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At ThoughtWorks, most of our projects begin with an inception where all the stakeholders in the project get together to analyse and start the discovery phase of the project. It’s usually done in order to develop a shared understanding about the project. There’s no working software to speak of, but we get a clear sense of why we want to build something.

Irrespective of whether we have a very strong technical team up-to-date with all topics, the success of such inceptions hinges on many factors. Communication is a vital factor and here are my 7 cents on what to focus on, in order to have an effective inception.

Tip #1 -  A picture is worth a thousand words

 Instead of using powerpoint presentations or reams of virtual documentation (read: Google docs), we should represent our ideas using images, pictures or graphics. As quoted in Dan Roam’s book, Back of the Napkin, “Any problem can be made clearer with a picture”. We can envision the tiniest details and all the decisions we make are in the same place, right in front of our eyes!

Inceptions

Tip #2 -  Keep conversations focused

Keeping discussions focused and directed is very critical. We often tend to focus on implemention details, which result in long-winding conversations. In workshops, where time is limited, the key is to remain focused on the task and keep people engaged. We should consciously "park" discussions which are heading into Zombieland.

Tip #3 -  Use a common vocabulary 

If the client refers to a bulb as a "lamp", then it's prudent that we also refer to the bulb as a "lamp". This makes conversations consistent and easier to follow for everyone and prevents misinterpretations, especially in documentation.

Tip #4 -  A house divided from within cannot stand. 

It's very essential to reach a conclusion internally before proposing any idea to the client. The visible lack of agreement internally makes the client lose faith in decisions and is a clear sign of a lack of preparation.

Tip #5 -  Be honest about the lack of knowledge in certain areas.

We aren't expected to know everything about everything. Being honest about this helps the client to make provisions for us to research more on the grey areas.

Tip #6 -  Involve clients in BAU practices

Involving clients in some of our routine practices like estimation, stand-ups etc. gives them a feel of our way of working and also makes them feel involved in the day-to-day decision making process.

Tip #7 -  Collate all the discussions

And most importantly, it's essential that everyone leaves the room on the same page and knows what the next steps are. We can achieve this by mapping dependencies with third parties by using tools such as FreeMind and determining the estimated deadlines for each and every task.

In a nutshell, there's really no secret sauce or a special formula to conduct a successful inception. Just a few tips on effective communication can really make a difference! I hope this resonates with your experiences and you find it useful. Do you have any stories to share?