Inception consists of a series of up to 11 exercises that help teams rapidly arrive at a shared understanding. For an Inception session to be successful, it is important that there be a neutral facilitator present, who acts as a moderator for the conversation, without trying to steer the team toward a particular decision.
Note: Credit for the Inception concept goes to Jonathan Rasmussen, who describes it in his book The Agile Samurai: How Agile Masters Deliver Great Software.
Particularly when a new product or feature set is being introduced, it can be a challenge to ensure that the team and stakeholders have a shared understanding of what needs to be built. As Rasmusson says in his book,
Assumption of consensus where none exists is what kills most projects
Rasmusson goes on to say that two of the worst things that can (and often do) happen when teams are just getting started:
People fail to ask the right questions
People don’t have the courage to ask the tough questions
Having an Inception session helps ensure that we take the time to ask these kinds of questions.
An Inception session can be helpful in many situations, such as the following:
As Rasmusson points out, the primary desired outcome from an inception session is:
Align on goals, vision, and context for a project/product/feature set so a team can make intelligent decisions while executing
If stakeholders are also present for the conversation, than an additional desired outcome is:
Give stakeholders the information they need so they can be informed participants as the team iteratively builds the desired product /feature set.
Inception consists of up to eleven time-boxed exercises. Here is a minimalist set of Inception exercises that can fit just about any situation, whether enhancing an existing product, or starting a new product:
To state this a bit differently—what is the single most important reason for us to work on this right now?
It’s likely premature to have an Inception session unless and until this question can be answered. Therefore, if you’re going to facilitate an Inception session, reach out to the person(s) who you think can answer this question before you meet, and see whether they can in fact answer it.
Teams often get bogged down in questions about scope. One way to make the conversation about scope shorter at the outset is to try to agree on what is NOT in scope. Talking about what can be deferred until later can be a very revealing and insightful conversation, because it is common for the team and the Product Manager/Product Owner to enter the Inception session with very different ideas about what is not going to be in scope.
Depending on how well the team understands what is being asked of them at this early stage, it can be a good idea to have a conversation about what technical approach might be best suited to addressing the business need. As the team’s understanding evolves over time, it’s possible what they originally thought about the technical approach could change, but I find it tends to be helpful to have such a conversation as early as possible.
The essential aspects of this conversation are to try to surface things that could constitute dependencies and risks, and to capture some initial thoughts on what steps can potentially be taken to minimize the impact of such dependencies and risks.
Additional Inception exercises include:
For anyone who has facilitated a chartering session (often referred to as Project Chartering or Team Chartering), chartering sessions can be significant undertakings which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to one or more days.
In the hands of an experienced facilitator, chartering sessions are a great tool to have in the toolbox, and can pay big dividends early by helping teams and stakeholders get into alignment on what they are trying to achieve.
A significant difference between Chartering and Inception is session length. It’s generally possible to complete an Inception session in less than one hour (assuming that Product Box, which takes longer to facilitate, is not included).
Note: Project Chartering or Team Chartering is NOT the same thing as writing a “Project Charter” document, in that the primary desired outcome is not a formal documentation deliverable or artifact – it’s a shared understanding of the nature of the work that is to be done, captured in a place that is readily accessible for easy team reference. For more about chartering, refer to the book by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies that is cited in the References section below.
If slide decks are your thing, Jonathan Rasmussen created a blank Inception deck that you can use as a template for an Inception conversation.