The Design Sprint (And Three Reasons Why It's a Solid Win)
(Part book review and some reflections on Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days)
Blue Bottle Coffee had humble beginnings. James Freeman was a musician before quitting his job to start a coffee cart.
From 2005–2012, this coffee cart expanded into cafes worldwide, including cities like Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oakland, and locations as far as Tokyo.
Now renowned (and highly ranked) for its excellent coffee, friendly staff, and even its cafe decor, Blue Bottle Coffee would raise $20 million from Silicon Valley investors, including Google Ventures (GV).
One of Blue Bottle’s undertakings was to bring its coffee to anyone regardless of location. This meant: Online store. But it wouldn’t just be a simple website, according to Jake Knapp, design partner for GV and author of Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems in Just Five Days.
GV was invested in Blue Bottle Coffee’s success. Even if “just a website,” this was a technical project that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
One would assume all that was needed is a design brief and the perfect team of programmers and designers to and their web design skillz.
But Knapp reveals in Sprint that the first prototype team actually consisted of Blue Bottle Coffee’s CFO, the customer service manager, and even the CEO himself James Freeman.
He compared this ensemble to an unconventional team ready to execute a risky and dangerous heist — a la Ocean’s Eleven.
How would Jake Knapp know? He was a part of that same team.
A sprint resembles that perfectly orchestrated heist. You and your team put your talents, time, and energy to their best use, taking on an overwhelming challenge and using your wits (and a little trickery) to overcome every obstacle that crosses your path. - Sprint p. 29
These heists are the design sprint.
And teams are more like Ocean’s ≤7, not eleven.
Our ideas aren’t given up so easily. Not many people are willing to destabilize their routine to commit their cherished darlings to ruthless testing. There are too many unknowns. And maybe some pride on the line. Depending on how emotionally invested we are, seeing our ideas relinquished before our eyes takes some tough skin.
But when it does happen, what are the actual outcomes of these criminal five-day design sprints that are executed by a team of CxOs, managers, and designers? While you won’t get cuffed and carted off by the cops, hard and crucial questions get answered fast. (read: assumptions tested)
Slack’s messaging design, Graco’s industrial pumps, Flatiron Health’s cloud services, Savioke’s concierge robots, Medium’s commenting system - all five companies used a common process to answer some nagging design questions.
These continuous sprints didn’t just help Blue Bottle Coffee build a new online store — they used it to expand into new markets. Savioke didn’t just build a new concierge robot — its robots help hotels, hospitals, and elderly care facilities to redefine the customer experience for the better.
And with Slack, no explanation needed there. The sprint was used to improve their onboarding process. Plus, their current valuation clocks in at $2.8 billion.
What is the sprint?
Jake Knapp was previously a designer at Google who created the five-day rapid prototyping process used for things like Google Search, Google Hangouts, and Goolge Plus. He has since moved on with Braden Kowitz and John Zeratsky to Google Ventures where hundreds of sprints were conducted for challenges ranging from healthcare to e-commerce, and more. All aforementioned companies have used the Google Ventures (GV) sprint and it was absolutely pivotal to their businesses.
Since then, it has been refined into a solid repeatable process presented in Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
For those familiar with Agile, Lean, Design Thinking, and other intersecting philosophies, the steps and tenets are not a far cry from what you’re already familiar with.
A sprint takes a team from a formulated challenge to a realistic prototype. Monday concludes with a formulated challenge.
By the end of Friday, you’ll get your answers from interviews with real customers who engage your prototype.
The sprint pulls teams away from the common hyperfocus of individual features and tech components into some serious real world testing about the entire customer experience, even if you don’t have a minimum viable product yet. It could be sudden death for any ideas about a pet feature or pet idea we’ve held onto for far too long. “Solving the surface,” according to Knapp, is what matters. That is: the actual customer experience and how users feel and react to that thing you want to sell.
The point of a sprint is not to create some miraculous outcome that ships on Friday. Or to do just one sprint. Many GV backed businesses executed more sprints before they reached a solid and shippable outcome.
But it’s absolutely a hail mary play to extract real data from customers and inform the design of whatever it is you’re trying to make. It’s question-storming at its finest with a handful of rigor, but fast and fluid enough for new facilitators, designers, and participants to deeply dive into.
So why try this process in particular?
1. It just minimizes the BS
The process apparently works for various contexts: Products, services, website design, mobile apps, industrial pumps, an office redesign, marketing strategy, and even a company’s name.
Most importantly, the sprint minimizes BS: Meetings that veer off course, endless pontificating, circular debates, nitpicking about detail A, B, or C, the imagined heroism of a finished product.
Even if you run into tough conversations requiring tough calls — which you will — the sprint keeps the conversation and activities structured and timed to minimize the extra. Teams are organized accordingly: Deciders who make and break final decisions before moving on, participants who have content knowledge or investment in the sprint’s outcome, and a facilitator to manage the group’s energy, flow, and discipline.
Structured meetings can be awkward for first-timers. Disorganized impromptu meetings are typically the norm where everyone just vomits data, facts, and figures. Everyone is then expected to make sense of the aftermath.
Not here. The sprint is specific.
Day 1 — Map out the problem and pick an important place to focus.
Day 2 — Sketch out competing solutions on paper.
Day 3 — Decide on the best course of action and turn ideas into a testable hypothesis.
Day 4 — Build a realistic prototype.
Day 5 — Test with your target market/customers.
Next actions and future sprints are scheduled, if needed.
Every sprint is a time-compressed cinematic that yields data after every conclusive scene.
According to Knapp, you always win and learn something every time. If your assumptions are verified, good for you. If not, you simply step back and adjust.
A lesson is the real product of every sprint.
2. Day one starts with correctly framing the problem
Monday is the most crucial step: Choosing the target.
To do this, Knapp mentions the “How Might We” phrase, or the HMW technique, along with some facilitation tips by Charles Warren who was also a designer at Google and had introduced HMW to IDEO.
HMW is what innovation journalist and author Warren Berger calls the innovator’s top secret phrase, which has been at the core of IDEO’s design thinking process. Knapp credits the technique to Procter & Gamble, and to be precise, it was Min Basadur, applied creativity scholar, practitioner, and organizational scientist, who indeed mainstreamed it within P&G.
In the GV sprint, the HMW technique differs slightly from its original inception (or how Min taught it to me), but it’s essentially an open-ended question-storming method that helps prioritize the most crucial parts of the challenge at hand. It’s fast, visual, cuts out frivolous debate, and it’s a first-timer’s chance to see how people can unearth the right problem to solve.
HMW sets the tone for the rest of the sprint.
Solving the wrong problem versus the actual problem is a big deal. Challenges can be rife with so many details that it’s easy for teams to prioritize the wrong thing. It could mean the difference between how things appear in Universe A versus Universe B.
That’s also why the best heists aren’t run solo, but with a multi-disciplinary team. You need the CxOs, the front line people, and various domain experts. You need eyes on every angle of the situation. Sensemaking is better together.
Nowadays, HMW is ubiquitous in many design and innovation processes because it works. HMW seeks possibilities, not permission like in other starter phrases like “should we” or “could we.” You’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
3. There’s a bigger win if you keep going with this
Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better, had always written some really solid stuff on habits, productivity, and especially teamwork.
In What Google Learned From its Quest to Build the Perfect Team (2016), Duhigg notes:
…Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.
It goes on, but the point is that he reaffirmed what us practitioners already knew: Psychologically safe environments, positive group dynamics, and the company culture’s “unwritten” norms were the main factors that were crucial for building high-performing teams regardless of how smart or talented individuals were. Not who was there, but how they came together.
So my punchline here is that I’m all for experiential learning, habit changes, and training design/creativity ambassadors. Teams using “innovation tournaments” and the GV sprint can be a great vehicle to build those foundations. After all, innovation is an everyday frame-of-mind, not a one-off project or a retreat. It’s too easy to do a few sprints, then disband, and never take the lessons into the everyday aspect of our lives and businesses.
Sprint is such an actionable, approachable, and proven process and there’s a nearly zero barrier-to-entry. The book gives you everything you need to succeed, including checklists on how teams should be formed, the schedule you keep, and the gear and necessities of every war room. The book is a synthesis of everything that they‘ve learned after a hundred-or-so sprints. Knapp says you’re more prepared than his teams were when they first started their journey years ago.
Who is the Sprint for?
Companies and organizations that have urgent questions about their product or services. Questions of functionality. A nagging bottleneck.
Solo founders with an idea and a hypothesis.
It even works for intangible and ambiguous questions like a company’s name, marketing strategies, or even a strategic plan.
The only caveat is that big challenges will most likely need the full five days. It’s really compressed to make the best use of your time, money, and energy.
That means renegotiating some of your normal work hours for the minimum 35 hours of total sprint time needed. By renegotiating, I mean things like Deciders (people who have the final say on the design challenge) can delegate some or all decision making power to others; or some people can make cameo appearances only during key points of the sprint.
Thankfully, you can use just parts of the sprint. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to half-ass anything, though!
If you do have a big challenge, then the Monday to Friday schedule is firm. Knapp reveals some reasons why splitting the sprint days is not a good idea, including loss of momentum during the weekends.
If building that thing is important to you, the sprint might be worth every minute.
While a process is key, there are other ingredients for making stuff happen that are also mentioned in the book, although touched briefly.
The sprint is conditioning for a much greater race. Since innovation and creative capacity is, again, an everyday frame-of-mind, this is part of a marathon. The problem is that you don’t know the obstacles ahead of the first sprint unless you do it. Nothing is ever clear until you make that jump.
You can see that beyond the first prototype that you will still have lots of work to do.
And a heist might be a great first step towards clarity.
You need: the right challenge + the right team + the time and space to do it
tl;dr: Get the book.