Pitching the Pixar Pitch

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In February 2013, Gojko Adzic hosted a one day workshop with a number of Agile thought leaders who are passionate about “Building the Right Thing”, including Mary Poppendieck, Jeff Patton, Karl Scotland, and Chris Matts among others. After some discussion on the various techniques they had been using such as Impact Mapping, Story Mapping, Lean Canvas, Real Options and Feature Injection, the group decided to focus on the commonalities with a view to creating a shared message:

The idea that great results happen when people know why they are doing their work really resonated with me. I’m sure this is a large part of why I fell in love with impact mapping.  In Impact Mapping, “why” (aka the goal) is at the centre. Getting the goal right is the key to a good impact map, but it is not always easy.

I was recently working with a group that was struggling to articulate the goal for their project. I felt going into the impact mapping workshop I would need a powerful technique to get the stakeholders thinking about what they were hoping to achieve through the program of work they were about to launch. As I dug into my agile toolkit, I remembered a conversation I had recently had with with a colleague.  He had introduced the Pixar Pitch as an alternative to the Elevator Pitch in some of his Agile training courses and he had been super excited about it and how rich the outputs were. Maybe I could use this approach too…

I messaged my colleague and tested the concept. “I’m thinking about using a Pixar Pitch to help clarify the vision before starting the impact map. I think it might make a good lead into the discussion about why / the goal. Thoughts?” His response: “It’s great value, but takes bravery. Be ready for the sniggers before the aha’s.” Sniggers?! What did he mean? I was about to facilitate a workshop with some very senior business people at my very new agile consulting gig! Then I decided I should practice what I preach. As Agile coaches we push our clients out of their comfort zones every day. It was time for me to push my self out there.

At this juncture I should probably pause and explain what a Pixar Pitch is. In his latest book, To Sell is Human,  Daniel Pink, outlines “six promising successors to the elevator pitch” including the Pixar Pitch:

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

The Pixar Pitch as outlined by  Daniel Pink is actually an adaptation of Kenn Adams’ Story Spine:

Now, back to my Impact Mapping workshop. After setting the scene for the workshop Jean Tabaka style, I decided to rip the bandaid off and dive in feet first to the Pixar Pitch exercise. I explained that a Pixar Pitch was an alternative to the Elevator Pitch and it was the formula used by Pixar to pitch their films. I then revealed to the group the Finding Nemo Pixar Pitch I had written up before the session and hidden behind a piece of butcher paper:

Pixar Pitch

I’m not sure if anyone sniggered but I saw a few amused smiles. Pushing through the potential embarrassment, I quickly asked the group to divide into two teams of five with an equal split of business and technology stakeholders. Then gave them 15 minutes to write their pixar pitch.

I knew from my collegue that I should expect great results, but I never imagined how amazing the pitch written by the executive sponsors team would be. With permission, I have shared it below:

Once upon a time...
There was a very long queue at the University's student contact centre with lots of new students (some of whom were frustrated by the queue).
Every day...
Data management services received a Sisyphean pile of papers (which were received after much work logging papers + batched + dispatched....) and occasional papers would get lost, or data would be entered incorrectly. Sometimes huge boxes of papers dropped down from Singapore and other far away places.
One day...
The students rebelled! They demanded access to manage their enrolment online themselves - make this problem go away. We want access to Blackboard immediately, not after a few weeks! They also want credit to appear immediately, and wanted to know their timetable earlier so they could organise their work hours, child care and other parts of their life. ("Study is only part of my life!")
Because of that...
The University's numbers dropped, staff were leaving! "Yikes!" said the University! We better listen to the students and fix their problem once and for all.
Because of that...
The Academic Registrar and her team developed a roadmap, got funding and IT were engaged. And a spell was cast and made all of the enrolments process invisible - got the info they wanted, never had to go to the University's student contact centre, never heard of the Academic Registrar's team. Enrolment ongoing throughout their life cycle was seamless - they didn't need to be here physically to manage it. No more queues!
Until finally...
The only time they went to the University's student contact centre was to engage with them for high value services (and meeting other students who might become their future significant other).

While the business was not quite convinced of the value of the Pixar Pitch, they conceded it was good fun. From a technology standpoint the delivery team loved it. It gave them the “why” they needed to get excited about the project. And from a facilitation standpoint it lead us to the goal. And ever since then I have used a Pixar Pitch to kick off my Impact Mapping workshops.

Please note: No clown fish were harmed in the creation of this blog post.

12 months ago my team was engaged to provide a very rough estimate for a large new reporting and analytics program.  Over the next 5 months we cycled back and forth until eventually the sponsor decided to proceed and nominated a “business lead” to work with us. Excited by the problem, I quickly reached out and invited the nominee to visit our site, meet the development team and understand the work in progress.  From this meeting we established that the program had a number of senior stakeholders with competing priorities, so I offered to help facilitate a workshop with the stakeholders to clarify the scope and priorities.  The offer was accepted and the workshop was held a few weeks later.

I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when the workshop attendees turned out to be external consultants, rather than the actual senior business stakeholders we had expected.  Surprises aside, the consultants were credible enough proxies for us to feel we were making good progress cobbling together high level scope and priorities.  Good enough, in fact, that we moved roughly the top priority scope items forward into a discovery phase, enabling us to produce a long and expensive plan to deliver about half the scope!

As the proverb says every cloud has a silver lining. Our unappealing plan led to an invitation to present (“explain”) to the senior business stakeholders at the program governance meeting. The presentation sparked a lively conversation about timing, priorities and scope. The program lead, responsible for getting the business case approved and funding released, requested a “deep dive” to understand who had requested each feature and associated benefit. Empathising with him as I recalled harrowingly similar situations in my past life as a business sponsor, I offered to facilitate the “deep dive” he requested.


A couple of months passed before our offer of assistance was accepted. When they did decide to workshop the scope and benefits with us they pulled out all the stops.  With the support of the executive sponsor the session was made mandatory for the program’s senior stakeholders to attend. It might have taken us 9 months, but we finally had the chance to actually connect with our stakeholders and understand the problems they were trying to solve.  Now we just had to live up to the expectation we had created!

Gojko Adzic's Impact Mapping

As luck would have it my friend and colleague Wayne Palmer had recently read Gojko Adzic's Impact Mapping. He had been talking about it incessantly waiting for the right opportunity to use it. When I told him about the challenge he was quick to find a whiteboard and explain why impact mapping was the answer. I was sold. That weekend I purchased  it on my kindle and read it back to front. I was in love!

With the intention of immersing the business stakeholders in our agile world we turned one of our standard meeting rooms into a collaboration workspace using our "Jean Tabaka meeting" skills. The walls were plastered with butchers paper and the large table made out of several smaller desks was pulled apart to create smaller team spaces. With a JET Spotify playlist energising the room we waited anxiously for our guests to arrive.

The group arrived on mass about 15 minutes late. Introductions and handshakes all round, an apology for the shocking Movember Mos some of the team were sporting  and we were ready to go. I opened with the usual workshop kick off techniques, agreeing the agenda, purpose and operating agreements. Then we dived into an explanation of impact mapping.

According to impactmapping.org: An impact map is a visualisation of scope and underlying assumptions, created collaboratively by senior technical and business people. It is a mind-map grown during a discussion facilitated by answering the following four questions:

  • Why are we doing this? The Goal.
  • Who will be impacted by it?  The Actors.
  • How should our actors' behaviour change?  The Impacts.
  • What can we do, as a delivery team, to support the required impacts? The Deliverables.

With the explanation complete and the group keen to get started, I asked each participant to write down on an index card what they believed the Goal of the program to be. Each person's suggestion was read out to the group and pinned to the meeting room wall. After a quick lesson for our executives on dot voting, we had a proposed goal.  A little further education onJean Tabaka’s definition of consensus (I can live with that and support it) and we have moved from proposed to agreed.

The next input we needed for our map was Actors. I briefly reminded the group of the definition of actors and asked them to brainstorm in their table groups. In hindsight we should have time boxed this exercise rather than letting them write until they ran out of ideas! Thirty something actors later, we had quite a list. Given we were over half way through a 2 hour workshop (that had started 30 minutes late) completing the mind map for all of the actors was not going to happen. So we split them into Primary, Secondary and Off Stage actors, then dote voted to determine which of the Primary actors were most important to the goal.

Four groups roles surfaced as key to delivering on the goal - Finance, Products, the customer facing teams and the line management of the customer facing teams. With 15 minutes left in the workshop and having made a commitment to the group that we would finish on time, Wayne and I felt we needed to at least start on the how for the most important actor, to incentivise the participants to come back for another session. After a quick group brain storm we got a handful of inputs, honoured our time-box, and agreed to call it a day. The highlight of the afternoon definitely came in the last moments when there was a universal commitment to clearing diaries and returning for the second session.

We entered the second workshop determined to draw out measurable impacts from the group. This was a true test of my facilitation skills, not helped by it being the second day of summer and 36°C (97°F)! While I don't think we ever got to measurable impacts we did draw out some recurring themes about "trust and belief" that would become the foundation of our delivery approach.

It was a long afternoon. The session ran over by an hour and the building's air conditioning had automatically turned off. By the time we had captured impacts for the four actors and prioritised them, everyone was very hot and very tired. I remember feeling rather deflated at the end of the session. We hadn't gotten to what and our stakeholders were grumpy. From the debate, it became apparent that this stakeholder group had not had many opportunities in the past to discuss their competing priorities.  Looking back now, I can see that this was probably the most valuable session we had. We had entered what Jean Tabaka had taught us was the "groan zone" (from Sam Kaner's book the Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making).

By 7pm, while the group had managed to agree on the top impacts there was no way we were going to make any progress on the what that evening. At least they were open to another session, although this time they requested we meet at their location and come prepared with our view of how the existing shopping list of deliverables map (or don't map) to the priority impacts.

In preparation for the next workshop we put the impact map in MindMup and produced a storyboard for a powerpoint deck! That last workshop had clearly shaken our confidence. We were afraid that we might have lost buy in to the process and for just a moment we thought communicating through slides would be more comfortable for them and help us reconnect. As the plan shaped up and we constructed the impact map from index cards on a large meeting room wall, our confidence began to return and the powerpoint deck was abandoned.

As requested the next workshop was held at head office, so we packed up our index cards and reconstructed the impact map there. It turned out that meeting at a more convenient location for our stakeholders came with the added bonus of less late and less grumpy stakeholders! 🙂

We positioned the purpose of this session being to confirm the scope, ratify the priorities and agree to pivot. The stakeholders were clearly impressed with the impact map visualisation, with one stakeholder commenting "You have captured our problem exactly!" This session ran fairly smoothly. A couple of scope items were added and a few more were clarified and we reached consensus on scope. When we opened the discussion on priorities there were two clear camps. Minus the heat and the later hour, the conversation was constructive although inconclusive. Feeling that a decision was in reach we agreed to facilitate a prioritisation session, this time over laying some indicative timelines to help them understand the trade offs.

For the final session we had narrowed the options down to three alternatives with clear links to the Actors and Impacts they support. This time the discussion focused on clarification of the options with  consensus being reached on option 2 - which much to our delight was the same option that the impact map pointed to! Four circa 90 minute workshops over two months and we had done it! The impact map had captured the essence of the business problem and provided the catalyst for a much needed pivot by the program.

Through the impact mapping workshops, I truly believe we transformed our relationship with this business group. The focus has shifted from delivering against a predefined roadmap, to a prototype driven discovery process able to flex and pivot as we learn more about the problem space. Our business lead has even driven a renewed focus on getting the right business people to take ownership of the newly defined features! As for me, Impact Mapping is now an essential part of my agile toolkit and a concept I have already commenced using with new stakeholders.

To hear the full story you can view my talk from Agile Australia 2015, Impact Mapping - Making an Impact over Shipping Software, on InfoQ.

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