Tracing the shapes of multiple Design Sprints — a proposed typology
Design sprints have seen massive adoption in the past few years, driven by widely available resources and enthusiastic communities of practice. As our collective practice grows, their utility as a problem-solving tool has grown, too. People are experimenting with adaptations to take on bigger and more complex challenges, as was evidenced at a recent Design Sprint conference here in Paris, where one sub-theme was titled ‘One sprint is not enough’.
My own experience includes challenges like vision setting and org design, with configurations from two hours training sessions to elongated two week versions and everything in between, working with a tiny team in a sunny garden to 70 people in a hotel ballroom.
And while we as sprint masters tend to focus on the next Design Sprint — tackling each one as it comes — organizing multiple design sprints needs a zoomed-out perspective that go beyond our much-loved process model which lays out the 5–6 steps of a single design sprint.
To that end, I propose a typology based on two simple axis: 1) people 2) time and space.
A team runs a series of sprints under the same initiative.
This is the most common shape of the six that I’ll introduce, where a team sprints on what they know → unlock visibility → sprint again.
It’s typically applied to a specific product or service, and there might be agile development sprints in between or in parallel to the design sprints.
In my experience this is the most straight-forward type to organize because there are fewer factors to consider. Same team doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the same people but most likely there’s a large-enough overlap of participants across the sprints. It works best when the sprint master is bringing a strong product mindset to ensure outputs are aligned with the reality of any existing backlog and roadmap.
A team runs sprints as needed to boost their projects.
This type becomes possible when teams have internalized facilitation capabilities and run design sprints as par for course — it’s part of their process toolkit.
Typically, the team will position the sprint as a kickoff step to get everyone on the same page before launching a new workstream. By front-loading the thinking via prototyping and validation, they gain a powerful boost for their project.
It might look like:
- A full week sprint for a product team to flesh out a new feature they’re going to build
- An abridged sprint to onboard and align a wide array of stakeholders
An organization offers Facilitation as a Service to different teams.
If teams haven’t internalized the capability, and their organization has a centralized resource available, they can call a facilitator to run design sprints as needed.
Google’s Sprint Master Academy and Home Depot’s Design Sprint Program are two such examples, and both are built upon a strong training program that enables them to progressively scale resources to serve the organization. Home Depot’s program is the best documented example that I know of —learn more from Brooke Creef’s excellent series here.
I’m most excited by this type because of its potential to shift how an organization operates, and expect more companies to make this strategic investment under the umbrella of cultural transformation.
Multiple teams sprint separately but are facilitated together.
This type offers another way to scale design sprints towards different ends. Teams tackle their own challenges while sharing a facilitator and space, mainly for logistical purposes. (Imagine a big room with multiple tables of teams, facilitated by an MC with a microphone!)
Key use cases:
- Design thinking training that allow a large groups to experience the process, usually using canned challenges. Your team is whomever sits at your table.
- Startup accelerators that organize sprints for their startups, injected with lightning talks by experts and a group of mentors to roam the room to support the startups
- Intrepreneurship programs that use design sprints to get multiple solutions off the ground. Typically teams work towards a pitch to an investment panel at the end of the sprint.
Jake Knapp has a great case study that illustrates the unique considerations of this type of sprint: ‘How to Run 13 Design Sprints at Once: Inside Maker Week at The New York Times’.
Sub-teams tackle parts of a complex challenge.
This one also looks like an large room with multiple tables and an MC but the resemblance ends here — sub-teams are tackling parts of one complex challenge, from which the way forward relies on emergent connections. The activities are carefully designed for the teams to switch between narrow and broad scopes.
Here’s a case study of a design sprint with 70 participants. They were part of a multi-year initiative to build the internal workplace ecosystem for 220,000 group employees. Though there were twelve teams sprinting on sub-topics in the same room, we regarded it as one mega sprint — it wouldn’t have held nearly the same power as twelve separate sprints.
Different teams run sprints that feed into an overarching theme.
Here, a core team hosts standalone sprints under an overarching theme. Sprint teams may or may not have ownership of this theme.
In my experience this type is used for transformation initiatives that require time for sense-making. The sprints can’t be run in parallel because there’s a shift in thinking that the organization needs to make, and this can’t be rushed.
For example, we had a big project with a newly established CX team who was working up to greater organization-wide buy-in for their initiatives. We looked for teams who were curious about customer-centricity to sprint with us, and tied their existing challenges to moments in the customer journey. The sprint output was carried out on two different levels — for the team to integrate ‘back’ into their daily work, and for the CX team to abstract learnings and push forward with their initiatives.
Having a structured way to talk about multiple sprints has proved helpful for us to have more nuanced conversations about the opportunities for each shape, as well as the key facilitation decisions that will lift the sprint from good to great. My hope is for this simple tool to do the same for your teams, and that we as a community continue to explore and experiment together.
This article is a condensed version of my talk at the Design Sprint Unconference, organized by Le Laptop and Google Design in Paris, France on April 9th, 2019.
Thanks to Ross Chapman (Etch Sprints) and Milan Guenther (EDA) for reviewing early version of the typology and to Pauline Thomas (Le Laptop) and Kai Haley (Google Design) for gathering the Paris community for a day of exchange.