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How to Assemble a Product Design/Vision A-Team

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One of the most popular shows on American television in the mid-1980s was The A-Team. The show—which made Mr. T a superstar and was, in retrospect, awful—was about a group of Vietnam-war veterans on the run from the law for a crime they didn’t commit. Each episode introduced a mission featuring a person in desperate need of the A-Team’s assistance. The team, four former members of the U.S. Army Special Forces, would find their way to the person in need and develop a creative way to help (usually involving booby traps and makeshift explosives), all while evading capture from the long arm of the law. Got a problem with an unruly biker gang harassing your customers, or a crooked small-town sheriff who unjustly imprisoned your boyfriend? Bring in the A-Team!

Each of the four members of the A-Team served a specific function in order to successfully accomplish their missions. Murdock, who had to be broken out of a mental institution before each mission, was an expert pilot who would transport the team and their gear. B. A. (which stood for bad attitude) was the mechanic, demolitions specialist, and muscle. Face was the smooth-talking con artist. Lastly, the team leader, strategist, and master of disguise was Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, who also had the honor of saying his catchphrase in every episode: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Your teammates in product vision won’t be breaking people out of medium-security prisons or assembling cabbage cannons out of duct tape and spare parts, but each team member must bring specific strengths to the important roles they play. Before the team can be assembled, you, as the strategic designer, must present a proposal that persuades the bean counters and corner-office dwellers of the value of developing a proper product vision (Figure 4.1). Going through a proposal exercise is important because it evaluates whether an idea is worthy of a full product vision effort and subsequently, a Visioneering endeavor.

FIGURE 4.1

FIGURE 4.1 You Are Here, the proposal.

This chapter will cover the nuts and bolts of getting started and forming your team:

  • Crafting the proposal

  • Making the pitch

  • Covering team skill sets

  • Establishing the team contract, working agreement, and values

  • Creating a laboratory environment

  • Getting into a team rhythm

The “Get Started” Proposal

It’s time to start preparing a proposal for a product vision when an intriguing idea either pops into your head or lands in your lap. Most commonly, an idea will come to you when your strategic design instincts kick in to detect a substantially better potential future state for an existing product, or you intuitively sense the need for an entirely new product. But what could also happen is the business will gift the designer an idea. With any gifted idea, proceed with caution. When the gift comes from a business peer, that’s a great sign. They are looking at you, the strategic designer, as a collaborative partner. But, when a senior business stakeholder dangles an idea in front of you, with guaranteed funding—know that gifted idea comes with strings. It may seem like you won the lottery, but really that stakeholder is enlisting you to bring their idea to life, as they specifically imagine it (pixel for pixel) rather than asking you to evaluate and explore the idea to see if it has merit. However, when a business peer has a spark of an idea and asks you to help—dive in! This is a great sign the dynamics between design and business are progressing towards a truly collaborative partnership.

In all of these scenarios, it’s important to first lay the groundwork that explains the need for a product vision. Make the argument to the decision makers that without an aspirational yet achievable endpoint in mind, any project is unlikely to reach a meaningful destination. Once this argument is successful, the concept of creating a product vision usually makes sense to everyone.

Find some trusted allies to help—maybe another designer who’s a naturally innovative thinker, a developer who can speak to technical opportunities on the horizon, or a copywriter who can craft some compelling content. Get them to commit to spending a few days helping you. If necessary, however, as a strategic designer you are capable and well equipped to go it alone. Hey, forging the less taken path, solo, is nothing we designers haven’t done a hundred times before. You’re an adventurer with a steadfast sense of independence equipped with a superpower: the ability to envision the future. Whether you’re going it solo or with a small group, it’s critical that you time-box this proposal effort: try not to spend more than one workweek (40 hours) putting this together. One reason not to spend too much time is that you don’t have backing yet, which could start you off on the wrong foot with the bean counters. Remember, the proposal is not the be-all, end-all—that’s what the product vision process is for. The goal of your proposal is to get leadership to sign-off on the body of work, which can be achieved in any way that inspires trust, creates excitement and motivates the people in charge to give the green light. Any way you choose to get there, the project you propose to embark upon should

  • Be transformative

  • Make a difference in the lives of your customers

  • Help your business achieve its goals

The Five-Slide Deck

The five-slide deck is a useful proposal format. This five-slide deck is persuasive, inspiring, and action oriented. As you write, keep your audience (the stakeholders) top of mind. This will help with tone. It also never hurts to add a glossy cover at this stage; slather the cover in on-brand-flavored eye candy that will hook those stakeholders’ attention from the start. The content on the cover should include a project description, contact information, and date.

Here are the topics of the five slides:

  1. How might we do things differently?

  2. Statement of intent

  3. Mood board

  4. Requested staff

  5. Commitment

Slide 1: How Might We Do Things Differently?

The topmost slide presents the proposed idea(s) or theory. It should present a need to address with an existing product or a pitch to invent something brand-new. Label the effort as either “a serious issue” OR “a great opportunity.”

Opportunity: New Product

A spark of a new product idea is undoubtedly exciting. But keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. The spark needs to be rooted in an opportunity, however loose:

  • Is there an emerging market that the company could benefit from?

  • Is a new demand surfacing, or is the current demand shifting?

  • Has new research produced a gem of an insight into your customer base and their unmet needs?

The slide should touch on the benefit for both the target audience and the business itself. Use your unique ability to think from a user’s perspective and solve those user problems (while keeping the business goals top of mind) to illustrate that you’re solving for two sides of the coin. Check in with colleagues about your great idea and see whether it resonates, and whether it has already been tried. If others are excited, it might be worth pursuing.

Issue: Product Vision Deficit

Instead of undertaking a new product, you might propose to tackle an established product with product vision deficit (more about this in Chapter 8, “Building Your Visioneering Practice”)

A product or service with product vision deficit can be easily identified. In the most obvious cases, an offering’s product vision deficit stems from a lack of upfront strategy work, resulting in a flawed product vision. These products lack clear business objectives, vaguely address user problems and misalign with their company’s mission. Look for the teams lost in a “feature factory,” working in circles, and often carelessly heading off in any direction. More often with highly-skilled teams, product vision deficit simply means the offering has most—or even all—strategic elements addressed up front, but the team didn’t then translate the strategy into a proper product vision.

Slide 2: Statement of Intent

Discuss the relevance of your idea and how you intend to proceed. At a very high level, make your argument as to how the opportunity aligns with the company’s North Star (mission, purpose, and brand values).

While preparing your five-slide presentation, you may be surprised to learn that the corporate mission (what your company does) and purpose (why they do it) are unclear or even left undefined. Sadly, this is more common than you might think at many large and established businesses. Do your best to gather the information; get as close as you can to defining mission and purpose by speaking to leaders throughout the business. You may hear some conflicting information coming from different members of the executive team based on their own goals and perspectives. Remember the audience for whom you’re producing the presentation and do your best to align with the mission and purpose that keeps them engaged.

You may want to address past project(s) that failed in the same vein. Simply list those efforts and briefly talk to why those past efforts, while well intended, failed because of reasons x, y, and z. Explain why the company is now in a better position to succeed (because of timing, technology, or internal talent). And despite those failed efforts’ shortcomings, it never hurts to give credit where it’s due. Give credit to previous teams whose good thinking now benefits this new endeavor. Frame any analysis fairly, and do not—repeat, do not—throw any colleagues under the bus. Whether those contributors are still employed at the company or have since long gone, slandering others’ work is a bad look and will come back to bite you.

Slide 3: Mood Board

This slide leverages your visual communication superpower to assemble an inspirational mood board. In fact, you may want to create the content for this slide first. Showing stakeholders “What if . . . ”, is a great way to pique the audience’s interest and get them seeing things differently. Intended as a conversation starter, your ability to give stakeholders a glimpse into the future will have the entire room on the edge of their seats. Success will provoke endless remarks: “Oh! and what if the future of our offerings went something like this?” The mood board can show a collage of competitive offerings, cutting-edge technologies, and high-level images of potential services, interfaces, and interactions designed to deliver measurable customer and business value. Stick to your time box here, and importantly, don’t overdesign this section. Your intention is to whet your audience’s appetite and get them inspired to take the next step by committing to a proper vision initiative.

Slide 4: Requested Staff

It’s time to think about who else you might enlist in your vision quest. At the end of the day, every project is at the mercy of the competence of a team and their working chemistry. An A-Team whose core members have both high expertise and working chemistry is special. That special makeup will better overcome obstacles and will collectively raise the bar—but is not so easy to come by. If you can assemble that team, most stakeholders can be persuaded to let them further investigate a fledgling idea that they themselves can’t quite wrap their heads around—putting faith in the team’s abilities over their own faith in the idea. Request the people you believe are a great fit for the BEDRC core roles (business, engineering, design, research, and content; more on that later in this chapter). On this slide, list each team member and a handful of bullet points to distinguish their unique attributes that qualify the individual for the intended core role on the team. Include their responsibilities and note each individual’s experience level with relevant accomplishments. Alongside each person’s primary role, include a supporting secondary strength. In the end, you may not get exactly the team you’re requesting, but it’s best to start by asking for who you believe you’ll need to do the best work possible.

Slide 5: Commitment

Now that you have stakeholders on the hook, salivating over the possibilities, it’s time for the ask. Make like Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character in Jerry Maguire: “Show. Me. The money!” Don’t leave it to stakeholders to decide your project’s fate. Each product vision effort asks for a commitment from stakeholders for “funding.” Similar to the startup pitching investors for seed stage funding, the team will be asking for dedicated time to accomplish their goals. An acceptable time range should be anywhere between six and ten weeks, which translates to three and five sprints, with each sprint being a two-week increment. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the time needed. Also, don’t forget outside costs, such as those connected to research studies. To estimate properly, evaluate both the team’s level of expertise and the volume of research that needs to be done. Even a highly efficient team with exceptional skill and momentum will likely need the full 10 weeks if the project is starting from scratch with no research done.

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