Why design agencies should embrace sprints

I’ve spent many years on both sides of the agency divide — first as a co-founder of an agency (that just turned 16 years old!) and now as a client who hires design agencies for projects. The longer I’ve been in this game, the more I’m convinced that agencies need to find new models if they want to be indispensable to businesses and avoid relegation as more and more companies hire design in-house. Sprints offer many advantages for agencies over typical fee-for-service work.

These days, I’m a design partner at the venture capital firm GV. Our team does many design sprints with GV portfolio companies in all kinds of industries. After well over 100 of these sprints together, we’re very confident that the process works. In fact, we’re so bullish about sprints as a way to improve businesses that we just wrote a book about it that you can pre-order today.

Never heard of a sprint? A sprint is our five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. It’s a rapid way to test your assumptions, try big ideas, and get data before you commit to building a product or feature. (More here.)

Sprints are neither just for in-house teams nor just for startups. I’m convinced that sprints offer design agencies a recipe for doing better work and providing more value to their clients.

Here are five of the most important benefits you’ll see by embracing sprints at your agency:

1. Avoid driving around in circles

How many times have you been in the middle of a project and the client sees the work in progress, freaks out, and demands a radical change in direction? I see it all the time. It’s usually the result of a project plan that’s too specific and too hypothetical. Adding features, abandoning ideas, correcting assumptions, and changing course are inevitable, and even expected, in product design. The real danger lies in getting too far down the road before making these changes.

Sprints give agencies and clients a recipe for better project planning. In just one week, you can try a whole bunch of ideas, figure out which ones are promising, and identify the dead ends. After one or two sprints, you and the client will know enough to set a course that has a foundation in reality — not guesses.

The result is less churn and more certainty. So, learning with sprints is better for everyone and it’s way better for your agency’s bottom line.

2. Build relationships the smart way

The GV design team working with a diverse group from Blue Bottle Coffee including the CEO, the CFO, the head of product, engineers, and customer service.

A common pitfall of agency work is that clients expect your team to disappear into your design cave (beautifully furnished, of course) and come up with magic solutions in isolation. You know as well as I do: that’s not how great work happens.

You might be the world’s best design agency, but your client is the expert in their domain — whether that’s oncology, social networking, real estate, coffee, or whatever else is at the core of the business. In a sprint, your clients’ domain experts work hand-in-hand with your agency’s design experts. Work with your client, not for them.

You can also use sprints to “date” your client. Kick off a large project with a sprint, and you’ll get to know the key players really well by working together for five days. And if things go sideways, the sprint’s conclusion offers a chance to gracefully step away before committing to an arduous project.

3. Become more proactive

Most engagements begin when a client approaches your agency for help with a specific project. That is to be expected, but there’s a downside: clients only consider your agency for projects they can imagine you’ll be good at. Instead, wouldn’t it be great if you could have a conversation about the biggest challenges and opportunities for your client?

Sprints offer a forum for honest conversations about where design can have the biggest impact. You’ll start with a question like, “What about this project keeps you up at night?” You spend the entire first day of a sprint understanding the client’s business and selecting the best problem or challenge to focus on. All of the sudden you’re at the center of a discussion of core business objectives… and you know how to find the answers.

And because you’re working on things that really matter to the business you’ll find that the client is more responsive, more engaged, and more willing to pay. If you play it right, your team will become indispensable to the client — you’re a skunkworks team that can help answer their most critical business questions.

4. Replace the project kick-off process

Typical projects start with a kick-off meeting where agencies learn about the client’s business, understand the project goals, and start to spec out the work. At the agency I co-founded, these were often all-day, unbillable meetings — and at the end, we still had a lot of questions about the project.

A sprint makes a better kick-off. At GV, we often enter a sprint almost completely cold — much of Monday in the sprint process is geared for learning about the business and the specific project. So, as an agency you can replace abstract conversation and guesswork with concrete progress, a much deeper understanding of the business, and a genuine form of relationship-building with your client. Since you’re making real progress on the work, the sprint sells itself as a billable part of the project. And by the end of the one-week “kickoff,” you’ve already completed a big chunk of the work.

5. Create a perfectly encapsulated billable object

One knock I’ve heard against sprints is that it’s hard to convince a client to pay for a week of “consulting.” A few agencies have surmounted this problem with a simple solution: talk about the sprint’s outcome — a tested prototype — as the deliverable. In just a week, you and your client will build a significant prototype that validates their biggest assumptions. Show the client a typical prototype and they should be convinced (check out a typical prototype we made with Gimlet in the video below).

For just a few thousand dollars, the client will have a very realistic looking prototype that’s been tested with real customers… hot damn! If I pitched sprints to clients, I certainly wouldn’t use the word consulting and I may not even call it a sprint. I might say something like: “We want to spend a week working with your team to design, prototype, and test solutions to the problem you’re facing. At the end of 5 days of hard work, we’ll have produced and tested a high fidelity prototype with real users. This quick-and-dirty approach will give us qualitative data so we can confidently decide where to invest our time and your money.”

You’ll be in in good company

Great design agencies are already embracing sprints. Dynamo in Montreal joined us for a sprint with Blue Bottle Coffee and has been running sprints with their clients ever since. Zeus Jones, the strategy agency in Minneapolis, adopted our sprint process in 2015. Even consulting powerhouses like McKinsey are running sprints.

I’d love to hear from you if your agency has tried a sprint. What works? What did you change? What tips do you have for others who might try a sprint? How do you pitch sprints to your clients? Tweet @gvdesignteam with your story.

Pre-order the book

We wrote a book that is a thorough how-to guide on running your own sprint. It’s full of true stories and helpful techniques. Sprint will be available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook on March 8. Pre-order it today.