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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.