How we prioritise new ideas at Cancer Research UK

Anne Bienia
Oct 15, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

We recently did a bit of work to revamp our ‘business canvas’ — a document we use to capture key information in the early stages of an idea.

I’ve been asked by a few people to share it so here’s a blog post with a bit of background and the template, in the hope that it’s useful to others in this space.

We have four key phases in our delivery model:

  1. Inception
  2. Idea Validation & Discovery
  3. Delivery
  4. Support & Service.

My team (we’re called Strategy & Business Partnering) is mainly involved with Inception which is where we try and understand what problems and opportunities people in CRUK are looking to address (with technology, although often it’s wider than a pure tech initiative).

Articulating ideas so they can flourish (or die) quickly

We use the canvas to quickly articulate ideas on one (okay two) page(s). We are not asking colleagues to create a massive business case at this early stage, because there will often be too many unknowns to do this well. A business case may come later, once a certain level of investment is needed, and once there’s more evidence that this is something that should progress. Or we may find that something isn’t as valuable as we first thought, or it just isn’t the right time to do something now, in which case it would have been a waste of effort to prepare a big business case. We want to move at pace with just enough information to take the next step, pivot, or stop.

CRUK technology business canvas cover sheet
CRUK technology business canvas cover sheet
CRUK technology business canvas cover sheet

One important thing to say is that there is not a lot of original thought in here. We’ve heavily leaned on Jeff Gothelf’s lean UX canvas (he recently launched version 2, I recommend checking it out!) and Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas as well as previous versions of ‘briefing documents’ and similar things we were already using.

But there are a few key differences which are worth calling out:

  • We’ve included a bit of CRUK context and language to make sure it fits well with our ways of working. There is probably still some jargon in here so we will keep improving it.
  • We have a specific field about data because we’ve heard from colleagues that this hasn’t been considered well enough when ideas are shaped.
  • We use this canvas to prioritise ideas. As with most tech teams, there is way more demand for our resources than we can support with, so we’ve developed a framework (very loosely based on the RICE framework) to help us score ideas so we know what to tackle first. This is our way of working out what is most valuable and should float to the top of the ‘To Do’ pile. It’s certainly not perfect and we’re keen to keep iterating it.

Co-creating ideas so we have a shared understanding of them

We don’t just ask colleagues to complete the doc and send it back to us. It’s a shared activity that our Technology Business Partners do with others, sometimes looping in experts from across Tech. It should be just the right balance between quick and thorough, and we’re still working on what exactly that is. We don’t want people to spend ages on filling this in, but we also don’t want it to be taken lightly and become a tick box exercise. We know how important it is to have a good sense of what you’re trying to achieve and why, before you set out to work on it.

Another key point for me is that we use this document to build a shared understanding of the problems or opportunities we’re trying to tackle, and don’t just use it to document one person’s opinion. This is why we work through this together with colleagues, so we’re all on the same page. This may take a few iterations and maybe some tricky conversations. It means the document often is a living and breathing thing for a few weeks, but that’s a good thing!

The most important fields for me personally are the Audience, Outcomes and Insights fields. Who is your idea for? What are you aiming to achieve? And what evidence do you have that this is valuable? Although you could say that all the fields are equally important, it probably depends on who is reading the canvas.

Keeping ideas focused on outcomes so we know we’re delivering value

Using the canvas has really helped us get a better grip on what teams are trying to do. It forces teams to think about outcomes they are trying to achieve, and the value for their users, not just outputs and solutions. Although we do have a field in the canvas for solution ideas because we found it’s best to give people a chance to tell us about their solution ideas rather than try and stop them from doing so, even if those solutions completely change later.

It has been great as a tool to get our colleagues to take a bit of time to really consider an idea and maybe go back and do some more thinking before they come and ask for resource. There will always be more ideas than we can execute — we believe the canvas helps us focus on the ones that are most worth exploring.

I’d be keen to get feedback and suggestions from the outside world, so let me know on Twitter or in a response below.

Cancer Research UK Tech Team Blog

A blog from the Cancer Research UK Technology team about how becoming a more adaptable, resilient and innovative organisation is helping us ensure 3 in 4 people survive cancer by 2034.

Anne Bienia

Written by

Native German happily immigrated to the UK. Pescetarian and amateur surfer. Manage digital strategy at @CR_UK.

Cancer Research UK Tech Team Blog

A blog from the Cancer Research UK Technology team about how becoming a more adaptable, resilient and innovative organisation is helping us ensure 3 in 4 people survive cancer by 2034.

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