Building Shared Understanding: The Document Revolution in Product and Software Development

By: Agile Velocity | Mar 19, 2015 |  Article,  Lean

Three people think they all agree, but don't - Product and Software DevelopmentThere is no doubt that the in-vogue tool today in product and software development is the “canvas”. Everywhere you look a new version appears touting new value and insights: Business Models, Opportunities Assessments, Organizational Visioning, and Sales Strategy. It seems like anything can be made into a canvas!

Canvases are the consequence of new innovative practices challenging the status quo of established organizations and social rules of how to run a business. It is a sign of the transition from traditional document driven product development to innovative and collaborative product development.

Organizations are challenged by what it means to get an agreement and ultimately shared understanding. In traditional product development organizations, shared understanding is created through charters, documents, lists, plans, charts and other formalized and signed documentation which tried to create a sense of tangible shared understanding.

“If we write it down, email it around, have a meeting and sign off, then we are in agreement!” Sound familiar?

No surprise that agreement is later fraught with misunderstandings and confusion about how the “agreement” translated into the real product itself. Let alone the lack of ability to deal with new information along the way that doesn’t fit into the signed off documentation, which quickly becomes not a document about shared understanding but a weapon in the war of who’s fault is it this time.

Today, it’s not about having a document proving an agreement. It’s about whether we actually have created a shared understanding of what we want to accomplish and how.

The collaborative act of building a canvas as a team (this is not an individual activity owned by one person) builds shared understanding leveraging ALL types of learning styles, (Visual, Audible, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic), thereby maximizing collaboration, understanding, and innovation. Now, our “documents” are “vacation photos” representing the journey a team takes together with an idea.

Canvases have become a new standard replacing the traditional agreement document. A quick, easy and collaborative tool used with a team to create a solution together leaving them with some visual history of where they ended up and where they need to go next.

Basics of a Canvas

The idea is pretty simple; there is no magic to creating your own canvas. Take an old approach to find agreement (document passed around) and find a way to build it visually. Check out a canvas below for a way to lay it out. Visually solve the problem together as a team on a white board (can fit on a picture or a smaller one-page document later). Use it as a team DURING a meeting to get closure on circling discussions. Come to agreements and action visually–organized in a visual layout (not a list). Leverage all four types of engagement. (Visual, Audio, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic)

Stop trying to collaborate with only words.  Visualize it.  Canvases can help meet the challenge of documentation that fits the fast paced and innovative product environments of today.


Here are a few of the original and most popular ones that started the movement.


Join me in the upcoming Lean Product Discovery workshop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

< Back