Sailboating: How This Agile Activity Can Help You Spark Innovation

UI/UX Design

An illustration of a sailboat surrounded by written notes and sketched wireframes
An illustration of a sailboat surrounded by written notes and sketched wireframes
An illustration of a sailboat surrounded by written notes and sketched wireframes

Working Agile

When developing a digital product, the classic process involved documenting requirements, designing solutions, and building and testing in a waterfall approach. Then Agile came around and changed everything, decreasing the time it took to deliver working software and reducing the need for front-loaded documentation.

By working in ‘sprints’, development teams can focus on core requirements to build a product, while allowing for the ups and downs that come with developing complex technology. An added bonus is that clients can deliver feedback after sprints rather than at the end of the ‘completed’ project.

Agile is a system of working, but it’s also a mindset based on promoting better interaction between the people involved in the project, the flexibility to change things when required, and focusing on working, functional product over bureaucracy. It’s a flexible way of working - hence the name ‘agile’, but it also encourages the concept of taking stock after a sprint to see what worked and what didn’t.

This is often called an Agile retrospective. These are exercises performed after a sprint or project to determine efficiency and spot problems or issues so a team can avoid them in the future. It also ties into a Lean methodology in that a retrospective helps cut future waste.

One of the most powerful forms of retrospectives comes in the form of the ‘sailboat exercise’.

What is the Agile Sailboat?

If you’re planning to work in an Agile system, or working with an agency that utilises Agile methodology (hint hint, it’s us), then you’ll probably encounter the term sailboating.

Even if you’re NOT an agile organisation, the sailboating exercise can still be a great way to help rethink your projects and prioritise the production journey. It’s a visual metaphor and an exercise that focuses on the team and future direction.

A sailboat workshop involves two main processes: the team writing down answers to a few questions and then mapping these answers against the ‘sailboat’ metaphor.

You can use a digital board such as Miro for this, or Sticky notes will do the trick if you’re doing it in person. Ask your team the following questions (adjusting based on whether you’re running this as a sprint exercise or at an operational level.)

At operational level:

  • What’s moving us forward?

  • What are our goals?

  • What’s holding us back?

  • What’s not gone so well?

For sprint exercises:

  • What risks did the sprint/project face?

  • What delayed the sprint?

  • What propelled the sprint forward?

    The Sailboat in action at a KOMODO Innovation Workshop.

    Once your team have created their answers as Sticky Notes, ask them to stick them to a graphic you’ve drawn or printed that includes the following elements:

    1. A boat - this is your team/project.

    2. An island - this is the goal you’re working towards. It can be the specific features designed in a sprint or a more operational-level goal.

    3. Wind in your sails: what propels your team/project forward.

    4. Rocks: the risks your project faces in the future as it reaches the goal.

    5. Anchor: the problems and challenges which delayed the sprint/project.

    Once the team has had a chance to place their sticky notes, go through as a group and see if you agree on the placements. Then see if there’s a common theme being suggested by multiple people as a delay.

    Just like you would in an Agile sprint, you can use this information to pivot and enact change. For example, if there’s an anchor problem holding your team back, prioritise a way to remove it. Outlining the ‘rock’ or future risk also helps you spot potential obstacles that should be dealt with before they become a problem and ‘sink’ the ship.

    The sailboat exercise is great because it’s a visual metaphor that is easy to understand. It aligns the team and quite literally puts everyone in the same boat. For an agency/client relationship, sailboating also helps both sides of the relationship feel they are aligned and heading in the right direction.

    While the Sailboat method is so often used in a retrospective fashion, we believe it has great value as an onboarding process for new projects and why it features as the first activity in our innovation workshop process.

    Sailboat as a prospective tool

    The sailboat system can also be used at the beginning of a project to help map out your strengths and weaknesses.

    1. Demand for your product.

    2. What your user’s needs are.

    3. What solutions are most important in terms of priority.

    We’ve written about this sort of thinking many times - but it’s so important we thought we’d mention it again here in the context of the Sailboat exercise. You can’t, for example, just go into a planning session with ‘general ideas’ of what your customers want. Instead, you need to do research and ensure that your product can solve a genuine need. Otherwise, it’s all based on guesswork.

    Once you know enough about your users, you can use Sailboat to plan the overall product or project. This time, you’d define the elements as:

    • Rocks: what risks does the product face in terms of competitors, technical issues, user error?

    • Island: what functional requirements are most important - they should be positioned closer to the ‘shore’ to create priorities.

    • Anchor: what issues could delay the project. Think of factors like stakeholder intervention, poor client/agency communication etc.

    • Wind/sail: what can contribute towards the product being completed to the right timeframe?

    While you might not have the same retrospective analysis to assign actual, tangible things that went wrong for your rocks etc. The sailboat is still a good way to map out a project at the beginning to get your team on the same page.

    Remember that the sailboat as a concept is not really that important. It could be many different visual metaphors - all of them just have to share a way to map goals, threats and success factors.

    By completing these exercises either at the start of a project or as a retroactive after a sprint as intended, you’ll be putting your team on the right track and creating a more collaborative process both internally and, if working with an agency, externally too.

    The sailboat is just one Agile exercise we love. If you choose to work with KOMODO for your digital product development, we’ll lend our workshopping expertise to your project journey to help ensure the product is as functional and successful as it can be. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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