Design Sprints at CE+Co

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There are tons of posts, articles, and resources about Design Sprints floating around. The formula, originally developed by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz at Google Ventures, has created a simple step-by-step framework that maps five days worth of activities to the minute. The overall goal is to allow designers and non-designers alike to co-create, use design thinking, and jumpstart problem-solving for sticky business problems.

The five days at a glimpse

It’s easy, though, to fall into the trap of seeing Design Sprints as a magic bullet or a shortcut to a final product that would otherwise take weeks or months.

Instead of a shortcut, CE+Co views Sprints as an extremely well-informed and validated starting-off point.

We see great value in the design Sprint model, but we also are realistic about the fact that it is another tool in our arsenal—a tool that we believe is an invaluable way to:

  1. Kick-start innovation
  2. Involve a diverse cross-section of the organization
  3. Arm decision-makers and stake holders with validation for decision-making beyond the Sprint
  4. Improve your team’s working relationship

For us, Design Sprints aren’t just how we get to solutions quicker, they change how we all work together. This creates, not only better products and solutions, but an overall better employee experience. There’s an inherent yin and yang with great work and happy employees, and it’s at the core of what we believe and practice with all of our work. We think Sprints are well positioned bring the two together.

The CE+Co Customer/Employee Loop

We’re always evolving our views on all of our work, Sprints included, and we’d love to use this as a starting point for a larger discussion. That being said, here’s what we’ve figured out so far:

What Sprints are:

  • Accelerated workshops
  • Condensed, structured design thinking
  • A starting-off point
  • Uninterrupted and invaluable time with key stakeholders
  • An opportunity for co-creation across departments
  • A chance for shared understanding and better collaboration moving forward
  • An avenue for informed thinking through quick validation
  • A quick way to get to a prototype. No more, no less.

What Sprints are not:

  • They’re not a one-size-fits all cure
  • They’re not a final product. They’re a well-informed first iteration well on it’s way to a final product, process, service, etc.
  • They’re not an answer to all of your complex business problems, but they are a great start
  • They are NOT magic

The Design Sprint as investment

Five days is a long time. If you’re planning on getting key stakeholders to block their calendars and buy into the idea of a Sprint, the benefits need to be clear and realistic. While the prototype and validation that result at the end of a Sprint are the promised outcomes, there are softer outcomes like better communication and overall happiness of the team. CE+Co sees those softer outcomes as valuable investments that last well beyond the span of the sprint.

1. Investment of time

The five day Design Sprint is a natural team-building exercise. Remember those pizza-fueled late night sessions when working on group projects in school? Remember the lasting relationships that came out of those. Sprints are essentially the workplace equivalent.

When you get a cross-functional team into a room, you’re bound to learn a lot more about the way other departments approach problems. It’s also an opportunity to understand the thought process of the individuals involved. So much frustration in the workplace can be traced directly back to miscommunication or lack of common understanding. It’s natural to be siloed, especially when the work piles up.

The nature of the Sprint allows teams to break down those walls, come to a better common understanding, and start solving problems together. It’s democratizing, it’s humanizing. It starts to chip away at the us-versus-them mentality that can turn toxic when tensions run high.

As the team is brought closer together, the real value comes after the Sprint concludes. Teams see that the design process isn’t magic, it’s a way of thinking. It will help the non-designers understand where the design team is coming from, and it will help the designers, post-sprint, to foster an environment of better understanding and empathy amongst the team.

2. Investment in process

Process can be a tricky beast. We often set up projects with the best of intentions, only to see cracks start to form as the team gets busier. As deadlines start to get pushed back and timelines start to merge, process is often first to go. We slip into the we-just-need-to-get-it-done mentality where compromises are made, and the original intent of the final product is often watered down.

Sprints are process. And even though they’re condensed, it’s process done right.

Iteration and validation are the backbone of Design Sprints and the true success of the formula. The promise is that a Sprint done right allows for informed decisions as the prototype is taken beyond the Sprint’s conclusion. This is valuable for any team, but especially for a team that is prone to cutting corners and favoring efficiency and speed over proper process. Sprints show that you can have both, it’s just about mindset, structure and commitment process.

3. Investment in innovation

It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, Sisyphean nature of our jobs. Teams are busy, team members are busy, there’s always a ton of work to get done and an ever-growing backlog nipping at our heels. Sometimes we need a break from the routine.

And we all have ideas about how our teams can work better, how we should solve that particular problem, or even the direction our company should take. But we rarely get to share them, much less see them come to life.

Sprints help us to break out of that monotony while giving the team the chance to innovate together, whether that’s through a Sprint for a new feature, a new process, or even a Sprint on how you restructure a department. Employees are happiest when they feel that their opinion is valued. It’s an inherent and important cornerstone in the Sprint formula.

4. Investment in the team (employees)

When you invest in time, process, and innovation, you are automatically investing in the team. It’s ultimately a dedication of time and resources to working better and smarter. The Sprint gives visibility and a chance to stand out for those who may not have regular access to stakeholders, it allows stakeholders to spend time with the people they’ve hired, understanding the way they wrestle with problems and how they make decisions, allowing for better working relationships to form as a result. Sprints also bring transparency at the inception, ideation, and decision steps, making sure everybody involved ultimately feels personal investment in the resulting outcomes. CE+Co believes that this creates an invaluable opportunities that teams rarely have outside of the Sprint model.

The Design Sprint as “Recipe”

At CE+Co we don’t believe that the Sprint formula should necessarily hold any organization back. Sometimes teams simply just don’t have the five full days to dedicate without outside distractions. We get it.

While we still recommend doing the full five day Sprint, we do believe that it is meant to be used as a guide. Since every organization is different, and every challenge is unique, each “Sprint” may require a slight restructuring or even condensing to achieve the desired outcome.

The team that first conceived of the idea of Design Sprints at GV will be the first to admit that they borrowed ideas from other workshops or toolkits they had used over the years, pulling elements from tried and true frameworks developed by others and restructured them into a repeatable recipe¹.

That has given us the confidence to approach Sprints truly as a recipe, as if we’re in the kitchen baking an apple pie. You have different elements that all have to come together:

  1. Pie pan
  2. Pie dough/crust
  3. Filling
  4. Topping (crumble or another layer or pie dough)

Now, let’s rearrange those elements a bit.

If you remove the pie pan, fold the dough around the edges and remove the topping, you have a delicious, rustic galette.

If you remove the pie pan and the pie dough, separate the filling into 4 ramekins and sprinkle the crumble on top of the filling, you have 4 personalized servings of warm, satisfying apple crumble.

The end products are similar, sharing elements and flavor profiles, but they’re distinct and unique. Each one yields a different result and a different experience.

We have started to think about Sprints in the same way.

We’ve already had success breaking apart the “recipe” to help clients like Panera where we’ve begun to tailor sessions around their specific needs by introducing repeatable structure to their design brainstorms. We think we can take it a step further.

We see more and more examples around us where larger companies like Home Depot are starting to embed Design Sprints into their culture, where cities like Denver are using Sprints to reimagine public art, and we even see governments like Finland starting to use aspects of iterative design thinking to prototype legislation.

At CE+Co we believe that the Sprint formula can be atomized and slightly restructured for most business problems, HR challenges, or even as a way to bring forth new public policy.

What GV has given us with Sprints is a starting point. We’re excited to expand and iterate on the formula with our clients and partners to help inform better products, processes, and services while making the office a better place for employees.

Interested in talking to CE+Co about Design Sprints or design in general? Please feel free to reach out to Ryan Mulloy or Carlos Báez directly. We’re always looking to evolve our thinking over a phone call or a cup of coffee.

And if you like what you see, check out some of our other posts.