Ross Little, IAG’s President and co-founder, when speaking to rooms of Business Analysts and Project Managers often talks about the BA’s version of the Blank Page Syndrome. Writers and designers are very familiar with the concept of being faced with a blank page and not knowing where to start and how to get that book or project going. Business Analysts are no different. Imagine you have been asked to facilitate a meeting to define the vision for a product or the scope of a project. Or maybe you have a bunch of items on the backlog that need to be discussed and prioritized, or a sprint to be planned, or a process or use case to be modeled. Where do you begin? How do you get going?

As you think about how you are going to lead the conversation, you worry how the will meeting go. Will it once again evolve into a rambling disorganized mess that starts slow and ends late? Will we end up pushing the actual work to later off-line tasks? And if so, won’t that defeat the purpose of the meeting – to collectively discuss the topic and get group consensus on the results.

For me, I start by asking myself,
• “What do we want to accomplish?”
• “What do we need to know and agree on to achieve that goal?”
• “What questions should I ask?”
• “What should we start with?”
• “What order should we do things in?”
• “What methods, models, or techniques could I use to assist in doing this efficiently and effectively?”

I am lucky to work at IAG and with a team of consultants that think this way too. I suppose it is because they have been doing this so long and on so many projects that they have figured a few things out – and have trained us in some great modeling and facilitation techniques. It also helps (I’ll admit) as a Business Analyst Consultant, to have some templates and cheat sheets. And this is where their Discovery Canvases fit in.

Discovering Discovery Canvases

One of the techniques I find most valuable is IAG’s set of Discovery Canvases. Anyone who has gone to business school in the past decade will be familiar with the Business Model Canvas. This strategic management framework was first developed by Alexander Osterwalder in the mid-2000s and has become a popular tool for illustrating the foundations of a business for startups and strategic planning.

Like the Business Model Canvas, IAG’s Discovery Canvases™ are flexible grid-shaped templates designed to enable the building and illustration of a model. As a business analyst and business architect this is exactly the kind of thing I spend a lot of my time doing so I have really found them valuable – as a personal planning aid as well as a visual collaboration tool for both in-person meetings and virtual sessions.

IAG first started using their Discovery Canvases™ in the late 2010’s and have developed a whole set of agile, business analysis, and project management canvases that they make available under Creative Commons Attribution license – so anyone is free to use and modify them.

There are over a dozen Discovery Canvases™ they have developed and use on their engagements as well as coaching and training sessions. Since 2020 they have been recently releasing them for public download in various formats such as PowerPoint, PDF, Visio, and Mural. Of all of them, the ones I like best and use most often are the User Story Discovery Canvas™, the Vision Discovery Canvas™, and the Use Case Discovery Canvas™.

These Discovery Canvases™ consist of the relevant building blocks for each of these models – thoughtfully organized, sized, and tested to support great conversations and enable the identification of the essential elements needed to create a Vision Statement, write and elaborate a User Story, or build a Use Case Model.
If I am in a meeting room, I might project the canvas on the wall, on our Smart Board, or even just draw out the canvas on the whiteboard. In a typical session, I will step through the building blocks, ask questions (in the recommended sequence), have conversations, and write up the thoughts as they are brought up. In other cases, we will use sticky notes, and all be huddled in-front of the canvas adding our notes and discussing them as we build the model. In virtual sessions, we use online whiteboard and visual collaboration tools like Mural which allow everyone to contribute and stay organized and focused on the objectives.

Organization and Focus

Organization and focused discussion, in a nutshell, are the crux and biggest benefits to me of these canvases: to facilitate a team through a series of specific questions that lead to an outcome of value. The canvas makes sure I cover all the necessary building blocks I need, helps me to keep the conversation on track, and gives us a great visual of the whole holistic picture.

Most of the Discovery Canvases (as the name implies) are designed primarily to support the discovery or initial essential aspects of the model – with the detail being elaborated and modeled in specialized tools or templates. As seasoned analysts know, the diagram of a process, or steps and sub-step detail of a use case, are not typically going to fit on a single page, flip chart, or whiteboard (even a 3X5 foot one.) The nice thing about the Discovery Canvases and their finite size is that they force us to separate the Discovery exercise from the Description exercise and be more iterative and incremental in our modeling.

Some Discovery Canvases like the User Story Canvas also include key blocks for downstream or planning purposes like Story Points and Prioritization Rating. One of the advantages of online meetings over low-tech face-to-face ones is the use of polling and rating functionality in tools like Mural and Zoom that enable these exercises to be done right within the canvas.

I do not necessarily use the User Story Canvas for every story. Some are simple and easy to work on without the visual help of the canvas, but, for me it has been an invaluable aid to break the story into its component parts that make it so much easier to have the conversations with our team for planning purposes and to start our sprints.

Over the coming weeks I’ll share more details on these canvases (including others such as the Business Case Discovery Canvas, Value Stream Discovery Canvas, Impact Analysis Discovery Canvas, Requirements Discovery Canvas, and BA Planning Canvas).

Visit our template resource center to download canvas templates. To get access to more canvas resources and notices for these canvases as they become available, make sure you follow IAG Consulting on LinkedIn or subscribe to their BA Insights newsletter.

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