August 1, 2011 – 6:08 pm
I’ve been in Belfast for the past weekend, doing what we came to describe as a ‘knowledge sprint‘. My friend Rich Dale (pictured above, uploading his brain to the internet) is co-founder of a startup called Planzai. I’m on their board of advisors.*
Planzai is a web application that helps people do things, with easy-to-follow expert guidance. It’s like having a project management plan for whatever you want to get done – growing potatoes, training for a marathon, creating a personal budget, organising a wedding… but with someone who knows what they’re doing there to guide you along the way.
Planzai provides the platform, and experts create ‘blueprints’ – step-by-step plans that do the guidance, make sure you don’t forget anything, that you do them in the right order, allow enough time for each thing and perform the tasks in a timely fashion.
You tick off the steps as you go along, and the steps are explained and demystified as you encounter them.
Example Planzai blueprint for making a music video for your band
But they need more of these blueprints – and they need them soon, and so originally, I was asked to help run a workshop that would allow us to quickly generate more of these plans. A “knowledge sprint” to create as many useful blueprints as possible over a weekend.
Instead, I suggested that we do a workshop to generate the perfect ‘How to make a Planzai blueprint’ blueprint. The “meta-blueprint”, if you like… so that we can always quickly and dependably source more blueprints using a system that had its own quality control and step-by-step guidance built in.
This, for these guys, made perfect sense. It would mean that anyone with a bit of specialist or expert knowledge in any field could follow the instructions and generate a Planzai-quality blueprint for others to use.
The workshop – day 1
For six hours on Saturday and again on Sunday, I worked with a team of Planzai staff and friends to develop this meta-blueprint: the blueprint for generating more blueprints.
Essentially, I was the ‘facilitator’ – and so of course did very little of the actual work. Instead, I guided the proceedings, gave the days their structure, talked through the process, took the feedback and ‘coached’ the sessions.
The aim was that on the first day, we would develop what we thought of as a workable prototype.
In teams, the participants described the qualities of the perfect Planzai blueprint, what sort of language it should use, what tools and resources it required to create and the structure it should have.
I organised them into four teams made up of a mix of different types of people – technology experts, management, educators and so on… and they raced to come up with four different, competing versions of the ‘meta-blueprint’.
The teams then presented their blueprints, and they were ranked on a series of different criteria at the end of that first day’s sprint.
The best version was combined with the best elements of all the other versions to make the prototype of the Planzai blueprint for making Planzai blueprints.
It was a document that we were, I think, rightly proud of.
But we only had one night to enjoy that success – because the purpose of the next day was to try and rip that document to shreds… so we made the absolute most of it.
Saturday night was a very big night out in Belfast for the Planzai knowledge sprinters.
The workshop – day 2
On the second day, the aim was to take that prototype blueprint and stress-test it. We gathered a larger group of volunteers and friends together, and – again working in groups – asked them to use the blueprint to make a new blueprint.
The groups were assigned different ‘fun’ categories as idea starters (‘The Pub’, ‘Self-Indulgence’, ‘Animals’ and ‘Happiness’ were randomly selected from a pile of about a dozen topics) and asked to come up with something that they could make a blueprint for.
But the point of the exercise was to find out where the system we had created the day before needed improvement, or failed outright.
From this process, we were able to get a whole stack of feedback about where things weren’t clear, how the plan could be improved and what could be done to make the system more ‘bulletproof’.
Then, while the crew ate pizza and discussed their plans, Rich and I locked ourselves in a room to integrate all of the suggestions into the new and improved plan.
The penultimate iteration
The final section of the sprint was an attempt to use this new and improved version to come up with the beginnings of a series of real, Planzai-ready blueprints. This time, some more serious topics were suggested, and the categories were Personal Finance, Family and Parenting, Health and Fitness, and Events Management.
The new version added a lot more clarity and simplicity about the process, and the blueprints that were created this way were more consistent, reliable and well-structured. There were still some minor improvements to be made and some areas where further clarification would help, and this took us to the point where we could make the final version.
But even better – because the process was now so clear and simple, people were also freed up to let their minds explore other ideas, and some really useful brainstorming about different features, strategies and developments for Planzai happened as well.
There’s some really exciting and radical stuff in the works as a result of this…
Continuing the discussion…
Even after the event was over, and everyone had grabbed a beer at six o’clock on Sunday evening, the energy in the room kept the conversation buzzing for another couple of hours. All the ‘what if we did this?’ and ‘How would it work if…?’ questions that really take an idea like this to the next level.
We hadn’t planned on that stuff – but it was a real bonus, and the knowledge sprint was declared a resounding success.
Best of all, it looks like Planzai’s ambition to not only help people do things easily and reliably, but also to help experts of any kind create and sell their own blueprints through the site is looking really good now…
Thanks to the people who turned up and gave their weekend to this – from friendly, neighbourhood tech startups to non-profit organisations, from educators and experts to friends and family – Planzai not only got the bulletproof ‘meta blueprint’ they were after, but also got the company, its thinking and its ambition a lot further and a lot faster than we could have imagined possible.
I guess that’s what happens when you sprint.
*Currently, I am Planzai’s board of advisors