Design Sprints, So Hot Right Now!

Put together a team of legends. Lock them in a room for five days. Add Lego, Play-doh, cardboard, post-its, sharpies, and real live customers. Get them to follow the design process and you’ve got yourself a Design Sprint, a powerful way to solve complex organisational problems, get products and services to market quicker, design better experiences, and set projects up for success. I’ve run a lot of Design Sprints recently, here are my thoughts…

Whiteboards and post-it notes are a must for Design Sprints

A Design Sprint, recently popularised by Google Ventures (read more here…, is where innovators, visionaries and experts come together to test an idea or solution, with customers, over a five day period. We’ve previously called these ‘Innovation Labs’, but I think the Design Sprints name suits the process better.

Design Sprints are a chance for people to explore a problem and be curious about why things are as they are. Without any expectations or pressure regarding time, quality or budget. Sometimes in design sprints, you realise the problem you went in with isn’t even a problem at all, and there’s a bigger issue that no-one wants to talk about, the elephant in the room.

These are the most lucrative Design Sprints, where you talk about the elephant in the room.

If you’re going to run a Design Sprint, the first thing you need to do is throw out all assumptions, hypotheses, solutions, and your rational mindset. You’ll also need to be comfortable with the ambiguity that the design process requires, and never plan to the nth degree. Start by taking a step back from the problem to discover, diverge and explore the full ecosystem, and then start to converge on a focusing question or design brief, which will guide the rest of the sprint. Before you hit ‘solution mode’ you’ll want to ideate.

We usually dedicate a good amount of time for ideation in our Design Sprints, perhaps half a day of standard brainstorming, funky ideas (what would NASA do, what if you had no money, etc.). Then allow time to synthesise and affinity map the ideas, coming up with concepts, and then building rough prototypes of the concepts.

Then test each of your prototypes with actual customers in real-time, getting feedback from them and then debriefing with your team before iterating to make them better and then testing them again. They need to be suited to solving real human needs, which will become evident in testing. To move from prototyping a concept to prototyping a solution, you need to keep iterating, getting higher fidelity prototypes after each round. Because Design Sprints are time-boxed to five days, you should dedicate up to two days for this process.

Using creativity, you can prototype anything, from an idea, to a service, business model, product, and even an experience.

We always start with lo-fi prototypes, as simple as a sketch or drawing on a whiteboard, then move into tangible higher fidelity prototypes as we learn more about the solutions.

Moving from abstract concepts to tangible objects is hard, unless you have Lego!

Because you’re time-boxed by the five days, you can’t prototype forever, so by the end of the week, you need to stop, decide which solution to go with, and then present that solution to the rest of the organisation, or a select few, in a showcase. Pro-top: you should use a bit of storytelling for this.

If the solution has wings, everyone will get excited, and it will take off, if not, it’s probably not meant to be. We call this the sink or swim moment, and it’s a highly valuable part of the sprint. Most organisations will throw cash at innovative ideas, even if they’re bad. The Design Sprint process weeds out the bad and allows you to focus all of your investment on the best ones.

Whenever we run a sprint, there are three key outcomes — actually, there are a lot more, but I’ll leave them for a later post — we convey to stakeholders and the team…

  1. You’ll learn a lot about the problem, the ecosystem it exists within and the human needs that underly it, and you may even come up with a solution for it.
  2. You’ll develop the sprint teams personal and professional capabilities, they’ll build networks, they’ll experience new ways of working, they’ll become legends and huge advocates for your company.
  3. You’ll get better at Design Sprints in your organisation, every time you hold a Design Sprint you’ll figure out what works, and doesn’t work within your business. Soon you’ll schedule one a month, then two a month, then you’ll just reconfigure the office space and run one every week.

Design Sprints are a practical way of applying design thinking techniques, with a human-centric approach, and in an agile way, that gives you a solution that will either sink or swim. I reckon it’s the best way to stay ahead of the curve, beat disruption, and keep your organisation on the bleeding edge of innovation.

Reach out if you want to know more!

All opinions are my own.