Why a Design Sprint is Better Than Real Life (and how to Keep Those Vibes When the Week Finishes)

BY JOBINA HARDY ON OCTOBER 6, 2017

Last month I participated in a Design Sprint, a structured and facilitated Lean development workshop designed and championed by Google Ventures. This is a regimented five-day process of unpicking a core business challenge and working up a speedy solution that then gets tested with real humans.

On the face of it, the primary goal of a Design Sprint is to fast-forward through a Lean business process to get to meaningful, validated learnings around a mean, meaty problem.

So far, so good. If you work as a product manager or with a product team or in a business with Lean culture and credentials, this is not rocket science and may feel commonplace. The processes and theory are familiar, but it is rare indeed to go from big, big problem to a solution tested with five users within FIVE DAYS. It should be possible, and yet…

It turns out the true genius of the Design Sprint is not simply its approach to unpacking a problem or creating solutions. The really clever bits are the people management, the time management and the context it sets for zero wastage i.e. the incredible ability not to get derailed by real life.

I had a blast in our Design Sprint. Some of that satisfaction came from a well-scoped problem and a well-probed solution; but mostly it came from the way of working within the team.

There is a strange satisfaction that comes from locking oneself in a room for a week with seven colleagues with a productive outcome, in a bonding experience akin to participating in group holidays or going on tour. The out-of-office gets turned on, the phone and laptops are left at the door and the team puts all its energy into a shared goal and experience.

A Design Sprint is a holiday from the day job; albeit a holiday where your brain is working overtime. And as with any holiday it has to come to an end and you’re left refreshed with a slightly more positive outlook on life.

There are some fundamental principles I have picked out that made the week so fruitful – that increased efficiency and increased morale – as everyone involved abided by them. And more importantly, these were rules that ultimately not only made the week fruitful, but made the week more fun.

Someone is Always in Charge – no ifs, no Buts, no Coconuts

The Design Sprint doesn’t care if you’re a longstanding C-suite exec or have been at the company for a week. The “facilitator” is in charge of the timetable, the “decision-maker” is in charge of the decisions, the team together does the thinking and the shared vision or goal is clearly stated in all-caps on the wall.

This avoids the infinite debate that we’ve likely all been part of: a discussion around an issue so divisive that even getting to the point of deciding to test something can be a never-ending cycle of meetings and emails.

It also encourages people to leave ego at the door. Even the “facilitator” is really being led by the Sprint process and the guidelines of the book. At any point they could call on that higher power to keep things moving along.

Everything is Always in Writing – Paper, Post-Its, Whiteboards

The Design Sprint is not a hyperactive, charged free-for-all of reckless creativity and debate. In fact it’s a very studious and focused week with a surprising amount happening in near-silence, save for the scratching of Sharpie on Post-It.

The format of note-taking differs throughout the week, sometimes designed exclusively for your own use as the note-taker and sometimes designed for sharing, collating and discussing with the team. But with each exercise, every individual was instructed to write down all their own observations, ideas and questions in easily-digestible 4” x 6” Post-It soundbites. In addition, every exercise is accompanied by a summary of thoughts/ notes/ findings that is created and approved by the whole group.

Almost all the Post-Its and summaries lived on the walls of the sprint room for the entire week and everything was of course photographed and saved for posterity at 5pm on Friday.

As a result, nothing was lost. No idea or thought went to waste. Even content deemed off-topic for this highly-targeted week has been kept to fuel future discussions in the coming weeks.

Perhaps more importantly, no time was taken up covering old ground. Barely any energy was used up repeating the same discussion, talking at cross-purposes or belatedly clarifying misunderstandings.

Breaks are Always Sanctioned – Snacks Optional

The Design Sprint is intense but not insane. The day is only seven hours long, from 10am to 5pm, including a one-hour break for lunch.

Even with this relatively short working day, the process actively called on regular and well-stocked breaks. Not an hour went by without the time-timer (a large visual timer used for every session) running to zero and emitting a piercing buzz, reminding us to get up, move around, have a granola bar, take a 10-minute meditation break, whatever we chose to step away briefly from the situation and get some space.

There is no doubt in my mind that this saved both our personal sanity and our abilities to work together as a group. Where there is passion and intellect there is inevitably debate and discussion – and having these real, physical breaks preemptively helps to diffuse any possible tension or cabin fever that may have built up over the hours and that could have had the potential to derail productivity.

Everyone is Always in the Room – Physically and Mentally

The very nature of having seven to eight people in one room set the priority very clearly – we have one goal and one week to get some useful and valid learnings on how we get there. However I know I’m not the only person who has sat through meetings, be they short or long, where physical presence does not equate to complete mental presence.

And here again the Design Sprint has some very clear wisdom for us: leave devices at the door; put the out-of-office on; use the time-timer to focus the mind on the task at hand. Combined with all of the above elements – the defined structure, the clear notes, the frequent breaks – everyone was entirely mentally present.

Every hour of every day represented a step forward in our collective understanding… no waste of intellectual energy

Having the same people involved all week, with the added safeguard of non-stop note-taking, meant that every hour of every day represented a step forward in our collective understanding. Again, no waste of intellectual energy.

After the Design Sprint – Keeping Those Holiday Vibes

The biggest process wins of the Design Sprint are textbook management principles – and they transfer well to a regular working day, even when you don’t have the luxury of a full week without distraction. So basic but with such great impact, these are the Design Sprint quick wins that I’ll be keeping day to day:

  1. Define meeting goals well – if it is a decision-making meeting, clarify upfront who is the decision maker; be strict about managing agendas and timings.
  2. Minute everything – it isn’t about bureaucracy or covering your back, it’s about making everyone more efficient and saving everyone time.
  3. Take breaks – not just for yourself but for the people around you, use that time for social catch-ups with colleagues or to give yourself some headspace.
  4. No devices unless absolutely necessary – you can survive without knowing your up-to-date email inbox count, and if you really struggle that’s just added incentive to make your meetings faster and more focused.

It takes a strong culture to invoke these principles with all employees in day-to-day life, but failing that, the best one can do as a product person is lead by example, talk the talk and walk the walk, even in life beyond the Design Sprint.

About JOBINA HARDY

Jobina is a Senior Product Manager at Tes Global, an education business in Central London. She held numerous job titles in her life in technology startups before stumbling across the one phrase that really made sense for all of it – Product Management. In case you’re curious, she also grows vegetables, enjoys fancy dress and sings a lot.

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