Using Design Sprints As Your Digital Transformation Vehicle

How Enterprises Are Using This Humble Innovation Tool To Redesign Their Organizations

Richard Banfield
Mar 6 · 5 min read

If you say the words “digital transformation” out loud three times and tap your heels together your entire organization will magically deliver all its value via the Internet, at low cost, and without any cultural upheaval. Poof!

After you wake up from this dream you will realize that only frustration and disappointment await your transition to being a digital enterprise.

So what if there was a way to make the changes needed without all the pain?

Turns out there is. Several enterprises have been quietly transforming themselves with the unassuming power of the Design Sprint. Home Depot, Lego, Northwestern Mutual, Barclays Bank and even the Google mothership itself, are changing behaviors and creating positive outcomes one design sprint at a time.

Last year I worked with the good people at InVision to create the Enterprise Design Sprint. In that book, we wrote about how these large organizations use the 5-day, 4-day, and 3-day Design Sprint formats to teach their teams how to think like designers and deliver results in short time-boxed efforts.

The 3-Day sprint. One of the many ways a Design Sprint can be executed.

The shorter Design Sprint formats sometimes referred to as Design Sprint 2.0 and Design Sprint 3.0 give these organizations the flexibility needed to be more inclusive while maintaining velocity. But these shorter formats are not an elixir to all the transformation woes.

The primary reason Design Sprints have emerged as a desirable transformation tool is that they deliver actionable outcomes in a very short period of time. In contrast to the months or years associated with solution-seeking projects, Design Sprint solutions are just days in the making.

I often joke at my workshops that the Design Sprint is really just a trick to get people to talk to each other. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s also true. Any Design Sprint facilitator will tell you that the most frequent feedback is “Wow, I can’t believe how much we achieved in a week” and “If it wasn’t for the Design Sprint, I don’t think we would have ever got this group of people in the same room for more than an hour.”

Design Sprints turn everything they touch into a high-velocity team effort.

Deep diving into a problem bonds people in constructive ways. Dealing with common challenges force foes to confront the things that keep them at odds with each other. Divisions between functional groups and individuals break down during the intensive work undertaken at a Design Sprint. These new relationships allow for faster decisions and thus an increase in velocity.

The exercises packaged in the Design Sprint shift teams from defensive group-think (“I can’t learn anything from customers”) to empathetic collaboration (“I’d never thought of it like that”). Exposing different functional experts to the domains of their teammates and seeing first-hand how customers respond to their ideas is transformative.

As any athlete will tell you, building the adaptation for peak performance doesn’t come easy. Effective training often means a deep commitment to a daily regime of work. While Design Sprints are generally faster than other methodologies at delivering solutions, their adoption in organizations can often take months.

Let’s look at some of the ways enterprises like Home Depot have succeeded with Design Sprints as their primary transformation tool.

  1. Support from a senior executive — In almost all the cases we studied, at least one senior executive has championed user experience or customer-centric design at the highest levels. Although this support isn’t sufficient to transform an organization, it is necessary to muster the resources and time needed to execute Design Sprints at scale.
  2. Consider starting without support, then switch strategies — In some cases, product teams proceeded with their Design Sprints without endorsements from senior leaders. This asking for forgiveness, not permission strategy can work well to get a single Design Sprint under the belt as evidence of its effectiveness. However, this is an unsustainable approach to scaling the Design Sprint adoption in the org.
  3. Clear communication of outcomes — The product leadership needs to spend time setting expectations and providing significant feedback before and after the Design Sprint. Both the pre-work and post-work efforts are intentionally over-communicated to senior sponsors and to the teams to drive the additional support needed to create momentum.
  4. Plan for resistance and interference — Regardless of the level of senior support and the effectiveness of the communication, there will always be resistance to doing new things. Do your research and understand who might be an obstacle so you can develop the assets to inform these people.
  5. Be prepared for a long journey — Transformation is extremely hard, even when you have the support and resources you need. Some of the teams we spoke to were only able to do one or two Design Sprints over the period of a year. This didn’t stop them. They persisted to share their outcomes and sell their ideas for several months before the rest of the organization caught on and embraced the methodology.

A Guide To Transformation With Design Sprints

Transformation can take years, but it always starts with a single event or decision. Developing a strategy to transform an organization will require both top-down support and bottom-up initiatives.

There are essentially five phases to using Design Sprints as a transformational strategy:

  1. Knowing when to use the Design Sprint
  2. Getting senior buy-in and support
  3. Planning the Design Sprint
  4. Doing the Design Sprint
  5. What happens after the Design Sprint
Each step, plus some additional details, are described in the Enterprise Design Sprint book.

Doing a Design Sprint for the first time isn’t easy but you’re not alone. Consider hiring a facilitator to coach you through the first few Design Sprints. You can also send your team to workshops near you that will help them break the ice and learn the methodology. Together with InVision and Front, we’re hosting workshops for prospective Design Sprint participants and future facilitators. Whether you do one of these workshops or hire a local facilitator, please get the support you need. The more confidence you have the more likely you’ll find ways to share your insights with the team.

The Enterprise Design Sprint book has everything you’ll need to guide your team through the process. There is also an ePub version of the book so you can download it and we’ve included a PDF facilitation guide.

Richard Banfield

Written by

Dad, husband, CEO of @freshtilledsoil & Partner @ Heroic. I write books on design & product.