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The Power of “See One, Do One, Teach One” with Design Sprints – Part 2: Adapting The Sprint Model

by Kathleen Barrett

ACT has been developing educational products for more than 50 years and is known for its popular college readiness exam. In part one of this story, we discuss how the company cultivated a team culture to explore innovative concepts and models with an eye toward diversifying the products they offer. One of the team leaders was Adrienne Leahey, former Senior Director of Product Line Management.

In part two, we follow Adrienne and the team at ACT as they overcome doubts internal team members had about the use of sprints with thoughtful planning and communication.

The team at ACT had to adapt their approach to design sprints to fit the company culture. They couldn’t prototype or test quickly, because the nature of their varied product audiences made it difficult to recruit participants in advance of a sprint, or on short notice. Their solution was to pare down sprints from five days to three, and use the subsequent weeks for prototyping, testing, and validating ideas coming out of the sprints.

Another choice Adrienne’s team made was to omit the role of a “decider” in the sprint and opt instead for dot voting. In ACT’s sprints, decisions happened democratically.

“When it came to converging around the ideas that were the best, it was about dot-voting, or the hundred dollar test. It was all democratic and there was no decider,” explained Adrienne.

This was a comfortable evolution of ACT’s long history of nurturing a consensus culture. The democratic process gave all participants a voice and a vote to reach agreement. In a sense, ACT’s sprints combined the best of their old approach with the new.

Richard Banfield, CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, says deciders are not always a necessary component of a design sprint, but in some sprints they are useful: “When you’re dealing with qualitative (data), a decider is necessary because you might have two really good solutions or ten solutions. You need someone with domain knowledge who can help prioritize. A decider is very important when you’re looking for high quality outcomes that aren’t going to cost high in resources as well.”

Parity of Voice

A key feature of sprints is the diversity and parity of voices in the room. In most organizations, decisions are made along a hierarchy that reaches to the top, most powerful person. In the sprint model, ideas are put forth agnostically, poked at, prodded, and tested for their viability, regardless of where the idea’s originator sits in the organizational hierarchy. The source of the idea is unimportant, but how that idea stands up to testing and research is paramount to its success.

“One of the things that happens in large organizations is you tend to put the authority for decision making in the hands of managers and executives and directors. That makes sense, because somebody has to be responsible for decision-making, and the buck has to stop somewhere. What ultimately tends to happen from a cultural point of view is that others in the organization don’t feel free enough to share their ideas. That can be political. What a design sprint does is it takes that opinion out of the equation,” explains Richard.

Sprints recognize that people need to be included who are beneficial to the solution because of their unique perspective or domain expertise, and those people are not always senior staff.

As Richard explains further, “These tools are not designed to support people’s opinions but rather they’re there to validate evidence and make that evidence repeatable, just like any other scientific experiment would.”

Because we are testing the viability of ideas using Design sprints, not all ideas succeed; in fact, most fail. At ACT, Adrienne saw an enthusiastic adoption of sprints, because the process is attentive to individual ideas but also rigorous in how those ideas were assessed.

“We talked a lot with team members about how, ‘your idea may not have risen to the top, but there are aspects of it, and features of it, that can blend into the one that is chosen, if it makes sense.’ It wasn’t like folks felt their ideas were being left behind, there was lots of opportunity for aspects of their ideas to get incorporated into whatever the final concept was,” explains Adrienne.

Preparations and Silo-Busting

Design sprints were a revelatory experience for the team at ACT. They opened up the business to tools and a process for understanding their audience better, and exploring and brainstorming new ideas. They could think big and fail safely in a low-risk environment, and every member of the team had a voice and a hand in the process.

Preparing for sprints is in many ways as critical as running them. Sprint leaders should spend time designing a process that fits their culture. They also need to communicate the process to teams before they begin to alleviate any fears or misunderstanding. Sprints often gather people in a room who don’t have a history or experience talking to one another, or sharing their opinions, and it can make teams uncomfortable, explains Richard.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed for some companies is risk often comes in the form of ‘oh my goodness, we’re going to have a lot of people that don’t normally talk to each other, talking to each other.’ People from different departments or silos within the organization are suddenly going to be talking to each other, what will happen?”

Richard suggests that sprint leaders talk to participants about the process before they began and describe what will happen at each phase.

“Tell them about the journey, tell them what’s going to happen. Tell them how safe it’s going to be. Where are we going to be able to do things that are risky, and where we are going to do things that are not. Give them a lay of the land that provides them with a sense of comfort to at least try. Then once they start, they’ll see that what you’ve said was true,” says Richard.

As Adrienne explains, her team reached their goals by implementing sprints and generating new thinking in the company, drawing teams who had never worked so closely before and diversifying both the voices in the room and the ideas that came out of the sprints.

“Everyone’s really liked the group experience. We had folks post pictures on Twitter and LinkedIn, we had all sorts of comments on ACT’s intranet and we even had a team member mail us a stationery thank-you note,” said Adrienne. “Some compliments for the team were for including folks whose expertise may not have been previously tapped, for bringing new ideas and new change, and for bringing ways of thinking that could be applicable in their own departments for other topics. They were actively involved and engaged and they came out feeling some ownership for the concept, feeling some ownership for what ACT was trying to do, in terms of the diversification of the portfolio, and for the new customer-centered product concepts it was generating.”

About the Author

Kathleen Barrett writes for UIE about design, design strategy, and design methods. Her 15 years of solving problems, developing content, and managing products has helped her gain a solid perspective on what works and what doesn’t for today’s designers.