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Design Sprints: An Ignition System for Innovation Project Teams

by Jared M. Spool

The piston-based combustion engine, that marvel that powers automobiles and revolutionized the industrial age, has one major flaw: it can’t start itself. Once it gets going, the spark plugs ignite the fuel which push the pistons in sequence, turning the crank and powering the car. But the engine was never built to get the pistons moving from a standstill.

That’s where the car’s ignition system comes in. Turning the key supplies electrical power to a second motor, called the starter, which in turn, turns the crank shaft and moves the pistons. The car then starts firing the spark plugs, which ignite the fuel, and the combustion engine takes over from there.

In today’s cars, it’s all done automatically and takes a split second—we hardly ever think about it. Yet, without that ignition system, the car would never get going on its journey.

Design Sprints Act Like An Ignition System for Project Teams

Project teams have the same problem. A well-formed project team may sail nicely, once they get going. But starting from a standstill can be a big problem. If the team doesn’t start the project right, it will sputter for quite a while and may never come up to speed.

This is where a design sprint can be helpful. The activities of the sprint inject a concentrated burst of energy into the team, giving it the push it needs to get going in the right direction at a good pace.

Recently, I’ve been talking a lot about design sprints with Richard Banfield, who along with his co-authors, C. Todd Lombardo and Trace Wax, have just come out with a new book on the subject, coincidentally named Design Sprint. Richard explained to me that the design sprint is a series of user experience activities that take a team from understanding the projects goals, to brainstorming possible ideas, through prototyping the best of those ideas and finally validating the assumptions that underlie the project. A typical sprint can take a week (and occasionally even less), and get the project off to a fantastic start.

Ignition Sequence #1: Getting the Team in the Same Room

I asked Richard how design sprints are a great project starter. He told me one reason is they get everyone on the team in the same room for the duration of the sprint.

“We’ve had recently a situation where the leads of certain products and certain departments were in a conversation with us about the design sprint process. One of the project managers came to me afterwards and said, ‘That’s the first time we’ve all been in a room together in about three months.’ Just the fact that they were all in the room together was a good starting point.

“This is not an elixir for all problems, but if you just get people into the room together and start talking about these things, amazing things happen. We’re talking to each other. We’re actually having a conversation. We’re not just sending each other emails or doing Google Docs. We’re actually talking to each other about the things that are important.”

In many projects, people ramp up slowly, finishing up their old obligations before starting. Without having everyone in the same room and focused, the project takes forever to get to speed.

With a design sprint, everyone starts at the same time with this focused activity on the new project. Even if, the following week, they have to return to their previous project to tie up loose ends, the sprint has given the team this focused burst to start with.

Ignition Sequence #2: Acknowledging We Don’t Know The Answers

Another reason design sprints kick a project off so well is they actively acknowledge that we don’t know all the answers. In many projects, people’s roles force them to act like they know the important answers, even when they really don’t. This starts these projects on a false platform of unverified assumptions, which makes it hard to recover from when the truth starts to emerge.

Richard explained it this way:

“People come to us and say, ‘We’ve got this problem,’ and we’re immediately assuming that they’re asking us to come up with a solution. Whereas, the right answer is to say, ‘That’s an amazing problem. I don’t know the answer. Let’s figure that out together. Let’s work on that together. Let’s figure out what the best solution might be.”

“We just don’t have the confidence to do that, because we were told right from the get go when we start school, that there’s only one answer for something. You get given a math test, and the math test says there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. You get given an English test and there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.”

“We grow up with this belief that there are only answers. Instead of saying, ‘I don’t know, but here’s something else that we could consider.’ Or, ‘Let’s talk about that and come up with the best answer.’ We’re predisposed to think that for every problem out there, there has to be an answer and we’re supposed to carry that in our back pocket.”

“Whereas in truth, we don’t know what the answers are, especially in this ambiguous future. How could I have possibly known that there were going to be this many devices available in 2016? How was I supposed to know that entire industries’ markets were going to be disrupted by simple ideas?”

Using Design Sprints to Start the Engine

Organizations rely on their teams to create the innovations that will drive their future competitiveness. As those teams initiate their innovation projects, they need to ensure they are starting them at full speed. Design sprints offer a simple, yet effective way to make that happen.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.