Design Sprints Aren’t Inefficient Enough for Some Innovation Projects

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Years ago I worked together with Ron Sears of the Design Consortium, a small boutique innovation consultancy that helped firms create the next generation of products critical to their company’s success. The process that Ron had developed took time and resources. Short projects took weeks. Important projects took months. Field resources worked in pairs gathering first hand stakeholder input. Project teams consisted of up to a dozen people over the project’s duration, with at least twice that many more drawn in for specific exercises.

Ron had been applying the process for years when I joined him. Originally, I worried that we were too inefficient and that more efficiency could provide our clients better value. One day I asked Ron, “If we quit doubling up interview teams and shorten our project length, we will still be able to get some innovation done for our clients. We will be much more cost effective and able to do more projects for them for the same amount of fees.”

Ron patiently explained to me, the newbie innovation guy, why that would be a huge disservice to our clients. Innovation, he explained, requires a level of inefficiency.

  1. More people on the project = more minds capable of aha moments.
  2. 2 people conducting an interview or observation = more raw information seen or heard. [We actually tested this. We counted the number of interview comments heard only by one of two people listening to the same interview — on average having a second listener produced 30% more raw information.]
  3. Truncated time = less raw information learned and less time for aha moments to occur.

Our clients expected us to help them produce a breakthrough next generation product — and that was much more important than optimizing a process for efficiency. Breakthrough solutions come at a cost. They require work. They require effort and investment. I couldn’t argue. I knew that Ron’s innovation process worked well and had created documented breakthrough results. It was a lesson I learned and have never forgotten.

But I secretly still wished there was a more efficient way. Years later, when I learned that Google’s Design Sprints are one of the most popular new innovations in the innovation space, I thought maybe they had solved the efficiency problem. After all, a five-day process compared to weeks or months certainly is a timesaver and resource saver. I’ve learned the sprint process, and I love it. But, if I were designing the next generation product upon which the lifeblood of my company mattered, I’d still use a more inefficient process (and I’m guessing that the creators of design sprints would probably agree — based on how a sprint gets narrowed in scope early on to accommodate the 5-day structure).

Here’s why.

Over the years working with Ron, I generalized how process-based innovation occurs.

  1. Solutions come from insight.

The sexiest part of any innovation project is the aha moment. The aha may not even be a solution. It might be an insight into the problem. It might be an insight into a mistaken assumption that has worked for decades to hold a product back. It might be a new insight into what really drives a customer segment. Some of the best insights are about how different parts of the problem are related.

Give me enough insights into what is important about a product (or what needs to be fixed), and I can design ideation projects (maybe design sprints!) that produce solutions. Without those insights, ideation solutions are mere uninformed guesses. The more informed your potential solutions are, the better.

2. Insight comes from understanding.

I’m not going to say that thoroughness of understanding linearly produces insight. But, when you are creating a deep understanding, your mind is ripe for the nonlinear aha moment to appear. Feed your mind lots of quasi-focused information and it sees patterns emerge and makes interesting new connections.

Perhaps I should really say that insight comes from “seeking” understanding. There is nothing quite like recapping a day of stakeholder interviews and observations with your design team and hearing, “OK, wait — so this was so cool — midway through the stakeholder interview it dawned on me what one of the main challenges are that our customers face. It is really the contradiction between [this need] and [that need]. Solve that and we win big!”

This level of insight is similar to Peter Thiel’s famous question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Deep insights give you an advantage because they describe what you understand about the customer, market, or product that competitors [likely] don’t understand. When competitors believe one thing about the market and you know that something completely different is true, you are designing your solutions from a strong position of advantage.

3. Understanding comes from immersion.

You don’t get to the level of understanding that produces insight by making a superficial effort. The process Ron created is quit similar to the immersive process that we know as design thinking. It emphasized applying what may seem like an inefficient amount of time and resources directly interacting with multiple stakeholders in the market at the very front end of the process — to fully understand the true reality of their situations.

Where design sprints take one day to form a level of understanding, we took longer than that just setting up our interview and observation visits. We resisted the temptation to bring experts in to inform us because the experts often are the folks who have the biggest vested interest in the status quo (and innovation is all about leaping past the status quo). Talking with the people who “know what the customers want” can be like talking to the prisoners of Plato’s Cave — where we only see a projection of the true reality.

In some cases, of course, the experts are brilliant, and their understanding may be sufficient — Ron and I did talk with them, just not exclusively, and we skewed our talks to actual stakeholders. So can you. Understanding the true reality your stakeholders face is within your grasp! You can become an expert! Just go talk with and observe the various stakeholders to the product you are designing. Immerse yourself in their world for an hour or two at a time. Go visit with at least a couple of dozen stakeholders — and do it in their own habitat.

Observe, ask questions, be open. Be ready to hear about or watch them doing things they hate [can’t fix it if you don’t know about it]. Be ready to hear or watch them do things with your product that it was never intended for — and then learn why. Be ready to hear what they love about your competitors’ products — and learn why. Be ready to understand their deep seated emotional motivations, not just the superficial actions or features they use to fulfill them.

The job of everyone on your design team is to understand as much as they possibly can about how each and every one of your stakeholders thinks and feels — internalizing that understanding well enough that they can proxy for the stakeholders. Through immersion, your design team becomes a super design team — designers who also possess the collective knowledge and understanding of the stakeholder base.

In conclusion …

A more immersive, robust, or holistic design process will allow you to gracefully and confidently tackle design projects that can positively change the fate of your company. That process will require a level of effort that likely looks inefficient to you (like most R&D investments), but can produce stunning results.

During that process, you should probably find time to run an efficient design sprint or two (or more) to address specific well-defined challenges. But I urge you, where your company’s future is on the line, to invest appropriately in a process that is inefficient enough to produce great immersion, great understanding, great insight, and great solutions.

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