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Design Sprints at Scale

Jonathan Courtney

When LEGO’s (yes, all caps!) internal agency realised they had to radically reinvent the way they worked, their approach was truly extreme: one day, leadership halted the entire production machine, and spent the next two months training up the team to become Design Sprint experts.

LEGO are one of the first companies that I have seen implementing Design Sprints, at scale, across their organisation, which is kind of unbelievable considering that they are a company that produces physical products, not just digital ones.

Some of the AJ&Smart team at LEGO HQ in Billund, Denmark.

I was lucky enough to interview one of the people responsible for the whole operation: Eik Brandsgård. LEGO naturally turned to Eik as he has worked for LEGO’s internal digital agency for over 13 years, and he knows how to lead transformation projects — after all, he’d successfully introduced the Scaled Agile Framework a few years back. Skip to now, where LEGO have run over 150 design sprints in the past 12 months, and it’s clear that Design Sprint fever has truly taken hold!

So here I am, in a beautiful hotel room in my favourite city in the world (Tokyo) about to do some work with one of my favourite companies in the world (LEGO). I’m here to give one of LEGO’s leadership teams a crash-course on how to use Design Sprint principles in tough decision making scenarios. This is something that I do all the time with my company AJ&Smart, but this particular opportunity is a dream come true.

If you’ve ever wondered if it’s possible to implement design sprints at scale in large companies, LEGO is the ultimate proof that it can be done. Eik walked me through how they did it, and here are 5 things I learned from the interview.

(The text you're about to read comes from my Podcast, Jake & Jonathan, so if you want even more insight into how LEGO use Design Sprints, and why they chose Design Sprints in the first place… maybe have a listen afterward!)

1. To change course, sometimes you have to pull the emergency brake

It’s hard to break habits in small, unobtrusive ways. If you go soft, you won’t have real impact, and whatever you end up doing won’t generate enough traction.

So when it became obvious that the agency was deeply entrenched in a decade of habit, their fearless new leader decided to go radical. He pulled the emergency brake and stopped the agencies production engine for two whole months. From April to June 2017, a huge section of the internal agency at LEGO laid their day jobs aside and went into a series of design sprints.

Now THAT got everyone’s attention. THAT had a definite impact.

Could they have pulled it off in a less disruptive way? Probably, but change would’ve been much slower and much less visible. In Eik’s words, it would have been an evolution, when they actually needed a revolution.

Not a relevant photo, but I did meet this lovely bunch of people while I was in Tokyo this time and did a LOT of Karaoke.

2. Get buy-in, then let the virus spread

People at LEGO had done a couple of sprints before the Pause, but they were isolated incidents rather than a systematic, company-wide thing. To roll out systematic, company-wide change you need a programmatic initiative from upper management. This was what Remi Marcelli (Head of the LEGO Agency) provided.

On the other side of the equation, top level directives achieve precious little if people don’t adopt them. You need both to carry out change at scale.

People embraced the sprint because it made sense: it was a short experiment that felt empowering and produced immediate results. Eik made sure to involve everyone and build a critical mass, and, to carry the virus analogy a little too far, he exposed those who were infected with the sprint bug to those who have not experienced it before. This cross-contamination resulted in a rapidly spreading sprint epidemic that has now rippled out into the rest of the company.

At the end of the Pause they did a massive presentation to upper management, demoing the things they’ve built and learnt, and securing buy-in that the prototypes were going to be turned into real products and practices. Playback was just as important as the initial buy-in, and it got the desired results — the first products have started to come out.

3. Strike it while it’s hot

When Remi and the management team first approached Eik about redesigning the agency workflow, he was slightly shocked to learn that he would only have 9 days to redesign it. But when they asked if he was up for it, his response was a resounding “Hell yeah!”

He understood the urgency: if they went slow, the momentum would die, and, with a nod to Peter Drucker, “business as usual” would eat change for breakfast. He couldn’t afford the enormous overhead of devising and customising a new process. He had to find a recipe that people could pick up and run with immediately.

Enter the Design Sprint. They’d done one or two before, so they knew it would reliably produce the same results, time after time, in five days. That seemed to fit the bill. Eik rounded up a number of project managers, gave each of them a copy of the Sprint book and a daily schedule, and informed them they’d be running one starting on Monday. He told them to take it one step at a time, always preparing for the next day in the evening, and preparing for the next exercise while the team was working.

That’s what made the sprint so well suited to the Pause — it was low-barrier, low-investment, and just ready to be picked up without preparation or experience.

Every time I visit LEGO, i’m so so sad that I can’t take photos of the amazing things i’m seeing. This was in the lobby of the Tokyo office though :)

4. The Control Tower

The sprint may not require excessive prep, but coordinating dozens of them needs a whole lot of planning. You need sprint briefs, first of all; then you need rooms booked and stationery provided, and you also need a way to support dozens of new facilitators that are running along with your crazy scheme.

Eik devised a way to help all those sprints take off and land well: he created an “air traffic control tower” with a group of five creative directors. They were the ones identifying problems that needed solving, they wrote the sprint briefs (using a one-pager template), and they occasionally also dropped in on the sprints to make sure the team was on the right track. The teams presented the learnings back to them on Fridays, ending the week on a fantastic high (and with heads about to explode with information overload).

Eik also provided coaching personally: he gave a little pep talk to the facilitators every morning, had a short regroup in the evening, and held proper retrospectives every Thursday night. For the first few sprints, he armed the facilitators with a minute-by-minute breakdown of the day, but as the weeks progressed, the retrospectives revealed “problems” such as “we didn’t have enough snacks” and “we need more dot stickers”.

In other words, the process was working.

5. Your values help

LEGO has a new CEO, and his mantra is “bias for action”. Put that next to LEGO’s vision, “inventing the future of play”, and you’ve practically got the recipe for the design sprint.

LEGO is a strongly mission-driven company, and they practice what they preach. When they say “bias for action”, they mean the urge to act that cuts through the bureaucratic crap and ensures that new initiatives aren’t nipped in the bud. This ethos is perfectly aligned with the design sprint, which has a clear bias for making something tangible, fast, and getting it in front of users, equally fast.

At the headquarters in Billund they’ve got bowls of LEGO in meeting rooms. Playing around with LEGO makes you relax when you need to fidget, and it also lets you quickly prototype and demonstrate ideas. They want to pioneer new ways of playing, as well as new ways of having fun while working. Before they started the Pause, they imagined what the future of work would look like, and they found that the sprint came pretty damn close to that vision. Implementing it at scale, they felt like they were ahead of the curve.

You might not work for LEGO, but I’d be willing to bet actual money that the design sprint won’t contradict your values, either. What any company wants, at the end of the day, is a group of people working towards the same goal, as effectively as possible, and having as much fun as possible.

So, at the end of the year, has it stuck?

Absolutely. In the first week of the Pause LEGO had 10 sprints going simultaneously, by the end of it they had 60 reps under their belts, and in less than a year they’ve completed over 150. There’s enough of a critical mass to propel it forward, and they’ve built up plenty of experience to guarantee success every single time. Of course it’s rewarding to see the first prototypes from last year hitting the shelves, but that’s not the biggest win.

The Pause created a lasting change within the agency: sprints have become a permanent fixture in the way they work. They now have a meeting-free week each month in which they can either schedule sprints or work in the same uninterrupted way, and the creative teams have started to run sprints every other week. With so many people getting to know each other, the office also got livelier, new connections were forged, and people have broken out of their departmental pigeonholes.

It might have started in the agency, but since then it’s spread into different parts of the organisation like an unstoppable virus, so much so that Eik has moved on to helping other teams in the business implement it.

The sprint is unlike any other methodology in the way that it’s self-motivating. Years ago I had so many companies invite me to implement design thinking, only to drop it completely once I was gone. Not enough people believed in it to make it stick, and it wasn’t concrete enough for anyone to pick it up and run with it. Fast forward a few years, and now I’ve got a sports shoe company asking me to train them up to run their own design sprints after seeing just one.

The sprint gathers its own momentum, and I’m with Eik in thinking that it’s here to stay.

How would you do it in another massive organisation?

I asked Eik what he’d do if he had to implement the design sprint at scale in a large automotive company. His tips are the perfect summary of the above:

First, secure buy-in from the most senior decision-makers: the people high-up who “hold the fortune of the company in their hands”. Get their acceptance to trial it before you do anything else — the Lightning Decision Jam exercise might help to demonstrate the efficiency of the sprint. Make them understand that trying a design sprint is low-risk, low-barrier and low-investment.

Get them straight into it. Run the first sprint the following Monday. If you wait another week, you might as well wait two, which will be a month before you know it, which becomes next quarter… don’t lose momentum. Strike it while it’s hot.

For your first sprint, pick some of the most curious and enthusiastic people to work with. A critical mass creates change faster, of course, but at the start it’s enough to get a small amount of people that will enthusiastically spread it. When you get to the second sprint, combine people who’ve done it before with people who haven’t.

Do retrospectives. They’re super helpful to iron out any issues and train people fast. They’re also also great if there’s resistance because you can always offer to stop if the first retro finds the sprint to be useless. (Which won’t happen, so you’re pretty safe there.)

And finally, don’t accept bullshit excuses like “I can’t take a week out of my calendar”. A week’s worth of work is nothing on the grand scheme of things. You do it when you’re taking a vacation — what’s stopping you doing it for super focused work?

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