Design Sprint

The 4 Core Principles of the Design Sprint Process

And how it drives more innovation than meetings.

When it comes to innovation, meetings don’t have a great reputation. Research compiled by TED shows that “50% of people find meetings to be unproductive” and “25% of meetings are spent discussing irrelevant issues.”

There’s real economic impact for bad meetings too. According to the same research from TED, “executives average 23 hours per week in meetings where 7.8 of those hours are unnecessary and poorly run, which is equal to 2 months per year wasted.”

Take a moment to imagine the cumulative impact of wasting 2 months for your team and business (!!)

Underlying the symptoms of ineffective meetings are cognitive biases that are inherent in collaborative work. In particular, I consider the below biases the Four Horsemen of innovation failure:

  1. Confirmation bias – we seek out information that supports what we already believe.
  2. Anchoring bias – we rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive.
  3. The halo effect – we allow our impression of a person in one domain to influence our overall impression of the person.
  4. Optimism/pessimism bias – we estimate a positive/negative outcome based on our mood.

So how do we organize better meetings that develop better ideas?

Enter the Design Sprint process

The Design Sprint was developed by Google Ventures to prototype and test any idea in just 5 days. Instead of spending weeks or months building something in a vacuum, you validate an idea with real customers within a week. It essentially allows you to fast forward into the future so you don’t waste time and money going down the wrong path.

What’s beautiful about the Design Sprint is that it neutralizes much of the impact of the Four Horsemen by, ahem, design (no pun intended). The creators of the sprint, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, thought carefully about the ways to remove biases by creating a process that allows for innovative ideas to emerge.

Without furtherado, here are the 4 core principles of a Design Sprint:

1. Together, Alone

The biggest misconception of innovation is that “group discussions = great ideas.” While group discussions are valuable, they often lead to the most outspoken or senior person – sometimes both – influencing the opinions in the room. 

The biggest misconception of innovation is that “group discussions = great ideas.”

Both of these situations have a chance of triggering cognitive biases such as the anchoring bias (e.g. the first person that speaks steers the discussion in a certain direction) or the halo effect (e.g we allow a senior leader’s expertise in one area to influence our thinking on an area they might not have experience in).

In constrast, when we create time for individual thinking during an innovative process, we level the playing field. It allows introverts to collect their thoughts without being distracted and extroverts to refine their ideas before they share them.

In a famous example, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is known for providing everyone time to read a memo at the start of a meeting before discussing it. He understands that many on his executive team don’t get a chance to read the memo let alone think deeply about it.

Meanwhile, in a sprint, everyone is given time to brainstorm their own ideas prior to a group conversation. In fact, much of thinking in a sprint is done alone to avoid biases that may arise from sharing ideas too early. Even voting on the best idea is done anonymously.

While it may feel unnatural to be together, yet alone in a group setting, it’s important that everyone gets time to formulate their own ideas and opinions.

2. Tangible > Discussion

Many of us have sat in on meetings where we seemingly get agreement from everyone only to discover that days or weeks later, we need another meeting to clarify what we originally agreed upon! This can be a frustrating time suck and increase tensions within the team.

The second principle, Tangible > Discussion, is to use visuals to help people express and assess ideas. Visuals do three things:

A) It forces the presenter to clarify their idea;

B) It reduces the chance of confusion or miscomunication; and

C) It provides the team an opportunity to build on the original idea and provide tangible feedback.

You don’t have to be an artist to leverage visuals. It can be as simple as a few boxes, circles, stick figures, and/or arrows.

In a sprint, we use exercies such as a Four-Step Sketch or Storyboarding to clarify ideas and share them with the team. These activities create space for participants to flesh out their ideas and visualize them without feeling intimidated about sketching.

So, if you’re sharing an idea or concept in your meeting, try to make it tangible. For example, if there’s a key idea you’d like to walk the team through, sketch it out and share it with the team. If you’re working remoately, you can leverage online whiteboards like Miro or Mural to help you capture key ideas or sketch out a concept for the team.

3. Getting Started > Being Right

I can almost guarantee this is where you’ll get the strongest resistance from your team. As human beings, we seek out information that matches our beliefs. The confirmation bias is real folks!

The challenge for any creative process is how we can solve a problem we’ve never solved before. Relying exclusively on our past experiences or knowledge won’t be enough.

In a sprint, the goal is to move fast and gain momentum. The point isn’t to come up with the perfect prototype but something good enough to test and learn from. We’re essentially placing an educated bet on what we think might work.

[In a Design Sprint], we’re essentially placing an educated bet on what we think might work.

This is where having a reliable process to generate and select the best ideas truly matters. If you have a structured process that allows for unbiased idea generation and selection, your team will likely be more comfortable trusting the best idea to emerge.

The good news is that with a sprint, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work within 1-2 weeks. So having your own process that provides a rapid feedback loop from idea to testing will give your team more confidence that they’re going in the right direction.

As Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, wrote, “the only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.”

4. Don’t rely on creativity!

The final principle is a little provocative. After all, isn’t innovation all about unleashing people’s creativity?

Yes and no – the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Creativity is a fickle thing. Some days we’re in the mood where inspiration strikes like lightning and some days we’d rather be tucked comfortably under the warm covers of our beds.

Don’t rely on creativity is a reminder that we can’t afford to wait for our creative muse to appear in order to do great work. The best way to innovative is by testing and learning then testing and learning some more.

A process like the Design Sprint helps us avoid the optimism and pessimism bias because we’re not relying on our daily mood for inspiration. As a team, we commit to a process that will help us clarify our direction forward.

What’s next?

If there’s one thing I hope you takeaway from this post, it’s that process matters when it comes to designing your collaborative meetings.

As a leader, your role is to orchestrate innovation by providing your team with the space to generate new ideas and synthesize them into an actionable plan. By having clear principles and a process for innovation, you give your team the best chance to innovate.

Whether you’re running an actual Design Sprint or looking to design better meetings, I hope the 4 principles will help you create the space for better ideas to emerge.

If you’re interested in learning more about a Design Sprint, I encourage you to reach out to me for a 25-minute virtual coffee or come out to one of my future workshops to preview a sprint experience.

Design Sprint

How to Reframe Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity

Space is a heck of a place to run into problems.

In the 1995 movie Apollo 13 there’s an iconic scene in which NASA Flight Director, Gene Kranz, (played by Ed Harris) draws a map of the Earth and Moon on a blackboard.

It had been two days into the mission when an oxygen tank failed aboard the spaceship causing an explosion in the main service module. Without the module operating, the crew had to move to the lunar landing module as a lifeboat.

In the scene, Kranz gathers the mission operations team and draws a map of the flight trajectory that the damaged Apollo 13 would need to track to return back to Earth safely. It was a simple map for a complex problem.

Over the course of the next five days they would have to navigate a series of obstacles that required the crew and the mission operations team to find creative solutions. Anything and everything was on the table.

Every time a new problem emerged, Kranz gathered his team around the blackboard to discuss the challenge around their central goal: get the crew back home safely.

Reframing Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity

It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going wrong or what could go wrong. But maybe there’s a better way of looking at obstacles? 

In fact, problems themselves can be an opportunity for creativity and innovation. When teams can gain clarity about the problem and break it down into questions to find answers to, we might just create the space for innovation to happen.

Here’s an activity to try with your team at your next (remote) meeting called Starting at the End.

It sounds obvious but one of the most forgotten steps when launching a new project is clarifying the objective. Even taking the first 30-60 minutes of a project to talk through these questions as a group can help clarify the direction and rally your team around a common goal.

Here’s the first question:

  1. Why are we working on this project or problem?

Take your time with this question. Beyond the obvious answers around hitting certain metrics or deliverables, there may be some deeper whys that emerge from you and your team that create an emotional connection to the problem you’re solving. Just like the mission operations team rallied around “get the crew home”, this will be your team’s core motivator.

  1. Where do we want to be 12-18 months from now?

Depending on the scope of the problem, you may want toggle with the timeframe here. Maybe it’s 6 months or even 5 years? Personally, 12-18 months is a sweet spot if you’re looking for a balance between an aspirational goal while also being focused on tangible milestones you want to achieve.

  1. Imagine we travel into the future and our project failed. What caused it to fail? What went wrong?

Now we switch gears. In the first two questions, we painted a picture about what success might look like, but now we want to look at the obstacles in the way.

Note that after you pose this question to the team, it’s natural that the energy in the room might dip. Uncertainty is uncomfortable especially if it’s a project you’re excited about. But it’s important to embrace this tension and make sure everyone in the room has a chance to share what they might be worried about before we move onto the final step.

  1. To reach our goals, what questions do we need answered?

This is the last, and the most important step.

Now that we have a list of challenges we might encounter, we’re going to reframe them into questions. Problems create uncertainty but interesting questions help activate curiosity.

Problems create uncertainty but interesting questions help activate curiosity.

Here’s how you’re going to phrase the questions: “How Might We…” 

How Might We (HMW) questions transform the mindset of your team by helping them consider  the possibilities. We’re all so wired to fix things, but what innovation needs is more curiosity and space to explore. Here are a couple of examples of transforming some existing obstacles & assumptions into HMW questions:

Solving a Big Problem? Consider a Five-Day Design Sprint.

The activity above comes from a process designed by Jake Knapp and John Zeratzky called a Design Sprint. In fact, it’s one of the first activities you’d do in the sprint to gain clarity on what you’re trying to solve.

Here’s what that process looks like:

  1. You spend the first day identifying your goals and mapping the current process for your key stakeholders. 
  2. On the second day you focus on ideating and unleashing your team’s creativity. 
  3. On the third day, you decide on the ONE area you want to prototype a solution for. 
  4. And by the time Friday rolls around you’re actually testing your solution with real clients.

Thinking five days is too short to prototype a new solution? Take this example of an insurance company that condensed 6 months of meetings & discussions to come up with a prototype in 5 days.

The best part is that not only are you reducing risk, you’re saving time. One of the characteristics of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world we live in is that the rules change quickly. If your launch timeline isn’t reaching your audience quickly, the project itself may be too late.

How Are You Thinking About Problems?

On April 17th, 1970 – five days after the launch – Apollo 13 splash downed in the South Pacific. Although fatigued from dehydration, the crew was alive and in good condition. It was an amazing achievement given how dire the situation was only days ago.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out how to solve a problem but we do need a good framework to help us get started. If you’re just about to launch a project, give the activity above a shot and see if you can reframe your obstacles into HMW questions. Your team will thank you for the simple switch in the mindset from uncertainty to curiosity.

P.S. I’m running my second workshop on October 23rd for creative leaders (like yourself!) to bring more fun and innovation to solve your BIG problems. Registration is capped at 10 people and the last session sold out. So grab your ticket early and I hope to see you there!