Last year wasn’t so successful for me in the reading department – I guess it’s a natural result of having a lot on my plate. But one book stands out and has won a position of almost true hegemony in my list of titles recommended to friends. The reason is it’s less a read, more a manual for innovation that you can put in place right away. It’s an actionable set of ideas, exercises and general directions for finding solutions quicker. It’s “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” by Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp.
What are sprints and why do they work?
You can run a sprint anytime you’re not sure what to do, or struggling to get started, or dealing with a high-stakes decision. The best sprints are used to solve important problems, so we encourage you to pick a big fight.
Google’s design sprints (or some version of the same method) have now become an industry standard. Airbnb, Facebook, McKinsey, Ideo, Invision… The list goes on and on and on.
The reason the approach is so popular is that it starts with design thinking and puts it on steroids. It’s a framework that brings tangible results in just 5 days – and by tangible results I mean a prototype that’s been tested with users and you have a pretty good idea on what works in it and what doesn’t.
And the best thing is that it’s not reserved only for software products or geeky startups. Google Ventures has run more than 100 sprints in fields from e-commerce and mobile apps to robotics, healthcare, food, and even coffee.
There are a couple of common objections when it comes to building prototypes. Sprint manages to bust all of them:
Myth 1: It requires lots of time
The sprint happens over just 5 days (and once you get the hang of it, you could in theory limit it to 3!) That’s not a lot, considering you’ll only use the method when it comes to some of the biggest challenges you’re facing.
Longer hours don’t equal better results. By getting the right people together, structuring the activities, and eliminating distraction, we’ve found that it’s possible to make rapid progress while working a reasonable schedule.
Myth 2: It requires a lot of people
The sprint team consists only of 7 people. Granted, they need to be some of your company’s most skilled professionals. But again, the question becomes “Is the challenge you’re running a sprint for worth it?”
Myth 3: It requires a lot of implementation resources
We are all used to facing the Not Perfect monster. It rears its ugly head every time we try to launch something in a hurry, but it’s not up to our regular standards. In sprints, we leave the Not Perfect monster in the other room. We build a prototype that’s Good Enough. And that’s usually enough to know if your solution works or not.
How to run a sprint?
The best thing about the book is that it’s a super-detailed handbook. The last 15 pages are all checklists, including a shopping list with all office supplies you’ll need. Talk about thorough! Here’s a short intro to the process and you can learn more from the book’s website and the resources created by Google Ventures. If you need guidance on actually formulating your problem, you may also want to check the 4-day research sprint.
We’ve so far ran parts of sprints, but having seen how those go, I’m confident you can do a great job without prior experience if you rely on the book.
I’ll share what each step is, but also what were the biggest revelations that came to me after reading the book.
Monday: Make a map and choose a target
The first day is all about choosing the target. You should already start with a general idea what product/component to focus on, but mapping shows the full picture of customer interactions. It’s also the time when other experts who are not part of the sprint team can share ideas and opinions.
Revelation: Most projects such as these usually take a lot more time due to an inflated user research phase. This isn’t part of the sprint. Here, we rely on the fact that you already have a general idea about the issue. The experts you invite have direct access to customers and can tell you what the flow is.
Tuesday: Sketch compelling solutions
After we focus on the issue, we start thinking about the solution. This phase is dedicated to diverging ideas, going in different directions, exploring. It’s time for every person to sketch ideas on what the solution might be.
Revelation: According to Knapp, brainstorming sucks. Teamwork is great, but to have great ideas, you need to have lots of ideas. That’s why sketches here are done individually. There’s little chance two people will come up with the exact same solution. Once you choose the idea, you’ll have ample time to improve on day 3.
Wednesday: Decide on the best
Now comes time to choose. Remember, you will have just one day for prototyping, so you need to limit your scope. That’s the time to choose the most compelling solution and improve on it. It may sound improbable that you can arrive at a solution you all feel comfortable within such a short time, but trust me, you will. It’s a streamlined process when you rely on points democracy. All solutions are put on the wall and you vote on parts of the solution that you like the most.
Revelation: We usually look at solutions in their entirety. But focusing on a (probably poorly drawn) sketch makes you appreciate the idea behind rather than the design on top. What’s more, at that stage you can join parts of different solutions together – there isn’t so much ego invested here.
Thursday: Build a realistic prototype
You can prototype anything. Prototypes are disposable. Build just enough to learn, but not more. The prototype must appear real.
Here comes the most interesting part. In one day, you’ll create a prototype ready for user testing! Now, that may sound like a lot of work for one sole day. And it is… if you’re using your traditional focus on quality. Instead, now you’ll have to use the “fake it” approach and build something that can work for the test.
Revelation: Too often, even when prototyping, we go into the “How do we build this to last?” frame of mind. The easiest way to get away from that is to use different tools than the ones we regularly use. Instead of building a wireframe in Invision, build a clickable prototype with Keynote. It not only saves time and lets you be ready on time – it puts you in the right frame of mind.
Friday: Test with target customers
Now comes the moment of truth. During the last day, you’ll be testing solutions with real users. This is why the sprint concept is so strong. Within a week you will already know if this is a solution worth pursuing.
Revelation: It’s a minor thing, but the detail that makes this worthwhile to me is the summary at the end of the day. Too often we would conduct interviews or some survey and then take 2 weeks to summarize the results. Here, you already know what the next step is before you head off to rest for the weekend.
For a more visual approach, you can watch the explainer videos for each sprint day:
Sprinting to success
Sprint is a glorious method. It’s an approach that puts deadlines on decisions and makes you choose, test, and learn. Because, after all, how many times have you actually arrived at a better decision when given more time?
The book “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” is one of the few titles I’ve borrowed, read, and decided to then buy for my own use. This should be enough of a recommendation, right?