Innovation sprints are fast becoming a popular and effective way of launching a project off the ground. Generally run over a 5-10 day period, a 'sprint' involves everything from interviewing users, brainstorming ideas and prototyping solutions, to testing the ideas with real customers.
Working in sprints can help teams to shortcut debates and fast forward to the future to see the potential impact of products in action, before making any critical commitments. Our case study Designing Innovative Digital Services for Government provides an explanation of what an innovation sprint is, some first-hand observations, and some tips for running them.
One of the key ingredients as to why innovation sprints work, which seems obvious, is the time-boxing. Not just the overall duration of 5 or 10 days (depending on how you’re structuring your sprint), but more specifically the regimented day-to-day agenda.
There is no affordance for taking an extra day to research, test, or design. With a looming deadline usually that day – a team will communicate, prioritise and work more effectively. As a result, the work gets done, and even if it’s not all the possible work, it’s the most important work. This is both a fundamental constraint and secret weapon of an innovation sprint.
So, what happens when the sprint finishes?
It’s hard not to compare it to what happens under the lights of an Olympic Games 100m final – the gun pops and with incredible focus and determination, the muscles start pumping, powering the sprinters toward the finish line. Each breath and the bound of each step counts. What seems like an eternity to the sprinters happens in a flash to the crowd. When they cross the line, there is celebration, but there is also relief… all of their training led to that brief moment of glory, but tomorrow they rest.
We know from experience that a good sleep-in is needed after the intensity of an innovation sprint. Naturally, because we’ve crossed the finish line there is relief. But while the outcomes of the sprint are the core deliverable – presented on the podium in all its glory – it’s what happens next that makes it all count.
To continue the track and field analogy, one of the best tactics to maintain momentum and ensure a seamless transition, is to think of the entire process as a relay, and ensure the delivery team is waiting to take the baton and run with it.
Much like an innovation sprint has its own micro-phases, with unique skillsets and mindsets required at each phase, the broader project also needs to be broken up into macro-phases – for example the traditional discover ➞ design ➞ deliver methodology.
Unfortunately, it’s usually the baton change-over between the design ➞ deliver that gets dropped, or trips up, causing delays and confusion. Here we’re not only challenged by changing skillsets, but transitioning from the 'build the right thing' thinking, to the 'build the thing right' thinking. This is where the devil definitely comes out in the detail, as features are scoped and prioritised. Naturally you can’t do it all, so tough decisions are made on where to start, and why.
Once you’ve got into the groove, you’ll be working in development sprints, which will deliver the vision set out in the earlier innovation sprint. These development sprints have their own science, but what’s often forgotten is to continually review the work against the original vision, and make sure what you’re building really is the right thing.
In summary, think of your innovation sprint as the first leg of a much longer relay. Set your team up strategically, taking into consideration who needs to collect the baton and maintain the momentum.
A recent project with the Queensland Government Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation (DSITI) proved the sprint-based service design process to be extremely successful. Have a read of what we did, and how we did it.
Designing Innovative Digital Services for Government