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Posted: 11 June 2021
By Alastair Lee

The stars that guide the sailboat

The Sailboat exercise is a neat way for teams to think about the factors that affect their success. But we’ve found that the standard canvas is missing a place for capturing what the team needs to focus on now. So we’ve introduced stars!

Download this canvas - links at the bottom of the page

Picture the scene. There’s a Miro board, with a sketchy picture on it. It features a sailboat on the ocean, an anchor dragging along the seabed, a paradise island and some hidden rocks.

Virtually gathered around is a team of people. The facilitator explains what’s happening.

“Ok folks, today we are going to discuss where we’re going (island), what’s working (wind in our sails), what’s holding us back (anchor) and any potential risks to our success (rocks). And then we’re going to discuss ideas for how to improve matters (uhh… stars?).”

You’ve probably been in a session a bit like this. It’s similar to SWOT analysis. It originated with a speedboat (focused on the anchors only) and then became a sailboat, with these additional elements.

The exercise aims to help a team to take a step back and reflect on where they are, and agree on priorities of focus. Should they maintain the wind (key stakeholder support), or remove anchors (technical debt)? Should they mitigate the risks (assumptions) or clarify the goal (product vision)?

What’s nice about the canvas is that it reminds everyone that they’re all in the same boat. Working together towards a common goal. Battered by the elements, and so on.

It’s useful as it stands, but we think it’s missing something: action. 

That’s why we add stars – they’re what guide a team towards the goal.

How it works

1. Explain. Facilitator explains the canvas

  • Sailboat – our project with us a crew
  • Wind – strengths, what is helping us move forward
  • Anchor – problems slowing us down
  • Rocks – risks, things that could go wrong
  • Island – our shared goal, what success looks like

2. Create. Everyone individually spends 20-30 mins creating sticky notes for each element

3. Group. Discuss each element in turn, starting with the island (as clarifying the goal puts everything in context). Group the stickies under headings. Do this for all the elements.

4. Vote. Everyone gets 5 votes and votes for the headings they think are most important to discuss.

5. Ideate (create the stars). Start with the most popular heading. Discuss what to do about it. The facilitator creates a star sticky for each solid suggestion and places it in the sky between the boat and the island. The star-stickies can be written as focused ‘how might we’ statements (e.g. How might we validate demand for this feature before we build it?), or as actual solution ideas (e.g. run a Fake Door experiment in the newsletter). Don’t worry too much. The aim here is not to get to detailed action planning, that can happen in a separate session with the appropriate people. This is about agreeing as a team what we need to focus on in order to get to our goal.

Grab the canvas

We’ve made a Miro canvas that you can copy with some example stickies (as per the image above). Or you can download a blank PDF.

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