree on, let’s do a simple exercise. Fill in the blanks. Here at Acme, we hire MVPs to help us [positive, helpful outcomes], but not to [agreed upon negative outcomes]. OK. Just shout some out and we can craft them together.”
  2. Team offers some ideas. Fill in blanks.
  3. “For the health tension stuff, let’s do something similar. Fill in the blanks. Here at Acme, when we use MVPs, we know there will be a healthy tension between [one aspect] and [another aspect]. To make sure to keep this tension healthy and valuable, we agree to [things you’ll do to keep tension focused on better outcomes and happiness]”.
  4. Team offers some ideas. Fill in blanks.

Showstoppers: 5 minutes

  1. “OK, this leaves areas of showstopper disagreement. Seeing all the stuff we agree on, and agree to disagree on, does anyone feel strongly that these are real showstoppers? Do they stop us making progress today?”
  2. Hopefully, this is a non-issue. If not, you’ll need to make progress towards some sort of resolution. Often, these are trust issues. There’s general agreement on the “theory”, but people do not trust that the details will be resolved. If blocked, propose you move forward and experiment with the exercise.

Concrete Actions: 15 minutes

  1. “Up here on the board, we have a series of statements that describe what we are ‘hiring’ MVPs to do here at Acme. MVPs work for us, not the other way around. We can fire them. We can redesign them.”
  2. “We have our Why. What are some concrete actions we can take while working on [some effort] to make sure we are in alignment with these ideas? Form groups based on who is working on what, and have this discussion for around ten minutes. Note your actions. Tip…none of these actions are set in stone. They are experiments meant to achieve our Why.”
  3. Team collaborates for ten minutes, and lists action items.
  4. “We are running short on time, so we don’t have time to fully share our action items, but does anyone have some examples?”
  5. Brief sharing.

Conclusion

  1. “OK. Thanks everyone. I’ll capture these notes in a one-pager and share it with everyone. I appreciate your participation. And remember, this is a starting point. Let’s keep iterating. I’ll put something on the your calendars a month from now, and we’ll do a retro on our MVP-ish efforts. We can change our one-pager.”

John Cutler

Written by

Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.

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