Representation of a project management grid that includes playbacks

Playbacks align us across time

Playbacks bring stakeholders into the loop in a safe space to tell stories and exchange feedback. They reveal misalignment and measure progress against the big picture problem you’re solving.

Stay in sync

In practice, not everyone has time to be in the loop on every project. If you’re a project stakeholder, it might feel like the team has drifted off-course over time. If you’re on the team, it might feel like your stakeholders are out of touch with what your team has learned about the problem and solution. How do you keep teams and stakeholders aligned across time?

Playbacks are a time to bring stakeholders into the loop to reflect together. They’re a safe space to tell stories and exchange feedback about the work. Holding Playbacks consistently keeps teams and stakeholders aligned and in sync on a project’s ever evolving situation.

Stay focused on user outcomes

In a Playback, users are the stars of the show. Give them a face and introduce them by name. Bring your audience through the experience of what it’s like to be a user. The more empathy your audience can have for users, the more valuable their feedback will be.

a person in an eyeball representing a focus on user outcomes

Anatomy of a Playback

Playbacks come in all shapes in sizes. You can hold them one-on-one or with a larger group. You can showcase low-fidelity sketches or polished demos. Hold them anytime you need feedback from stakeholders, but consider scheduling them at regular milestones.

1) Invite stakeholders

Consider the work you intend to share, and the stakeholders it might affect. If you’re a software team, maybe your legal counsel needs to know you’re using a new open-source library. Maybe your sales teams need to know what’s next on the roadmap.

If you’re not sure who to invite, err on the side of inclusivity. Playbacks bring stakeholders together across organizational silos and levels of hierarchy , bringing diverse persepctives into the conversation and promoting a culture of transparency and inclusion.

2) Tell your story

Features and requirements are forgotten. Stories endure.

Stories show context. They have characters, relationships, and plots. Stories reveal a holistic picture of what makes up a user’s experience and help audience understand the stakes in a way that goes beyond project line items. In other words: stories make us care.

3) Listen for feedback and misalignment

Whether they’re an intern or a senior vice president, good feedback can come from anyone. Give everyone a chance to make their feedback heard. Capture what you hear without judgement.

Playbacks reveal alignment or misalignment on a team. If a Playback goes well, congratulations—you’re one step closer to moving forward. If disagreements arise, don’t panic. It’s time to take another loop around the problem and try again.

Four squares surrounded by lines representing iteration over time

Managing with Milestone Playbacks

You can hold a Playback anytime you need feedback. However, it’s helpful to schedule Milestone Playbacks at critical moments in the project when your team and stakeholders need to come together and agree on how to move forward. Though each team will have their unique milestone moments, here’s an example of how a typical IBM software product team might set up their milestones.

Hills Playbacks

At the beginning of the project, the team schedules a Hills Playback to ensure that all stakeholders agree on the project’s intended outcome.

The team opens the Hills Playback by sharing what they know about their users, where their product’s current user experience falls short, and what’s at stake. They discuss the project’s Hills, Foundation, and proposed resource allocation.

After a successful Hills Playback, the team breaks down into their sub-teams. Each sub-team explores potential solutions to take on their assigned Hill.

In your work: Aim to have a Hills Playback as early as possible. As you refine your Hills, continue to hold them as often as you need. Instead of trying to get your Hills right on the first try, move forward and iterate on them as you learn more.

Playback Zero

Once the team believes they’ve reached a proposed solution for each Hill, they schedule their next milestone: Playback Zero. Playback Zeros are a time for the team and stakeholders to agree on what the team will actually commit to deliver.

During Playback Zero, the team focuses on their proposed user experience. They tell a realistic, compelling story of a complete user journey for each of their Hills, visualizing the proposed solution in mid-fidelity: low enough to leave room for refinement, but high enough to get meaningful feedback. They travel through the solution at a high frame rate, moving through each screen the way a user might move through them.

After a successful Playback Zero, the team breaks their proposed solutions into agile epics and user stories, and begins to deliver real production code.

In your work: It can take time for teams to reach consensus. Don’t wait until Playback Zero to get investment from stakeholders. Hold draft Playbacks (“Playback -2”, “Playback -1” and so on) leading up to Playback Zero. Iterate until you’ve reached alignment.

Delivery Playbacks

At the end of each sprint, the team holds Delivery Playbacks to review the overall user experience and measure progress against their Hills.

Instead of relying on mock-ups or prototypes, the team runs the Playback using the real working solution. But unlike simple end-of-sprint demos, Delivery Playbacks tell the user’s end-to-end story through the solution, helping the team identify important user experience gaps they need to prioritize.

After a successful Delivery Playback, the team leads discuss whether the product is ready to release to real users.

In your work: Hold Delivery Playbacks after significant delivery milestones—for example, at the end of each sprint, or after you’ve achieved a Hill.

Client Playbacks

As the solution develops, the team holds Playbacks with important clients who have agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In Client Playbacks, the team presents their product’s roadmap, their three Hills, and the user experience they intend to deliver. In return, the clients provide feedback for the team to continuously improve their offering.

In your work: Before you hold a Client Playback, make sure you have the necessary legal agreements in place to share confidential information.