Extra! Extra! Agile Headline Exercise Gets the Ball Rolling

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of facilitating two days of product/release planning combined with  user story gathering (although I like to call it user story “exploration” since that’s what it felt like.)

I wanted to start things off with a product visioning exercise/ice-breaker to get things going and to warm people up.
Although we gave people a couple of options for the product visioning activity, everyone ended up choosing the “Headline News” exercise, which I learned at Agile 2012 from Jimi Fosdick, Agile Rockstar.

(Note: Jimi does not call himself that, but he should. So there.)


The Headline News Exercise

In case you aren’t familiar with the “Headline News” exercise, here’s the gist of it:

  • Have people self-organize into groups of 3 or 4 people. If people are reluctant to get this process started, encourage them to walk over to the complete other end of the room and find 2 or 3 other people to work with.
    Get people out of their comfort zone!
  • Give the groups about 10 minutes to work together on the following:
    • Envision the project/product after it has succeeded and been released to the world
    • Imagine your project/product has made the front page of the news/relevant industry publication
    • What would the headline say? Include words/phrases that describe how your project/product has changed the marketplace/made a difference/is different than everyone else out there. Think especially about how your end-user is impacted by your project/product
  • At the end of 10 minutes, (or when you sense/hear the activity level start to die down), ask each group in turn to select a representative to read out the headline and provide an explanation of why certain words/phrases were used.

(Note: You could also do a variation of this exercise where people create a short script for a feature story for the evening news. At the end of the exercise, you have them read their script aloud.)

Within minutes of getting this exercise started, the room went from a group of 30+ people who weren’t sure exactly what they were there for, with a slightly glazed-over look in their eyes, to a buzzing beehive of activity and noise.

Music to my ears.

I literally had to stop myself from jumping into the middle of each of the groups and going “YOU GUYS ARE AWESOME! ISN’T THIS FUN?!”


The Headline News Exercise Bears Fruit

At the end of the Headline News exercise (which took only a few minutes), we had a basket filled with the following fruits, giving us a great head-start to the rest of our 2-day session:

1) Energized and engaged stakeholders
2) Key words and phrases that would help build the project’s success criteria
3) An objective description of the project/product’s end-goal and most important features
4) A subjective look at what would make the stakeholders/team feel proud of the end-product
5) A vision for how the project/product was supposed to impact the end-user


What Next?

Once we had established the product/project vision, we started down the path of getting to know the end-user better. For what better way to start to write stories for the user than to get to know that user on a personal level?

But that’s a story for another time.


If you are in a position to help kick off a project or product planning session, give the Headline News exercise a try. Don’t underestimate the power of allowing people to collaborate on finding the language to express their collective vision.

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6 Responses to Extra! Extra! Agile Headline Exercise Gets the Ball Rolling

  1. Great Post Hala. This is a very good idea to implement. I feel this is quite similar to remember the future by Luke Hohmann to visualize goals as though they have happened, rather than focusing on what might happen. I use this for people to lay a roadmap when they are starting on agile transformation.

    I have couple of questions to you to help me understand the context better?

    1. What was the pre-requisite for you to start this session with team for product visioning? Like was it a new product or product running for some time which wants to change direction a bit?
    2. Was product owner was actively part of it?

    I would love to use it next time.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Hala says:

      Hi Avienaash!
      So glad to see you on the site, thanks for commenting.

      Regarding your questions:
      1. This visioning session was being held for a project that is eventually going to integrate into a larger end-product. The visioning was primarily for the sub-project but also took into account the overall success of the larger product. There was no pre-requisite except that we had a very supportive executive who wanted to use this as a blueprint for the team’s agile implementation moving forward. We were given the room to experiment within the framework of ‘Keep it Simple”, and “Start producing work ASAP to prove out concepts and course-correct along the way”.

      2. YES, the product owners were an active participant in both the Headline News exercise, as well as the release planning overall. They really rolled up their sleeves and got into it, which was so helpful. By having both the product owners and technical team members in the room at the same time doing the same exercise, we abstracted the problems a bit and expressed them with a shared language, instead of talking business vs. tech.

      Hope to see you back here soon!

  2. Joe Zenevitch says:

    Another variant of this is the “postcard exercise”. People pretend the project is over and they are writing a postcard to someone to explain why the project was such a success. Having it done by individuals ensures that you get a variety of different success criteria, not just what was agreed upon by a small group.

    • Hala says:

      Joe – thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I love it when the conversation continues into the comments and feel like it’s a great way for us to learn from each other.

      I really like the idea of the “postcard exercise” and think there are advantages to each approach. Like you said, the postcard exercise is more of an individual exercise, which is a good way to find out how each person is thinking of the project’s success criteria.

      On the other hand, the Headline News exercise was a great way to get people talking, break the ice for people who hadn’t necessarily worked together before, and create a sense of collaboration between teams that may sometimes be used to working separately.

      I think the postcard exercise actually sounds like something I might think about using for retrospectives!

  3. I’m a practitioner of agile for non-software development projects. The headline exercise looks like a great way to kick off project planning. Reminds me of Stephen Covey’s principle, “begin with the end in mind”. In this case, getting the desired end (how we want everyone to think of the product) firmly in team members’ minds.
    Jeff Franz-Lien recently posted..Agile Projects – PDQ Methodology: Part 2 The First DayMy Profile

    • Hala says:

      Jeff – this is beautiful. I look forward to more feedback from you and learning about how you use Agile in a non-software development context. I think I (as well as others) could learn so much from your lessons-learned in that space! I will definitely check out your posts.

      Beginning with the end in mind was exactly the point, and it is a great way to get people to think beyond “what do I need to work on today”, and as you mentioned, getting people to think of the desired end-state.

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