The Top 10 Ways to Kill a Creative Sprint

A few years ago I’ve realised the creative process could be hacked. Forget months of frustrating work through rounds of half-baked ideas, inaccessible clients, incomplete briefs, unfocused teams, untested hypothesis, expensive meetings and the like. I’ve learned how to bring down those barriers and solve creative problems from brief to completion in only 5 days.

After running over 30 creative sprints across 14 countries in the last 3 years, first alone — and then with my partner Jussi at The Sexy Beast — there is a lot I’ve had to rethink to keep the sprint methodology running smoothly. In contrast, there is another lot I’ve had been flexible about and then quickly realized I shouldn’t have.

Discover below the top 10 ways the universe will conspire to kill your sprint.

1. Insufficient preparation

The “Let’s wing it!” mentality.

Creative sprints must be predicated on curating and preparing every single element with a lot of time and care. From the brief to the experience to the participants to the collection of data to the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute methodology flow, everything must be precisely analysed, discussed, tested and refined.

I’ve entered one too many so-called “creative sprints” as a guest where the leader only had a start and end point in mind and everything else in between was a total let’s-wing-it game. Needless to say, the results ranged from wasted-opportunity to total-fiasco.

Tip: Spend twice the time dedicated to the actual sprint before it happens, making sure all is perfectly planned and aligned. Yes, a successful 3-day sprint (8h x 3 = 24h) will require 48 painstaking hours to prepare.

2. Unclear brief

The “This is all the client knows” trap.

In the agency environment, a strategist or account exec theoretically works with the client to make sure the brief is tight and actionable. In my experience, 90% of client briefs focus on the wrong problems or have skewed expectations of what can be achieved during a sprint.

Do the hard work of collecting the relevant information, having all the right conversations and challenging each key stakeholder until you arrive at a precise and sexy brief / debrief for your sprint. Get detailed answers regarding budget, timeline and internal limitations too. Don’t rest with “excite us and the money will materialize!”. You should know better…

Tip: Kill the “client brief”. Rather, use it internally only in order to create a reworded “Mission brief” that is very concisely phrased in one or two lines and makes the whole team shiver with excitement.

3. Wrong people

The “I have this great friend” syndrome.

Creative sprints are loads of fun. When done right, they can be life-changing experiences. Once the word gets out, many will likely want to join in. Be careful. You must choose participants based on the skillset gap in the group (those who can bring something the group needs), personality (prefer great “doers” rather than great “talkers” — more below), attitude (whoever can be 100% focused on the sprint) and decision-making ability.

Avoid those who have none of the above, but are pressed into the group for political reasons. You may think that it won’t change much, after all “it’s just 1 person out of 10” but sometimes it takes just one person with the heart in the wrong place to kill the momentum & energy of the group.

Tip: Ask all participants to do a little homework and create a short 10–15 min presentation not on themselves, but on some subject that is directly related to the world you will be immersed in. There is no better way to make sure everyone is engaged and ready to hit the ground running.

4. Hiring big talkers

The “I am a strategist, a thinker, not a doer” hoax.

Run from people who have big pedigrees and can talk the talk instead of walk the walk. When you are staffing for a fixed position at a company, people who can articulate high-level concepts and have little interest in executing anything can indeed add massive value. During our sprints, those people add very little. We believe in putting ideas into practice right then and there. That means that for about 80% of the time the people in the room are tasked with solving different aspects of a problem. Anyone could be asked to open up their laptop and try their hand at writing a script, designing a button, shooting a scene with their mobile phone, calling a vendor to check on the price of something, doing desk research and understanding if the technology we need is available, etc. That heavy lifting is what makes an idea fly or die. We need heavy-lifters.

Tip: When interviewing people for your sprint, be very frank about the need to get one’s hands dirty. Check for their excitement or reluctance in the proposition. I’ve had to pass tons of super talented people who just weren’t up for that sort of challenge.

5. The decision-makers can’t participate

The “Now that my boss saw what we did…” nightmare.

Unless the decision-makers can participate in the sprint, it won’t be effective. The starting point of a sprint is that instead of months of siloed work and then a big presentation moment that will yield rounds and rounds of feedback, the group is all together making small and big decisions every hour of every day. Moreover, you will notice that there are many moments when new information will pop in and only someone with deep knowledge of the brand and authority to call the shots will have the ability to see past these conundrums and influence the group on how best to proceed.

Tip: If you really can’t get the big-wigs to participate, get the key decision-makers to commit to a quick 15-min phone call at the end of each day, where the group relays the progress of the day and collects feedback. The decision-makers must feel like they are part of the process and can influence the solution as it’s created, not after.

6. Let a bit of chaos in for creativity

The “Let’s go crazy and solve this” push.

Don’t. There’s a big difference between going crazy with brainstorm exercises, or some other small part of a group dynamic, and having the full experience drift away in an uncontrolled manner. Groups tend to lose focus quickly, big personalities flourish into needy teenagers and others wither away. Learn to run a tight ship. Keep conversations focused on the matter at hand, keep off-topic subjects to a minimum and don’t be afraid to tenderly cut people off to make sure other points-of-view are heard by the whole group.

Tip: Get participants to hand in their cell phones when they get into the room — just leaving on mute or turning it off is not enough. Once the anxiety passes, they will realize their level of productivity has shot sky-high for the first time in years.

7. Run a total democracy

The “Search for consensus” fallacy.

Democracy and consensus only work to a point during a sprint. Sprint leaders must be able to facilitate group discussions with dexterity. The natural tendency for a group running a perfectly democratic decision-making process is to either head to extremes (too risky), meet in the middle (lame output) or freeze (no output). Consensus is a rare commodity, don’t aim for that. Rather, leaders must explore issues deep enough to yield the favour of the vast majority and find a way to keep those who end up not aligning with the chosen path motivated and engaged.

Tip: When confronted with big decisive moments, do a quick voting process before letting everyone chime in, otherwise you will kill too much precious time. Make sure you can bring down multiple possibilities to a manageable 2 or 3 options and then promote a group discussion where everyone is heard until you can collectively choose the best option more quickly.

8. Don’t test with your audience

The “We have experts, they know what’s right” nail in the coffin.

The old way of doing it — get the research, find an insight, produce a solution, apply — doesn’t work. However strong the research, info, strategy or experts you have brought in, doubt them all (including your own expertise). Getting creative in a bubble with a dozen or so greatly talented people gives us a sense of confidence that is often misplaced. Doubt your creative solutions. In fact, stop calling them solutions. Start calling them “hypothesis”. That’s all you have. During a sprint your objective is to build a huge volume of hypothesis and test them with your audience right then and there so that the group can be illuminated with a good dose of reality check.

Tip: Only make big decisions based on how your audience reacts. We always bring consumers in on days 2 (concept) and 4 (key visuals). We shortlist our best hypothesis down to a manageable 2 or 3 options and then present to them. We then let them tell us what’s most exciting and what solves their problem the best. Only then we advance to the next stage.

9. Don’t have a precise deliverables list

The “Let’s go as far as we can” deception.

Agree on the tangible assets you are looking to deliver at the end of your sprint. Is it a working demo of a product? Rough paper sketches or visually designed and coded? A brand purpose or all the way to brand guidelines? Start planning backwards. Your delivery list will inform who needs to participate, how you divide your days and how you keep everyone motivated and on point towards ultra-high-quality. There will be several moments when the sprint will get tough and the group will slide towards a less abrasive path (ie: deliver less now, we’ll figure out stuff later). Keep the agreed-upon deliverables list dangling in front of everyone for inspiration.

Tip: Don’t waste too much time with details in an initial phase. Agree on an exciting solution early on (say, day 2 of 5) and move on to prototyping and testing. The rest of the time should be spent making / testing / refining / testing / refining / testing so that you can get to final assets. Remember, a theoretical idea on paper is not as powerful as a prototype in your hands.

10. Save money on the set-up

The “We have this rarely-used room in the back” phenomenon.

How would you feel about being stuck in a badly-ventilated drab corporate meeting room with 15 strangers, having to pump out the best creative work of your life under extreme amounts of pressure? Yep, it’s a vision of the apocalypse. The location, the room, the food, the decor, down to the temperature and other intangibles, all signal the team is united to do something big, important, new. As the novelty of the sprint wears out after the first day has come to an end, people will start losing focus and fatiguing at a violent pace if the environment is not inspiring and energising.

Tip: If you are tight on cash prefer heading to a large & airy, albeit less well-equipped, space. Be creative with the set up. Order in some cheap but unique food. Stay away from the uptight corporate and the equally uptight “this could be a trendy NYC lounge” vibe. Prefer a setup that is chilled and comfortable so that people feel relaxed and produce better.

Bottom line: the universe will conspire to kill your creative sprint because it requires a completely new mindset, approach and focus. And “completely new” will always sound risky. You can mitigate those risks by preparing yourself and others in minute detail. Start now! Kill it!

World traveler, Japan lover, bad cello player and award-winning global creative director.

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