Embracing The Unknown: Reflecting on the First Ag Innovations Bootcamp

Jeremy Suisted, 25 February 2019

Confession time. It was with more-than-a-little nervousness that I arrived to Rezare Systems’ Ag Innovations Bootcamp at Mystery Creek in December. I wasn’t nervous about the content – as a facilitator I had guided and coached many teams through design thinking and innovation experiences. I wasn’t nervous about the size of the group – Rezare had done a masterful job of curating an experience to 20 people, allowing for much more tailored learning and personal interactions with everyone in the room.

I was nervous because I had never worked in this way with agricultural innovators, farm specialists and primary sector entrepreneurs before – and I wondered how they would engage with new processes and learnings designed to help them create new solutions that solve real problems.

I shouldn’t have been afraid. Within moments of my arrival, I recognised that Rezare had created an experience that encouraged all participants to embrace this new process, to voice any questions and concerns they had, and to lean into the uncertainty they may be feeling.

The Ag Innovations Bootcamp was created by Rezare as they recognised the need for upskilling and supporting agricultural innovators and businesses who were developing new and improved products and services for the market. These businesses were highly capable in their technological skills and knowledge of the market – but many did not know how to deeply understand the customer problem to be solved, or ways to rapidly co-create with their customer, generating new insights and better-fit final products.

Motivated by this need, Rezare decided to practise what they preached. Billed as a prototype event, the Ag Innovations Bootcamp provided a bespoke learning experience, with participants being guided through LEAN business model canvases and how to apply these to new concepts, approaches in ideation and brainstorming, powerful empathy techniques, and hands-on experience in rapid prototyping. The two-day event was jam-packed with practical learning, but also invited feedback and iteration from the participants – so they could see how even the Bootcamp was a design-driven event.

Each aspect of Bootcamp was planned for the needs of the participants, who Rezare had identified as ranging from entrepreneurs seeking to develop their agricultural product, through to business managers from rural agencies and large-scale agribusinesses. All participants shared a common drive – a willingness to be creating new solutions that will benefit farmers, orchardists and primary industry producers around the world.

As a design thinking facilitator, I’m increasingly aware of the critical need for innovators and managers to upskill in this area. McKinsey reports that businesses that embrace human-centred design and co-creation provide 32% higher revenue growth than non-design led businesses, and 56% higher return to shareholders. At the same time – over 40% of companies don’t talk to their customers at all during product and service design – a trend which is likely higher in New Zealand. In our world of rapid change, developing trends and lower development costs, it is imperative that innovators learn to co-create with their customers and solve their real problems. This is the heart-beat behind Ag Innovation Bootcamp – and a growing need in many businesses.

Over the two days, our Ag Innovations Bootcamp participants learned the theory of design thinking and engaged with case-studies of design thinking challenges – but the true growth came from the design experience curated for them. Small start-up teams were formed amongst the participants, who were tasked with a design challenge – and then coached throughout a design sprint. It was immensely encouraging to see all of the participants crafting discussion guides, running empathy interviews with real customers, capturing key insights, clustering new concepts and discoveries, generating 100s of potential solutions, and prototyping an idea for testing – all within a fast-paced, supportive environment.

There was plenty of laughter, questions and debate throughout the two days, which was encouraged by Rezare and all the facilitators. Additionally – participants were provided with breaks from doing, to learn from experienced innovators from Gallagher, Amazon, New Zealand Trade & Enterprise and more.

At the end of Ag Innovations Bootcamp, I was not driving away with nerves, but with excitement. I was deeply encouraged by how much the participants had embraced the learning, and created concrete lessons that they were looking forward to applying in their business. I enjoyed seeing moments of discovery for all of us, and a recognition from participants that they could do this – that they could begin talking to customers, generating insights and designing quality solutions to real problems. I was motivated that it was through the unique combination of listening and doing, that Rezare had crafted an event that really did maximise the learning for all who attended.

And I was encouraged to learn that this would not be the last – but that Rezare Systems would continue to iterate the Ag Innovations Bootcamp, to keep supporting and guiding innovators towards both business and product success.

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Person in field stares at the sky

Three steps to your agritech product vision

You’re creating the future: a product or service that does not yet exist. How do you ensure your team is on the same page? Do you tell them how they will build it? How it will work? Or do you paint the picture of how it will make people’s lives better?

Your investors and partners are the same. Your product vision is the core of your business vision, so you want key people to understand and love it. Still, formalising your product vision seems like another chore in your busy schedule. You might even fear your idea will lose some of its magic in the harsh light of the day.

A clear representation of your vision:

  • Helps you communicate the vision to your team, your partners, and potential investors. You can be confident that you’ve passed on the key elements and not missed anything out.
  • Inspires others! People who believe and buy-in to your vision will go above and beyond the call of duty to make it a reality.

Here are three keys to get you started on composing your agricultural product vision.

Start with the users

Identify who your intended users are and are not. What problems will you solve for them? How much do those problems matter to your intended users? Are you tackling their problems or forcing your own solution?

The Einstellung Effect is a psychological term. It describes how we can fall in to the trap of applying a familiar approach or solution to problems. When all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is a great reminder to us to fall in love with problems, not our solutions. Your agritech product vision should describe the problems you want to solve.

Think big

The eventual picture is larger than your first release. Think about what your vision looks like over the next three, five, or even ten years.

At the same time, your first product release (or releases) don’t need to fulfil the entire vision. Break the plan into bite-size chunks that you can achieve and learn from them on the way.

Trace weak signals and trends

Take a view about the way we will solve problems in two to five years. You’re creating the future, so yesterday’s rules may not apply.

I’m not suggesting divorce from reality. Ensure you have time and space to read, research, and test. Seek to understand how people might work in the future, and how your product might contribute. If your product is a service (to some extent all are), how might it fit with the ways your users want to communicate?

Your product vision is not a product specification. It’s not an elevator pitch either. Whether it is a story or bullets in a slide deck, it’s the way you bring your team and partners with you on the journey. It should help them pull together and solve the problems that count.

As your Agritech product vision evolves, there is one more thing to do: communicate relentlessly. Share your vision with your team and your partners. Evolve it based on what you learn.

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Product team (source: iStockPhoto)

5 tactics of an effective agritech product manager

Why are relatively few agritech products achieving adoption at scale when billions of dollars are being invested internationally every year? New start-ups appear almost weekly. And established companies are shifting from small innovations around the edges to major projects that sit at the heart of business plans.

Yet for all this activity, few product ideas seemingly “make it”.

We work with many agricultural companies – start-ups and established organisations – to help them develop smart digital products and services. In our experience, there’s a strong correlation between a business’s approach to product management, and their success in developing meaningful products or services that get used. The choice of product manager, the scope and objectives of their role, and their level of skill and authority, drives the success (or otherwise) of the product or service development.

The CEO or a Project Sponsor may define the overall business outcomes and vision, and project managers may be concerned with product budget and timeline, but the product manager is at once the “voice of the product” to the business, and simultaneously translates the “voice of the customer” to the development team (this part of the role is also called product owner). They decide the detailed problems the team will try to solve, the relative priority of those problems, and when the solution is complete enough to be put into the hands of customers.

Here are five tactics an agritech product manager can use to be more effective in their role:

1.      Allocate your attention

A product manager juggles many tasks. They must understand scope, be able to prioritise effectively, understand how the team is delivering and what is planned. It’s incredibly hard to do this if the product only gets a small time-slice of your attention.

You won’t be able to effectively manage your product by turning up for a fortnightly sprint planning session. Product managers need to be able to spend time with both stakeholders and the development team. They participate in customer interviews, review the product in showcases put on by the development team, and are deeply involved in product planning workshops.

2.      Build stakeholder relationships

New products and services are built at the intersection of customer or user desirability, business viability, and technical feasibility:

  • Does this product solve a real problem for its users, and can they readily get the benefits?
  • Are customers willing to pay for a solution, and is this solution sufficiently “better” that they will switch?
  • Does this product or service meet the objectives and fit the strategic direction of the company?
  • Is there a business model that makes sense for the company and which could be profitable?
  • Can it be built to operate as envisioned, at a cost the company can justify?

Effective product managers really understand the needs of their users and customers – their behaviours and the problems the product is trying to solve. They use observation and interviews to inform their opinions and seek data from the existing tools or products that customers use.

Product managers must also build trust with the business, effectively communicating how the direction and priorities chosen for the product meet the objectives of the business.

3.      Discover, don’t assume

It’s very tempting to build technology products and services the way corporate computer systems were developed in the past: envisage a solution, document it as a set of requirements, and set the development team to work. When the developers and testers are done, roll out the solution (or pass it through to sales and marketing).

Effective product managers know that detailed customer needs are emergent, and so too must be the solution to those needs. They make use of product discovery activities: carrying out interviews, running experiments, and building prototypes. They know that testing an idea by building a prototype and validating that thinking with real users may not only be an order of magnitude quicker and less expensive than building software, it avoids the huge waste of developing robust, performant, tested software that does not address the real problem.

Software and hardware will still need to be built, but continuously using discovery activities to understand and address customer problems reduces the risk of building a great solution to the wrong problems.

4.      Prioritise value

If customer and user problems and the solutions are emergent, how can you effectively manage the work of a development team (or teams)? How do you decide what gets released to customers, and when?

Effective product managers decide what discovery and development tasks are the highest priority to work on at any point in time. They pay great attention to the “product backlog” – the set of problems waiting to be worked on, ideas waiting to be tested, and validated ideas waiting to be turned into production software. They may visualise these using story maps, or as items on a Kanban board.

This is not “project management”, seeking to most efficiently have all the tasks completed on time and within budget. Rather, the product manager is making value-based decisions about which tasks or stories (feature sets) are the most valuable to do now, and which can be deferred (and might never be done if sufficient value can be delivered to customers and the business without them).

Product managers consider value on multiple scales:

  • Which stories deliver the most value to customers and end users?
  • Which stories help the company achieve its objectives (revenue, customer acquisition, or other outcomes)?
  • Which activities must be prioritised for the product development process to be successful (for instance, prioritising a discovery or validation activity that may change the overall shape of the product)?
  • Which essential dependencies must be built for more valuable stories to work?

5.      Release early and often

This may be an agile mantra, but it remains valid. It’s tempting to hold off putting your product into customers hands until it is “complete”. This is especially the case for established companies who worry about reputational risk.

Delaying until the product or service is largely “complete” misses the opportunity to learn how customers choose to use your product or service. They may pay no attention to that wonderful feature you slaved over and be thrilled by other functions. You may discover that the value you expected just isn’t there, and that you need to “pivot” to a different approach. Far better to do this early than wait until the entire budget is spent.

For organisations worried about reputational risk, limited pilots are a useful tool, whether with a subset of staff or a small group of customers. Early adopters may not fully represent your entire eventual market, but carefully chosen they can provide learning and become advocates to your broader market.

Learn More

We use a variety of tools and techniques to support Product Managers in their role, including discovery techniques and activities, dual-track agile (a team working on discovery and a team developing prioritised stories), and flexible scope contracts that focus on value delivery in a time frame rather than a fixed set of requirements.

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