5 Takeaways from “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”

I mentioned in a previous post that in my attempt to read and create more I would be posting every time I finish a book, with any learnings and takeaways I have. My hope is that by reading this and future posts, you will either be inspired to read the books I post about or they will trigger your memory back to when you read them.

So here goes… first up: Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp (@jakek), John Zeratsky (@jazer) and Braden Kowitz (@kowitz).

Published in 2016, this book covers the process Google Ventures use to help companies quickly test new ideas to solve the big challenges they are facing, all with the aim of giving them tangible learnings that they can go onto develop further. It turns gut feelings into prototyped solutions that are validated by real customers… all in 5 days… saving time and money whilst giving confidence on what to do next.

Particularly relevant to start ups it’s no surprise that this book features in the top 10 of the crowd voted “favourite startup books” on Product Hunt.

The basic structure of the design sprint is as follows:

  • Monday: set up the sprint (long-term goal and questions to answer); interview experts; pick a target for your sprint
  • Tuesday: look at existing solutions from a range of companies; sketch out competing solutions
  • Wednesday: choose the strongest solutions; storyboard
  • Thursday: build the prototype; do a trial run
  • Friday: test your prototype with real customers

The book covers in significant detail how to make your sprint a success and shares best practices that the authors have picked up along the way after running sprint after sprint after sprint.

Here are my 5 takeaways.

1. “How might we…”: Turning problems into opportunities

A bit about me… I work at a startup that is trying to disrupt the way retailers collect feedback from their customers.

Whilst the vision is inspiring, the reality comprises of many challenges that we need to overcome on a daily basis. Very often it’s easy to list out all the problems we face and stare at a full whiteboard, whilst a black cloud slowly overcasts the conference room (or so it feels).

“How might we” is a concept that flips problems and turns them into opportunities. By simply reframing a statement by starting with “how might we…” you are changing your approach, with an emphasis on idea generation and creativity.

2. Pens, whiteboards and stickers in; devices out

All sprints have a no device rule. No laptops, no iPads, no iPhones. If you need to check your email or IMs, wait for a break or go outside.

Throughout the book there is an emphasis on scribbling things down… on the whiteboard, on post-its, on paper. For anyone who knows me, this is music to my ears… or eyes… or fingers. I just don’t feel the same level of engagement or inspiration when typing a list on a shared screen than when physically writing things down.

I also find the likelihood of checking out and checking emails when a laptop is sat in front of me to be unhealthily high.

Similarly, to help identify popular ideas and features amongst the group, stickers are used throughout the sprint to help individuals vote for what they like. Again, stickers are visually engaging (they can create a heatmap within seconds), physical and more social… hands in the air or numbers in Excel are not. Amen.

3. The Decider and what to do when they can’t always be there

I’m a keen preacher of “a camel is a horse designed by a committee”. Not because I hate democracy or working in groups, but because I’ve experienced many projects where too much time has been spent over discussing decisions and ultimately failing to find a universally agreed solution, without diluting ideas or de-motivating key team members.

Right from the start of the sprint it is clear to everyone who the key decision maker is (the Decider) and whilst they can use crowd votes to help guide their decision, they have the ultimate say. If the Decider can’t be in the room at all times, they elect someone to make decisions in their place. Simple, clear and maximises the chance of a successful sprint.

4. Everyone watches user interviews on day 5

So the group of sprinters have met for 4 days, identified the target, attempted to solve real problems and designed the prototypes. On the final day, customers come in and interact with the prototype in a series of one on one interviews. Whilst the book covers all of the best practices related to this, the bit that stood out to me the most was that all members of the sprint watch the interviews via a one way video link.

After 4 days away from business-as-usual work I can imagine that the desire to get back into it is very high. The authors make the point that if just the Interviewer is involved in day 5, it would be until well into the next week before everyone sees the results and meets to discuss next steps, losing momentum.

By having everyone watch at the same time you are ensuring that learnings are gathered and shared by all before the end of the week. Going into the next week, the group will have a strong idea on what they’ve learnt and where to focus next.

The other benefit of this is that everyone watching means that the learnings are not solely reliant on one person doing a write up and forwarding to the rest, likely resulting in individuals not believing or trusting the customer feedback.

5. And finally… healthy lunches and snacks are emphasised throughout the sprint

This is a very small point but I liked the fact that the writers covered what people taking part in the sprint should be eating. Thinking about when I’ve previously taken part in group workshops or hackathons, I’ve found it very easy to jump to Red Bull, crisps and candy or overly indulge at lunchtime, kicking off a food coma at about 2pm. Apples, bananas, nuts, dark chocolate – all present and accounted for.

So… those were my 5 main takeaways from Sprint. Overall it was an incredibly useful book to read and one I can see myself referring back to time and time again.

Going forward I’m excited to use this framework and apply it to future products I work on.

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