How to grow your own Silent Story Tree®

14 May, 2012
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Lots of groups struggle with product features in the discovery phase of their products and services. Here is a relatively easy and quick exercise to make sense out of a mess of stories.

The Story Tree is loosely based on the KANO model, which looks like this:

The model shows that a product can be built up by a mix of features falling in one of the below categories below.
Features in category 1 are not really missed when absent. But if they are executed well they can delight your customer. These could very well be your products unique selling point (USP) or unique buying reason (UBR).
Category 2 features are the linear performers. These are like hotel beds. If you get a small bed with a crap matrass, you will probably be dissatisfied. The better the bed, the more satisfied you would be. A unique mix of these properties could provide the base for your products positioning relative to your competitors.
Category 3 features are threshold features you would expect from a product in a certain category. If this is left out, the theory indicates you would be less satisfied, because you would expect it from a product in this product-category.
Category 4 features leave you indifferent. I translate these in my exercise as stuff you have to do that nobody will notice, but is still necessary. I call this sprint 0 stuff.
Now here’s what the story tree looks like (sorry for the Dutch terms in here, they will be explained later on in the post):

Silent Story Tree®
The Silent Story Tree shows us different levels of features loosely linked to the KANO model described above.
The roots of the tree symbolize the foundation of our product. The framework it’s built upon, the environments and all that kind of stuff. Invisible to the end-user, but never the less valuable to start sprinting.
Next comes the stem of the tree. This represents the threshold features, as a tree is not considered a tree without a stem of course.
The low hanging fruit represents linear performance features. These are mostly clearer features than the delighters in the category of sustainable USP/UBR’s and easier to reach targets.
Most of the time the top of a rich and well leafed tree can’t be seen from the ground up, and that’s why we also have a top level in the story tree for ideas that are still to unclear to put anywhere else at this stage.
When the Story Tree is filled with stories you can actually get a group feel of what the ideas are around the product it’s and proposition. You can group features and reprioritize them on the story map according to your implementation strategy (bottom up, or validating your value (USP/UBR) first).
So here’s the process:
Step 0: prepare and explain
Grab 3 flip-over sheets and stick them together using tape. Draw the tree outline and the specific areas in which the stories and feature groups will be placed. Fun up the tree by drawing in apples, birds or even a squirrel?! Next hang up the tree drawing somewhere close by the place where you will be creating your initial storymap.
Next, grab another flip-sheet and draw a box with some apples in it. Write “disputable fruit” on the side of the box. This is your parking lot for shuffled stories from “step 3” below.
Before you start this exercise explain to the team the aim of the exercise, and further proceedings. The most important thing to explain is that the order picked now, can be changed as things proceed. The whole thing is aimed to get a common understanding of the starting point and get ideas into the open. The group will have to understand that things will change along the way.
Step 1: create stories
Get some stickies and a wall to create your stoymap. Only create the fully functional axis together and let the group write as many stories as possible. For now, use the standard template; as a…. I want…. so I can…. Note the user function the story belongs to in the top right-hand corner of the sticky, so you can place these back afterwards (not necessarily the column it came from).
I will not go into this step any further in this blog post as the sorting of stories is the subject here.
When the group is finished hang the stories underneath the functions. You should have a great wall decoration by know that’s screaming to be made sensible.
Step 2: moving the stories to the right spot
Now here starts the silent part and it works just like silent prioritization. Line up your team in a row. Let every team-member pick a story of the map and place this in a section of the tree. Continue without talking until all stories are gone from the map. You cannot pass at this stage.
Finish by examining the result and any anomalies (chances are high the roots section will be empty if you haven’t spotted this before). Compliment the group and explain the next round. Let them have five minutes to silently prepare for it, as there could be quite a lot of information hanging in the tree. The photo below shows the Story Tree in action. See how relaxed these people are 🙂 ?

Step 3: shuffling stories around
Repeat step 2, but now people can take a card they disagree with positioning wise from the tree and place it somewhere else. If people can’t think of anything they want to shuffle they are allowed to pass. If an item shuffles more than once, remove it from the tree and hang it on the disputable fruit list to discuss in the next step. At the point you feel energy is going down and more people pass, you should stop and move on.
Step 4: the disputable fruit box
The exercise is silent. Since things change along the way anyway and the exact features to start still need to be decided, that’s OK. Keep it that way. It’s waste to spend a lot of time on this stage.
Only discuss the fruit in the disputable fruit box as a group. You should timebox this part to max. 15 minutes.
Go try it!
The whole process from step 2 to 4 should not take more than an hour to do. The remaining work is to place the stories back on the story map in the right order depending on the implementation strategy and general ideas on winning in today’s marketplace. But that’s an entirely different story.
This exercise works like a charm in groups up to 6-7 people and makes use of the collective body of knowledge in this group. My final tip would therefor be to create a divers group to increase creativity.
Have fun growing your tree! Should you wish to add to this idea, just leave your comment below.


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