Sprint (or: How I Learned To Stop Brainstorming and Love Doing)
Disruption is a pillar the new age of tech companies are built upon. Through asymmetrical warfare garage startups have upset billion dollar industries. Apple changed the way we use our phones. Airbnb rocked the hotel industry. Uber and Lyft blew up the cab market.
Startups’ possess the power to disrupt through thinking outside the box. Silicon Valley visionaries approach problems in creative ways that traditional firms wouldn’t consider. Sprint, an agile process from Google Ventures’ (GV) Jake Knapp, provides a stellar framework that hits out of left field with proven techniques for innovative ideation and peak efficiency.
“In that first sprint, we cut through the BS and made something ambitious in just a week.”
-Daniel Burka, GV Design Partner
Since Knapp introduced the concept in 2010 sprints have been employed by teams from startup Blue Bottle Coffee to NASA. Sprints have led to robots in hotels, fitness apps, and even Medium’s discussion section (which you should absolutely test out at the bottom of this post).
In his book “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” Knapp takes us through the basic framework of a sprint. The sprint is a five-day process to create a minimum-viable product (MVP) and test it on the target audience to gain valuable feedback before going all-in.
In my Project Management and Innovation Ideation class we broke off into teams of five to run our own projects through a sprint. Since the class only met weekly, we decided to run our sprint over the course of five weeks — dedicating each period to one day of the sprint.
Monday — Setting the Stage
On Monday we started by honing in on our long term goal: “to match students of all disciplines with electives that align with their professional and personal goals.” We grabbed a conference room with a whiteboard wall and wrote our goal on the top. According to Knapp, “magic happens when we use big whiteboards to solve problems,” and he aptly calls whiteboard “a shared brain.”
In fact, the whiteboard was so helpful in our sprint that I later bolted shower-board onto my own apartment’s walls to create a gigantic whiteboard (don’t tell my landlord).
We also mapped out key actors. This included our target market as well as experts who may have knowledge to contribute. Our market was university students looking for guidance on finding classes. Of course a solution already exists — academic advisors; so, these advisors were our experts.
From talking to students in our class, academic advisors weren’t cutting it. Since they serve just one of UGA’s many colleges, they’re unequipped to recommend courses outside of their given college.
Next, we channeled our inner reporters and went our separate ways to get deep input from as many of our key actors as possible.
We learned that students and advisors alike faced a common problem — UGA’s many separate colleges didn’t communicate course choices well to each other.
Internally choices were clear, but students were getting tied down to classes within their single college instead of broadening their horizons with interdisciplinary study.
From experts, we also gained key insights into the university’s current systems, and how they might be integrated and improved.
That’s where Class Match was born.
Tuesday — A Collage of Stolen Ideas
The second day of our sprint played out like a collage. We each came to the table with ideas other sites had implemented that we thought could work well with Class Match.
Match.com and Apple Music gave us insight into providing users with tailored choices based on their preferences. Other university’s sites like that of the University of Maryland and Miami Dade illustrated unique ways to display course offerings.
Finally, we made individual sketches to present the following day.
On Wednesday we created an art gallery by taping our rudimentary sketches from the previous day up on the walls of our creative space. Each was given a memorable name (among them “Boy With Apple” and “Mona Lisa”) and attributed to Anonymous.
By concealing authorship we were able to overcome barriers that ordinarily taint these choices.
For example, if I respected one designer or wanted to kiss up to the CEO I might view their sketch more favorably on a subconscious level.
Groupthink is another poison that can seep into these choices. To avoid it we instituted a rule of silence and each individually looked at separate sketches. We then placed adhesive dots to highlight the parts of each sketch we loved best.
Finally we broke the silence. Designs were critiqued by the group then each artist claimed their piece and explained its logic.
We then took the most popular bits of each sketch and, like Frankenstein, stitched them together into a cohesive storyboard.
Thursday — I Get Called an M.V.P. (for minimum viable product…)
Now to digitize our storyboard just enough to fool users into thinking it’s real. Coding the whole thing out sounds tempting, but Knapp urges against it. “Wasting time on the wrong thing is a major bummer,” he writes.
There’s a good reason everything up to this point has been on paper, post-its, and whiteboards. These mediums are just enough to convey your point without becoming too invested.
Similarly, your prototype should be just enough to convince your user it is real. Putting too much work into a prototype will make your team more attached to that prototype and it will be harder to pivot based on the feedback you’re searching for with your sprint.
At the 2007 announcement of the first iPhone, Steve Jobs faked it. The iPhone had half a year until it would be released but appeared to work perfectly in Jobs’ live demo. The phone didn’t actually work. It was flooded with bugs. But that didn’t deter Jobs — he mapped out his presentation to follow a very specific sequence to avoid software glitches.
Far more complicated products than yours have been faked. Knapp’s tool of choice is a simple Keynote. Ours was a combination of Sketch and Marvel.
Friday — The Great Bamboozle
It was finally time to test our product on the target audience. We grabbed two rooms side-by-side by a coffee shop on campus. This was the perfect place to find a diverse pool of students from UGA’s different colleges.
In one room was our interviewer, the prototype running on a computer, and a video camera on a tripod. Our other room was the command center. Myself and another team member screen-shared with the prototype laptop in the other room and listened in on the conversation.
To work, our prototype had to give users a tailored list of classes they matched with. All without a single line of code.
On Thursday we created seven different class lists.
From the command center I monitored the users’ responses and made live updates to our Marvel prototype that sent users to the class list that most lined up with their goals and values.
No-one saw through the smoke and mirrors.
In the end, we received tons of valuable feedback on the product. Sprint is an amazing process that should be in any project managers toolkit. It takes the best aspects of different agile methodologies and fuses them into an intense and rewarding week-long experience.
As Knapp says, “startups usually only get one good shot at a successful product before they run out of money.” Sprints make sure that your product is viable before you double down and commit. As Alexander Hamilton would say, “do not throw away your shot.”