How to start a project, when nobody knows anything? Kick-off workshop & tools overview

All we know is that we basically don’t know anything anymore. A bit of frustration appears, loss, and insecurity what to do next. The boss or clients begin to become slightly impatient and we are back with following questions or try to collect the necessary information from various departments in order to arrange our knowledge. Time gets shorter and we still don’t know where to start our project, how to survive in the chaos and not die…

Sounds familiar?

Chin up — you are not alone! As if that will cheer anybody up… :P

During one of my recent workshops a participant asked “what would you like to learn?” answered “how to survive in the chaos and not die” — that question was repeated several times.

A similar one appeared also during our researches of subjects carried out in order to prepare the agenda for DesignWays Conf — what to do when we get information from various sources, at different times, the goals and priorities become blurred, and the same goes for responsibility which more and more often seems to fall only on you, how to start working on such a project?

Working “in chaos” is the norm. Accept it.

I intentionally wrote “chaos” in quotation marks. For a few years now I work on projects handled mainly in a lean manner (Lean Startup & Lean UX) where the level of uncertainty is very high and the number of information which appears from various sources may be immense, but primarily depends on how fast the team can assimilate it.

Therefore, the state of “informational chaos” is permanent and… in my opinion, not that bad — after all, the more information we have the better. However, this emphasizes even more why one of the more important skills of a UX designer [UX Consultant, UX Strategist — enter a different position name depending on the company] for me consists not as much in the sole designing but the ability to manage information and moderate the process.

The client/boss approaches with a simple project…

Coming back — many projects start in a similar manner…

The client/boss/Product Owner approaches us with a, seemingly, simple project.

We begin to collect information, expectations, execute researches and… it turns out that the vision of the main concept changes, some things cannot be done or it is not profitable to execute them, additional requirements appear, as do contradictory information, and the list of priorities becomes blurred. You know the rest — the project is not as simple as it looked.

Even a properly ordered process won’t speed up your work like a workshop will

You can perfect your process, create constantly new artifacts, which will order your knowledge, but that won’t completely solve the problem of time needed to gather information, problems with priorities and responsibility, or contradictory information.

Whereas, perhaps a meeting of all stakeholders or people possessing necessary knowledge in one location, where you may exchange that knowledge and determine the needs as well as priorities, can do it?

Instead of collecting information on my own — I organize a workshop to which I invite the entire team in order to mutually determine our and the project’s goals, talk about the target group, problems, needs, exchange knowledge, determine the action plan, potential risks, and priorities.

And all of that in a much shorter time than when I would do it on my own.

Time stands for specific things — workshop tools

So — let’s set a date and invite all to our workshop (the client, users, or domain specialists, designers, developers, Customer Service, marketing, etc.), but what then? How can such a workshop look like and what tools to use in order to stimulate the team to work together?

Below you may find my subjective list of tools and a plan with links to additional materials.

Let the game begin!

1. Workshop goal & Business goal

I start every meeting with presenting my goal — clearly communicating where did the need come from, what do I want to leave the workshop with, and what impact is it going to have on the work of the team. I constantly remember about my goal, controlling whether we are executing it in the course of the workshop.

I also ask the person behind the idea for a few words concerning the idea and business goal.

I write the Business goal clearly on a piece of paper so that it is visible throughout the entire meeting.

2. We introduce ourselves — Team Canvas (http://theteamcanvas.com/)

Then I invite the entire team to introduce itself, asking not only for their names but also a short description of what they do, how can they help with the projects, and what is their goal.

This round may be carried out in a standard manner, for example “creeping poison” but with larger teams (5+) I ask to provide answers first on paper and pasting them on a shared Team Canvas — this allows to order the knowledge concerning the entire team, sources of knowledge, level of commitment, etc. and is also useful in long-term projects.

Tool description, materials, and exercise plan may be found at: http://theteamcanvas.com/

3. Business context — Lean Canvas

Regardless of the idea’s advancement level I rarely handle the issue of the solution itself during the initial workshop — I try to focus on the business context and unify the knowledge of the team in terms of the target group, its problems, as well as identify what constitutes our knowledge, and what a hypothesis, or assumption.

For that purpose I almost always take advantage of Lean Canvas (there is also an equally popular Business Model Canvas but I like LC more because it serves its role better in case of highly innovative products at their early stages of development. An interesting article on it may be found here).

Lean Canvas prepared by our team may be downloaded here.

4. We broaden the knowledge about the users — (proto) personas, Value Proposition Canvas, User Journey

Regardless whether researches were conducted or the knowledge concerning users is based on assumptions, I usually try to unify it with the team by creating (proto) personas.

The form of the persona depends on the project and whether during the following workshop we will take advantage of additional tools such as Customer Journey Map/User Journey, if I want to understand that persona’s manner of thinking and path it takes, or Value Proposition Canvas in order to better understand what is important for that persona and how may we provide it with values — if not, then I include some VPC elements in the persona’s outline.

My template consists in for example the following elements:

  • name, photo, age, short bio
  • goals, wishes
  • values, what is important for it
  • its problems, obstacles (in order to broaden the knowledge included in this point I often take advantage of the 5 Whys method — perfectly described here).

If the workshop is carried out in a stationary manner — for most tasks I use post-its and flipcharts.

Whereas, a nice tool for creating personas online: https://xtensio.com/

Value Proposition Canvas prepared by our team can be downloaded here.

And for creating Customer Journey Map & User Journey I use https://www.draw.io/

5. We define the MVP — User Stories & Priority Matrix

After the initial phase we should prioritize the problems and select the most important ones which we want to solve and which we assume to be so painful that the user is willing to pay for solving them. I usually try to initially select on, or two tops.

There are a few methods of creating MVP concepts. One of them bases on user stories and Priority Matrix.

If we didn’t do it before — then it is worth to translate the goals and tasks of our persona into so called “user stories” (a nice article on user stories and building MVP basing on them can be found here).

User stories base on the following format:

  • As a [persona]
  • I want [to do what? task/goal to be achieved],
  • in order to [profit — what will the persona gain thanks to this?].

During the workshop all it takes is to write an outline on a flipchart and ask to fill the blanks with sticky notes. Whereas when working online I use Google Sheets.

Then comes the time to choose where we will start to act and what constitutes our MVP.

That is why it is good to take advantage of a matrix, for example the Eisenhower’s matrix or Priority Matrix. Priority Matrix consists of two axes — the first one determines the significance, and the second one the resources we need to solve a given problem (time, financial resources, etc.).

User Stories highest on the significance axis and lowest on the resources one are the ones which it is good to consider as MVP.

6. Highest risks and the plan for further actions

During all exercises we focus on points which constitute unverified assumptions and we try to ask questions.

  • “and what if that turned out not to be true?”
  • “what impact would it have on the project?”

Some mark such elements during exercises with red dots/pieces of paper. I list them on separate post-its and set them aside so it is possible to easily prioritize them in the end.

The final step consists in creating an action plan and… contrary to popular belief this is not an execution of the sole MVP. I start with going together through the list of risks and thinking how we can verify the biggest ones — after all, if they would turn out to be true the entire following plan fails.

During workshops we use pieces of paper because it is easier to rearrange them, while later they usually appear in the form of an action plan in Google Sheets.

And that is the end of our workshop — we commission tasks among ourselves and start to act! After all, we have things to do!

But wait! I… almost never design the agenda for the workshops.

But how can it be that I’ve shared the plan and tools with you and now say that I never plan the workshops?

Similarly as before in terms of “working in chaos”, also now concerning working during a workshop — we get a lot of information which should have an impact on our project, and we should adjust to that information.

The workshop operates in a similar manner — I have my “toolbox” — I’ve shared just a few tools with you because there is a multitude of them (and over the course of conducting workshops you will surely build your own) — the most important thing is to know what we want to achieve and… take advantage of any tools to get the desired result.

After all, a team workshop is a tool in itself, and one which allows to launch a project.


Would you like to organise such a workshop for your company or just to talk about your process? Send us an email to joanna (at) projectpeople.pl or find me on LinkedIn!

Joanna Ostafin, Head of design & Co-founder at Project: People | Lean UX lover ❤

Project: People (www.projectpeople.pl) is a lean strategy agency. We don’t have an offer. We are working on problems and needs our customers have.