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Can Design Sprints transform the way you work?

21 Lessons about running Design Sprints at scale

Having run nearly one hundred Design Sprints, mostly at corporate organisations, you can say we’re either slightly mad or in love with the process at Orange Minds. Having run so many Design Sprints I have seen its power time and time again. So what has been the magic since Sprint was published 4 years ago, and why did it take off in many companies? I believe it’s the urgency to do something and the simple and easy to follow recipe.

“When I read the book I thought: ‘This is the sh*t. This is what we need as a company’”. Helen (Tetra Pak)

Reflecting now she says it has been greatly rewarding working this way. Why exactly? Read on.

I think the Design Sprint has the power to transform the way you work. However what are other companies’ (corporates) experience with this statement? To answer this question, I set out to talk to people who are at the heart of transformations and have used Design Sprints to get there. In this article I’ll share my lessons learned from conversations with IBM, PwC, Tetra Pak, and Pearson about Design Sprints at scale and how they impacted their organisation and company culture.

Note: Design Sprints at scale in this article refers to organisations who have run 50–200+ Design Sprints internally.

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A brief intro to Design Sprints

For those who don’t know the Design Sprint, in short the Design Sprint is a 5-day process to solve complex challenges through prototyping and testing with your customer (or end-user). The Design Sprint helps teams to save time, money and discussions. It is a tool to stop talking and start doing. It is a recipe you can follow so that you can get moving much faster and more directed than before. I love it because it combines both tangible output and progress as a team, ánd it’s a learning-by-doing-week to experience a customer-centric and prototyping mindset.

“Design Sprint is a tool to stop talking and start doing.”

Why I wanted to know more about running Design Sprints at scale

Many companies we work with wonder: How might we reimagine business in the digital age? This is a challenge on many people’s minds for the past 10+ years. If not more.

Although there are enough success cases of digital transformation, there are also enough companies still struggling with the question ‘where to start?’ or perhaps, ‘how to continue’. Not knowing this is stressful for managers who have to reach digital transformation KPIs and stressful for teams who are told to transform faster without the proper tools and know how.

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Let’s be agile, let’s scrum, let’s change, let’s innovate, let’s transform. Let’s do it faster, leaner, more efficient. All wonderful terms without any guidance on how to start and what to do.

Digital transformation is such a huge undertaking as it effects the entire organisation from business processes, customer experiences, to culture itself, in order to meet changing business and market needs. Since Design Sprints focus on decision making, collaboration, creativity, prototyping, customer-centricity, just to name a few, I wondered if Design Sprints could be a useful tool to use in this digital transformations. It’s an easy to follow recipe that changes the mindset as much as the results. Giving teams tools in the process and solving challenges as they go.

My quest & lessons learned

I wanted to understand from companies who ran 50+ Design Sprints, what this did to their results and company culture. I have split my learnings on 5 themes listed below.

How did they start? Why Design Sprints? None of the companies that I spoke with (Tetra Pak, IBM, Pearson and PwC) started to run Design Sprints with a big picture in mind to transform their organisation. They wanted to bring design (thinking) into the business in the way of talking to, and testing with customers & end-users, challenging assumptions, and asking the question “should we build this” instead of the old, “can we build this?”

In short, change the mindset, change the result.

#1 Run Design Sprints to make you fitter

You don’t need to be a Design agency to run Design Sprints.

  • Lesson 1: As a large company you can solve your own pains and challenges to become a healthier business. Tetra Pak used Design Sprints initially to create better enterprise apps, and realised quickly that this could be applied to so much more. Today — 50+ Design Sprints later — it supports teams to solve many different complex challenges and empowers the employees to do their work better. Don’t forget, end-users are customers too.
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  • Lesson 2: Happy employees, happy customers. Focus on making the experience of systems better.
  • Lesson 3: What took 3–4 months to achieve before, now takes one week. This changes meetings, reporting and decision making. Read about the value of investing a full week, versus splitting it up, in Pauline Thomas’ article.
  • Lesson 4: Working with Design Sprints changes behaviour outside of the Sprint too. More speed means more learning, and keeping the organisation informed at a different pace.

#2 Getting people onboard to run Design Sprints

Don’t wait for the perfect moment. Just start, and start small. Let people get a taste of what Design Sprints can do and let them come back for more.

  • Lesson 5: Show the power of design thinking tools as part of business as usual. For example introduce a short exercise of dot-voting to the end of the meeting. The Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ) from AJ&Smart can give you some tips too.
  • Lesson 6: Don’t call it Sprint. Don’t even call it design anything. Often people will have an opinion about it before understanding what it is. Call it a product testing workshop, whatever to get them in a room.
  • Lesson 7: Start small. Run extremely small experiments, test the (classic) Design Sprint, show the results, get people onboard. Repeat. Then make it yours and scale the process (more on this later, lesson 20, 21).
  • Lesson 8: Follow the book. Make it easier on yourself and follow the process that has been tested thousands of times. It works. You can adapt it later if need be.
  • Lesson 9: Change is a sensitive thing, that’s no secret. It’s often the fear of the unknown that inhibits people to take action. With a Design Sprint you also take a leap of faith because at the beginning of the week, you don’t know what will come out. To gain trust and ease into trying something new, just ask for a week of time. A week is acceptable and doable. Then show results.

“We are amazed by how solid the framework is.” Helen (Tetra Pak)

#3 Winning hearts: Interaction with teams

Once you have sneaked in and camouflaged the Design Sprint to get started, make it theirs by solving their problems. Show that you come to help, not take over their project.

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  • Lesson 10: Winning people over becomes easier when you help them solve their own challenges. Perhaps something they have been trying to move forward for months. Run the Design Sprint well and you create a few new fans each time.
  • Lesson 11: Stay objective. As a facilitator you don’t pick sides. You are there to help a team solve a challenge. By not pushing the agenda in any direction, you’ll gain the trust of teams.
  • Lesson 12: You need enthusiasts to speed up in the organisation. People get excited from seeing results in one week. The more Sprints you are able to do the bigger the reach of its potential. Where in the beginning you will need to convince people to take a week ‘off’ to join a Design Sprint, soon they will be lining up.
  • Lesson 13: A key success factor of the Design Sprint in the ownership over the result. The team created a working prototype in a week, and tested it! Do not underestimate the pride and the willingness for participants to move the project forward in next steps.
  • Lesson 14: As more people get excited, train them in the Design Sprint process. It is great to have co-facilitators and more change agents in the organisation. Do keep the core team of expert facilitators small though, it is a true expertise. You need 15 or so Design Sprints under your belt before you have seen enough challenges and teams to adapt to all challenges during the week.

#4 Building customer-centric prototyping mindsets

At IBM the cultural impact of running Design Sprints was larger than the result of the Sprints themselves. This was not an expected result or even goal when starting to run Design Sprints.

The magic is in a dedicated team, one week, one room.

  • Lesson 15: Create an environment for success where psychological safety is key. In the Design Sprint there is no hierarchy. Make everyone equal and feel comfortable and engineer the space for creativity. It’s about playful gaming, respecting time (how refreshing after all those run-on meetings), team collaboration, prototype thinking. A seasoned facilitator can do this.

“Culture and trust are equally important as the method.” Lee (IBM)

  • Lesson 16: Conversations outside of the Sprint change. Questioning assumptions becomes the norm. At IBM they saw a change of daring to ask (different) questions and demanding validation — ‘should we build this?’.
  • Lesson 17: A Design Sprint show that you can get results in a week, pushing people to think differently about work.
  • Lesson 18: People get comfortable with low fidelity. Something doesn’t need to be build by a developer to test it. Running cheap experiments with pieces of paper often get you the results you need, much faster results.
  • Lesson 19: Design Sprints humanises projects. It brings people together to collaborate instead of communicating by email and unproductive meetings. The Design Sprint is a week-long ‘work holiday’ where you get to know people and actually get work done. This strengthens ties, makes people likeable which all increases success after the Design Sprint (see #13).

#5 Make it fit

The Design Sprint is a powerful framework. It is a recipe that once understood well can be adjusted to what works even for you/your organisation.

  • Lesson 20: Retrospect always, after every Design Sprint. Besides the actions in the Sprint for the product (prototype), reflect also on the process. This is the engine for refinement.
  • Lesson 21: Don’t change it, before you understand it.

Wrapping up

The people I spoke to did not set out on a digital transformation. The transformation came with the work done. And the work is not done, it’s ongoing. But even with their vast size, IBM, PwC, Pearson & Tetra Pak started. They iterated and learned. The power of the Design Sprint is that it brings people together, humanises a project, creates results and lets you experience a different way of working. Everyone said “there is still so much to be done” but I applaud the steps already taken and thank them for sharing their lessons!

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” Beverly Sills

Start with one Design Sprint. It might lead to 2, then 5, 20 and 50.

If you want to know more about what the Design Sprint can mean for you, do not hesitate to get in touch. We can also guid you to build your own Design Sprint capability in house. We’ll run Design Sprints together and transfer all our knowledge and experience as start the change in your organisation.

Cheers, Margriet

Thank you!

Helen Bjorkman — Head of Design Sprints at Tetra Pak, Lee Duncan — Enterprise Design Sprint Leader at IBM, Joe Lalley — Experience Design Leader & Organizational Transformation at PwC, Mike Caskey — Product Exploration UX Design & Facilitation at Pearson for sharing all your stories. Also thanks to Frank de Wit — former Head UX at ANWB, Sabrina Goerlich — founder Design Sprint Studio and Robert Skrobe — founder of Dallas Design Sprints and GVDS. You’re all awesome to help me along.

Orange Minds

I am Margriet Buseman. Together with Robert Westerhuis we’re Orange Minds. We use Design Sprints to change the way you work. We help big companies scale innovation mindsets and skillsets. We’re adventurous out-of-the-box do-ers, engaged facilitators, challenging the status quo with humor, energy and years of innovation practice. We have run 90+ Design Sprints globally and countless innovation mindset workshops to get companies moving and adapt a growth mindset. #stoptalking #startdoing

We are based in Amsterdam & work globally. You can find more about us on our website, Instagram or connect on LinkedIn.

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