Did you know that it’s quite common for lions to observe their prey for a while before launching an attack? They don’t just jump onto the victims when they see them. They meticulously prepare for the attack, and most of the time, they do it cooperatively as a team to be more successful.

Are you feeling confused? Let me explain further.

Just as in all other things in life, there's no question that having some time to prepare for something is essential. It does not just prevent us from jumping into the unknown without a clue about what we’re doing, but it also helps us to understand what we need to do to achieve a particular goal.

If you are ready to start a digitalization journey, you should plan some time to go through an initiation week as it helps to smooth things out. Having worked in IT consultancy for almost ten years and having engaged in many different projects for all sorts of industries, I can say with certainty that for some of them, an initiation week would have been welcome.

No matter how ready we think we are to get started, having the ability to challenge the requirements, to identify business needs, and to visit the end users' workspace so we can feel and hear their pain, gives us a tremendous advantage to start developing.

We need to understand beforehand that the purpose of building an app is so others will use it. So, if we want to do it right, we need to invest some time to capture and understand their expectations and needs accurately, and finally to build the app for them.

One of the main reasons for project failure is the inability to understand the end users' needs.

Initiation What?

Although I mentioned it several times, you may still not know what an initiation week is. It is the very beginning of a project when we focus on understanding business goals and user needs to create the vision of the future application and, consequently, design a great digital experience.

This first interaction about business goals is quite relevant. It shapes the understanding of existing needs and the purpose of replacing a current application or improving a business process.

From previous experiences, during the first conversations about business goals and user needs, I realized that sometimes the expectations were slightly different from what I was envisioning before I talked to the end users. When we start mapping those needs into a digital experience, they may differ from what the end users imagined, and we might need to readjust it. So, before going to all that trouble, why not get it right beforehand?

For example, a simple login process can be interpreted different ways by different users. If we discuss the login with users during initiation week, we can be sure we develop the right process from the git-go. Also, by addressing different expectations as soon as possible, we also mitigate the risk of designing an app that few users adopt, if any at all.

User adoption is something we need to ensure to achieve project success!

Initiation Week: An Overview

Initiation week is a five-day period in which we focus on creating a vision document as a principal deliverable. The vision document will serve as a reference during the entire project.

It must contain:

  • The ultimate goal of the project and its business context
  • Who the end users are and their needs
  • The high-level business processes and the epic structure
  • Some of the mock-ups
  • The technical architecture that will support the application
  • The high-level project plan
  • The identified risks and a mitigation plan

The vision document also helps everyone understand:

  • The company’s strategic goals
  • The company’s tactical goals
  • The product vision
  • The success criteria

By creating this document, we have a much clearer picture of what we need to develop to help the customer achieve their goals than if we just dove right into the project. We also have the chance to create the concept that we are all on the same team by getting to know all the stakeholders and the business users and understanding and addressing their motivations, needs, and pains.

In addition, for a project to take place, we must have previously defined and agreed on a timebox for effort, which we also call project sizing. This way we have an overall understanding of the amount of time sized to develop the application.

Hands on the Job

There is no doubt that going through a project initiation is quite intense. Many things are going on, and we need to make sure to capture all business and user needs before we start coding the MVP. First, we share the agenda for the initiation week with the customer's project manager and make sure we have everyone involved.

A typical initiation week plan looks like this:

Day 1: Let The Games Begin

Starting with a detailed kick-off presentation with all the sponsors and stakeholders reinforces the importance of the project and everyone involved. It’s also a good opportunity to start engaging with the team and creating some bonds that will help achieve success during the project. Whenever possible, take this opportunity to have the business sponsor say a few words that help bring all team on board to the project.

After the kick-off, it is time to start defining the business context, identifying the current business processes and how to translate these for the new application. This is also when you should identify who the end users are in the process, so we can start mapping all their needs.

In the afternoon, we take a look at the initial backlog and validate the sizing agreed and executed previously. We also check what the high-level scope is, the main assumptions, and what constraints were considered.

Day 2: Dig In The Forest

On the second day, it is time to look deeper into the backlog and the statement of work provided and to create the map of the main epics and top user stories.

From what I experienced, it is easy when things get visual. When you use a whiteboard or some post-its to discuss the structure of the epics and user stories, it becomes more evident to the team what the challenge is and what is part of the MVP.

The reason we focus on MVP is that we will use the timebox approach, and this helps us to stay on the right track, delivering the most valuable features first.

Day 3: Time To Be A Techie

On the third day, it is time to start looking at the technical side of the project, to begin building the 4-Layer Canvas (a critical part of the OutSystems platform and methodology), and ensuring all technical dependencies are met: infrastructure, system accessibility, IT availability, and integrations. These technical details, especially the integrations, are important. Managing integrations at an early stage is vital for the project’s success because these are crucial not only for developing but also as part of the working app.

At this stage of the initiation week, it is also relevant to discuss the sprint working model, looking into the Definition of Ready, Definition of Done, and how the Quality Assurance tests will take place.

We cannot stress enough the importance of these three items (DoR, DoD, and QA). They are the foundation for defining and developing each user story, ultimately allowing us to understand which stage the user story belongs to (ready for development, done, accepted or rejected). The team needs to agree with these definitions, so everyone knows how to use them properly.

After defining all these, we should start planning the first sprint, by picking and assigning user stories from the backlog.

Day 4: A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

I believe you have already heard this expression, and this is what day 4 is about: creating an image of the app for the users to start looking at and understanding if they feel comfortable using it. They are the ones who will use the application every day, so we need to build it according to their needs.

Visit the users’ workspace and show them the mockups so you can gauge their reactions and capture their response. At the end of the day, their feedback is vital to creating an app that they fully understand.

This is also the day we take some time to address non-functional requirements.

Day 5: Ready, Steady, Go!

On the last day of the initiation period, we must finish the vision document and look at the roadmap. Where does the app fit in the corporation, and how will it evolve? These are two questions we need to answer.

It’s also time to discuss technical aspects like data requirements and data migration and to ensure the developers have everything prepared to start working in the next week.

At the end of the initiation week, we present the vision document in a wrap-up meeting. After the meeting, everyone should be fully aware of the main goals, the purpose, and the role of each team member in the project.

The Value of Initiation Week

The initiation week helps provide a clear visual representation of the project and gives a common understanding of the ultimate goal which allows aligning all stakeholders expectations. If at this stage, you are still not convinced of the real importance of this and its benefits, let me give you some examples from my experiences.

Focus on the Business Value

When you involve business stakeholders in initiation week and focus on business value, you are sending a clear message about what is important and the main purpose of the project: to address the business needs.

Focus on the Users

The app is intended to be used by someone with real needs. During an initiation week, the number one objective is to spend as much time as possible with users to understand how they are doing things, and how we can help them to improve with the new application. And for the record, we are continually looking for user's feedback to shape the application accordingly.

By doing this, it is easier to have an application the users fully comprehend, rely on, and feel comfortable using, which may also help during the test phase.

Stakeholder Engagement

For me, this is one of best things about initiation week: being able to engage with everyone, creating a high level of collaboration between different stakeholders, getting everyone committed, and, more importantly, getting all of us running in the same direction.

Be Adaptive but Not Disruptive

Although we may have an agenda, a few things can change during the week. We should always be prepared to make slight adjustments to keep the momentum going and to reach the desired outcomes.

In other words, be flexible and adapt. Focus on addressing the essential: understand the purpose of the project, map all its needs, and understand how it is going to work, from a business and a technical perspective. Be ready to challenge and be challenged. Challenge, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is “(the situation of being faced with) something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person's ability.”

How you do this depends on several factors like the customer’s Agile mentality, the customer’s proficiency with OutSystems proficiency and, above all, the customer’s culture.

The Customer’s Culture

Each customer has a philosophy or culture that can impact, for example, the pace and rhythm of work. It’s up to the engagement manager to understand if it is adequate or necessary to “push” things a little bit.

Culture can also make customers less receptive to changes. Even though the business sponsor invested in the project and we have all the right arguments that reflect the purpose and importance of the project, it will affect the life of someone in the organization. Once again, it is part of the responsibilities of the project team to address the importance of the project within the organization and to have everyone committed.

Other Challenges

During an initiation week you might also run into other challenges:

  • The customer doesn’t want to explain everything again. If the customer’s team doesn’t understand the purpose of an initiation week, they may think that they have already answered all the questions during the sales process, and will also give them an excuse to avoid some meetings. It is important to have everyone on board, especially the key stakeholders. By reinforcing the importance of the initiation week, providing a good explanation of its purpose in the kick-off meeting, we might be mitigating this.
  • The customer isn’t ready. This may occur for different reasons. They might be committed to another initiative; they are not aware of what they need to do; there are many missing pieces to get started (infrastructure, availability, digital mindset). Preferably, we should address this before initiation week. We shouldn’t get to the customer site if the conditions to start are not yet met.
  • The customer has never heard of Agile. This is one of the most common situations, and it doesn’t mean it is not possible to achieve success during an initiation week. It is up to the engagement manager to explain and continuously coach on the defined methodology and to help the customer understand that Agile is the right approach to deliver a low-code solution with OutSystems.
  • The project size is far bigger than expected. You start getting some business context and looking at the structure of the epics, and you understand that the sizing of the project may be inadequate. If you find yourself in this situation, make sure to focus on the MVP and assure this doesn’t affect the customer’s expectations.

Like the definition of the word challenge says, it is a test of our ability to complete something. Therefore, having an idea of the challenges that we’re going to face, helps us prepare for future projects.

One other thing that I consider to be of the utmost importance is investing some time in taking notes of the challenges at the end of each initiation week because it will help you improve for the next ones.

Go Get Your Prey!

Remember when I mentioned the lions? They are more effective hunters when they prepare, and act as a team. The same applies to a project. By investing time in an initiation week, you are also investing in having everyone engaged with the project, establishing the ultimate goal for everyone to follow, and starting to envision the project to meet the end users’ needs from a business and technical perspective.

As I said, there are various ways to do it, depending on the customer’s culture and their proficiency in Agile methodology among other things. Without neglecting what we need to deliver, the success of the initiation week also depends on how fast we adapt, how soon we take decisions on which direction to take, and how quickly we move the pieces of the puzzle to bring everything together.

The important thing is to build a vision for the project the team relies on and shares, a vision that is the ground foundation for the project. As a Japanese proverb says:

Vision without action is a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.”