Of faxes and futures — Agile storytellers March 2019

How can an idea go from a light comedy about a weatherman getting accurate weather predictions by a fax machine (of all devices) become a Cold War industrial thriller set in Antartica about sex discrimination? Through the power of Agile of course.

At the latest Agile storytellers session we focused on Agile brainstorming and idea refining techniques to make ideas good enough to proceed with.

So this was a two part operation — not just coming up with ideas, but using Agile methods to focus on getting results quickly. And we did it using loglines.

20th Century Fox

Out of many, one idea

Loglines are one-line summaries of a film’s plot. Examples include:

“A New York cop in LA to reconcile with his wife must save her when her building is taken over by terrorists” — Die Hard.

“The youngest son of a Mafia don is reluctantly pulled into the family business when he must avenge an attempt on his father’s life.” — The Godfather

We had a lucky dip of print outs of different loglines we found on the internet, each drawing about half a dozen and then putting forward the 1 or 2 we thought best from our selection.

We then held a simple version of forced ranking, an Agile method of making people have an opinion on things they didn’t have.

The first logline we lay down was set us our middle rank and the other ideas were then laid as either better or worse in relation to it. We then reached the top 2:

Logline A: “After discovering a fax machine that can send and receive messages one day into the future, an impossibly inaccurate weather man struggles for career advancement while trying to maintain the space/time continuum.”

Logline B: “Two gay men from San Francisco move to a small Wisconsin town to open a sushi dance club.”

Deciding on and refining an idea

Both loglines had an equal amount of supporters in our vote. Taking an inspiration from 6 hats thinking we looked at it beyond our initial feeling. While we thought the sushi club sounded fun, we didn’t know enough about being gay men in San Francisco and/or Wisconsin, nor sushi or dancing to be able to make a story that didn’t rely on stereotypes and assumptions.

We then took our chosen longline as our draft vision statement. This meant it needed to be unambiguous, clear, fit with our values, be realistic, and short.

How to do this? First we thought about the questions and ambiguities that the statement prompted. We wrote each question on a sticky note then reviewed and grouped each question around a group, deciding on and labelling the groupings as:

  • The character
  • The rules
  • The setting

Now we could have had these groupings already planned as these are fairly standard throughout stories, but it was good to see them come about organically.

Everyone has ideas — everyone

Now it was time to get ideas on how to flesh out the story from these questions. But not everyone said that they had ideas. They were wrong.

The idea ball (roll of tape in this case) was thrown around the group. Every time the ball was received the holder had to come up with a suggestion for one of the 3 groupings or else pass. The ideas were noted.

Each idea could be independent of what went before and the aim was to generate ideas, not to critiquing or question too much on previous ones (although we did slide into that some times).

By the end and despite initial protestations of being bereft of ideas we had a rough idea of the character, where they were and when it was set and the rules of the world.

Being led by ideas, not forcing them

It was near the end that the rule about the fax — which had generated the most queries in the sticky note section — went from being a magical fax from the future to a regular fax, but with a message picked up by someone who shouldn’t have.

In part it was because we kept asking how the fax worked, what the timeframe of its predictions was, what the protagonist could do to solve the problem. Seeing as we saw it related to climate change, fixing it in a day was unrealistic, to put it mildly.

So we asked where would climate be important, the most visual place? After debate we decided on Antartica and once we did that ideas flowed.

That the protagonist would be locked up at some point and have to escape, that something big had to happen (a glacier collapse). That it had to be man-made so that a man could stop it.

But then we realised why a man, why not a woman, particularly as most of the group at the meetup consisted of women?

So why was she in Antarctica? To prove something? And while sexism is certainly no longer vanquished, the fax as a sole means of communication coupled with a more sexist time seemed appropriate.

Short time, many ideas

By now time was catching up on us and we still lacked a story, though we had ideas and a protagonist.

With pass the card we each wrote an idea for one topic then passed it on to be added by the next participant. Read out at the end we modified it somewhat but ultimately had a rough spine of a story and its key players.

Pass the card

But a story needs its memorable moments. So we took a sheet of paper each, divided it into eight and each drew a key scene or sequence — crazy eights.

Crazy eights ideas by one of the more artistic members

An MVP output

Once we shared we cherry picked the ones we liked. And behold we now had a minimal viable product (MVP), or minimal viable story, as an output:

  • a setting — Antarctica, during the Falklands War, due to faxes being key and the reason why they may be even more cut off
  • a big idea — what if someone found a message that they shouldn’t have, was trapped with the bad guys and isolated from help by thousands of miles
  • a protagonist — a female meteorologist who has something to prove (yes this is still fairly 2D but better than before)
  • an antagonist — the corporation that wants to carry out a mining test that could fracture an ice shelf (again, 2D but has a motive)
  • a ticking clock — the test that will cause a glacier to splinter off that will cause flooding and other damage
  • a series of key events — finding the fax, the entrapment, the escape, the finding of one of Scott’s old supply bases just when all seems lost, the climax (sorry, you had to be there)
Less artistic ideas by myself

Summary and lessons learnt

So in the space of 2 hours we went from a pool of wildly different ideas to one that only had the word ‘fax’ in common with what we created.

We were proud of how much we got done in such a short time. It wasn’t perfect but it was a lot more than the zero we had 2 hours prior.

As usual we ended with a retrospective to find out what worked and what didn’t work.

Overall the team liked taking a few ideas and building from there, the collaboration and how we got different points of view yet agreed on an outcome.

The team felt they learnt about listening, sharing and expressing, and to build on ideas.

But the venue didn’t score as well. We were in Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank and while the staff and bar were lovely, we did get a few interruptions for spare change and had neighbours who disturbed us.

This was a pity as the last venue, WeWork, was seen as too formal. So the hunt for the Perfect Venue (R) continues.

For the next Agile Storytellers session visit the Meetup Group.