A simple set of questions to remove ambiguity, build team alignment and prioritize
This method is directly inspired by Simon Sinek Golden Circle’s book and start with why method.
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
- Simon Sinek
The method is simple: the team will answer each question individually (Why?, Who?, What?, How?). Some back and forth will most certainly happen between the questions as new ideas surfaced, and alignment is created.
This method generates engagement and high-quality discussions within the cross-functional team.
The outcome of this activity is simple: picture four zen-like slides containing one or two sentences or one schema of crystal clear, precise and easy to understand content that summarizes the current team alignment and next steps.
When to use this method?
The absolute minimum to use this method is a cross-disciplinary team assembled and ready to tackle a roughly defined problem. This method is particularly useful when thinking or exploring product feasibility.
Ideally, you can bring to the first session an alpha or beta version of the materials that you use inside your organization to define a product — for instance, a product or project brief, a press-release, an issue.
I believe that the questions’ order, from the circle’s center to the circle’s exterior, is the best possible one.
If you already had a session or have lots of great answers for some of the questions, it may be tempting (especially for a PM!) to skip the question altogether and optimize for time.
Resist the temptation to go fast! Remember that the primary goal of this activity is team alignment. Team alignment is never built by taking shortcuts, avoiding discussions or limiting interactions. Use this time to repeat the key messages, test their validity and make sure everyone understands them and is completely aligned.
This process is iterative: you may need more than one session to get to the bottom of all the questions. Each session builds on the precedent. Between sessions, the team will have time to think about the findings, gather data, validate the various hypothesis.
Depending on the ambiguity level of the product you are working on, one or more one hour sessions spaced by a few days works best. Each session can impact previously discussed answers: do not hesitate to come back and refine the previous answers to these questions so that they reflect the current team alignment.
Who to invite?
You should invite the cross-functional product team. In lots of organizations, this is the so-called trifecta whose goal is to ensure that the product will be usable, feasible and desirable.
Feel free to invite passionate stakeholders, especially if they like to shape-up the work and contribute directly to the project. This is an excellent opportunity for them to weight-in and influences the team’s way of thinking about a problem space. If they remain silent, take this as a confirmation that the team is aligned with their views. The more they weight-in, the more they have strong opinions or valid contention points with the current team thinking and mental models for this product.
It is critical to have subject-matter experts in the meeting. If you do not have one of these experts on the team, find one and invite her/him. Deep expertise about the problem-space will help the team understand the problem and build a shared context about the product.
Data-scientists are also a great addition to the team. They are passionate about data, know existing data-sets, reports, dashboards and will help the team move rapidly from opinion-based discussion to data-informed discussion. During the session, they can analyze existing data and even create just in time rough queries to provide rapid answers to the team questions.
These sessions should be as intellectually stimulating as possible. Multiple points of view and expertise are key to produce such an environment. You should limit the attendance to 5–7 people maximum.
As a PM, you know that you can not please everyone.
Why do we want to build this product?
Why is the most important and critical question. Take the time to write a mission statement for your project. Why are you doing it?
It can also be useful to answer the whitespace question: Why should we not build this product? Being the devil’s advocate will force you to consider all the potential risks and issues with your product and help the team align.
Less is more for your why: aim for a single sentence. Two at most.
The five-why framework
A beneficial method to help answer this question is the five-whys framework. Ideally, you want to spend time in the world of first-principles. If you are more familiar or want to use any root-cause analysis framework, go for it!
Ethical and legal
Is it especially important to clarify and agree on all the ethical and legal aspects impacted by the product? Do not hide non-ethical or borderline-ethical impacts. Make sure you address them in-depth with the team: this is a good and healthy discussion. Ethical questions are crucial whether your product affects a single user (start-up) or millions or even billions of people.
You can often start with a sentence and write it on the whiteboard or collaborative whiteboard if some team-members are remote. Make sure everyone in the team can contribute and is OK with it before moving to the next question.
Don’t aim for perfection but for what I would call a “good enough” agreement within the team. Certain words or verbs could be debatable at this stage. Once you have a sentence that everyone can relate to: you are ready to move to the next step. Don’t get too attached to this first formulation: this first sentence will most certainly change later on as the team answers the other questions.
Who are we building this product for?
Depending on your organization, you either have lots of customers (established company) or none at all (start-up pre-product-market fit). If you are in a hyper-growth unicorn, you may have both problems at the same time.
Answering this question is critical to provide the team with a clear focus. A clear answer will remove future ambiguity and uncertainty for all future decisions related to this product. As a PM, you know that you can not please everyone. Use this question as an opportunity to make this actionable and top-of-mind for the team.
This discussion should be grounded in facts and reality. Beautiful ideas and principles are often crushed at this stage. Sometimes we do not have enough data; sometimes we know from past studies that this our target segment is not a homogenous group. Digging deeper may be necessary. Data scientists can help at this stage as they tend to have access to lots of data or can most of the time, roughly answer the team questions.
Use the following guiding principle: try to find the best segment to deliver value for the least amount of effort by using the product team knowledge.
Answering this question may require you to discuss your product’s impact on some of your customers or partners (good or bad!) as well as the potential roll-out plan. Most of the time, it will trigger discussions about the ambition of the product: do you target a majority? A significant cohort of your current users? Only the one who will be delighted with your product? Do you start small and then scale?
Is it OK to revisit answers to the Why question?
During any phase of the Why-Who-What-How session, you may need to go back and forth to an earlier question. For instance, if you refine your target customers, you will be able to improve your Why by being much more focused and precise.
In fact, before moving to the next question, you should always revisit the precedent answers. You can use these questions to validate the team alignment:
- Does it still make sense?
- Is our formulation one hundred percent compatible?
- Can we be more precise?
- Can we remove some useless words?
What are we building?
The team produced a strong and clear statement defining the Why and the Who. It is now time to find a creative way to operate the change you want in the world for the selected users.
Team alignment is never build by taking shortcuts, avoiding discussions or limiting interactions.
Everyone will have a very different approach based on their background and role: business, UX, product, engineering, data, marketing. For this question, brainstorming techniques can be used effectively.
Based on the cross-functional team experience and various known or expected constraints (budget, timing, stakeholder engagement, resources): what should the team build to ensure the best possible outcome for our targeted users?
Once again, you want to build a strong consensus and find the most cost-effective (also known as fastest) way to impact the lives of your targeted users. You should be ready to discuss divergent solutions. Be super open to ideas that do not involve writing code. For instance: could we achieve our outcome with a marketing campaign? Better help? Explanatory video? Better messaging?
In my experience, these ideas can quickly become experiments or iterations to validate your assumptions or start impacting your users’ life positively. Most of them are quick wins.
The output of this question can take the form of a table with the main items that will be impacted by the project. For instance, for a small experiment, we had four things to build involving various skills:
- Modified home page (code + content + design + data)
- Modified order index page (code + content + design + data)
- Content: blog and/or evergreen documentation
- Experiment dashboard (data)
If possible, a graphical representation (schema) is great. It can be build after the meeting. A visual representation will reinforce the mental model of what you want to build. It is way easier to share than words.
How? are we going to build it
From a product manager’s point of view, it can be frightening to ask this question. After all, roadmaps and planning are, after all, a product manager’s core responsibility.
Don’t be afraid to introduce the team to the world of planning and roadmap.
- Use this question to build a team roadmap instead of a solitary product manager roadmap.
- Use this question to define a green-path for this product collaboratively instead of in silo(s).
The Now, Next and Later framework
To help the team agree on what to do next and to decide the importance of various deliverables, the Now / Next / Later structure has proven its usefulness.
- What should we do now?
- What should we do next?
- What should we do later?
The output of this section is a shared vision of the roll-out plan on the time horizon that makes sense for this product. For instance, the output could look like this one:
Do not push for a rapid conclusion of the prioritization effort. Disagreements at this stage could be hiding a more profound difference on the foundational Why?, Who? and What? questions. Reopen the discussion and go back to these critical discussions until you reach a more robust agreement.
Close the session 10 minutes before the end of the allocated time
If you did not have time to answer all the questions, do not rush it!
Use the last 10 minutes of the session to revisit your precedent findings with a critical eye. If possible, do not change anything: this is the outcome of the meeting, and those are ideas, principles, and words that everyone agreed upon. Revisiting any answer will most certainly require more than 10 minutes and can have a cascading effect on other responses as well. Instead, create a todo list or a specific agenda for the next meeting.
Schedule another follow-up session to finish the activity. If you need to gather data, validate some hypotheses, read some additional reports or documents assign owners to each task. Ideally, everyone should attend the next session with more context and knowledge.
This method generates engagement and high-quality discussions within the cross-functional team. It will help everyone contribute to a structured, safe debate around the key product areas.
- It starts from a very strategic and abstract level (Why?). At this level, it will reveal any potential ethical and legal issues. It will ultimately create clarity of purpose at the product-team level.
- As we move toward the more practical aspects (Who?), the team makes critical decisions about who will be served best by our product.
- Then the product-team looks for abstract artifacts: What to build to achieve the vision for these users.
- The last question, “How?” allows the team to agree on the next practical actions to execute a shared green-path.
Once completed, every team-member can now explain the product, in a very brief form. Participants can now articulate the vision, mission and plan to any other team member, stakeholder, and senior leadership.
Precise answers will create a robust framework for prioritization and alignment during the delivery phase of the project and even beyond.