Revamp Your Innovation Process With Design Sprints—And Upend Your Industry

A successful design sprint doesn’t just follow a series of set processes. It creates an openness to new ideas and a sense of community during the whole process.

Revamp Your Innovation Process With Design Sprints--And Upend Your Industry

Technological, economic, and demographic changes are happening at a dead sprint, and it’s relentless. When you’re trying to manage your business in this environment, it can feel like chasing Usain Bolt, and he’s turning around to taunt you as he pulls away.

Is your business finding the gear you need to set the pace? Or is it standing still or even running in the wrong direction?

Consider the fast-moving challenges presented by just some of the new industry giants on the scene. As Tom Goodwin said in a TechCrunch essay last year: Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

Talk about understatement. Companies like these are upending the business models of everything they touch—sports, supply-chain management, film, every lifestyle brand there is—and threatening to make incumbents irrelevant.

The usual product development road maps cannot withstand this pressure. Standard waterfall planning cycles are too inefficient, so the basic methodology for product innovation of gathering your team, brainstorming solutions, prototyping, and testing has to be accomplished a lotfaster.

A dead-sprint business environment calls for a dead-sprint innovation methodology.

Design Sprints Are The Catalyst For Your Innovation Engine

With a design sprint, an innovation methodology that would normally take weeks or months is condensed into a time frame that seems scary or even ludicrous. Like one week. Or 24 hours. It’s the lean startup philosophy and agile methodology combined and put through its paces.

But the value of design sprints isn’t just about going through a process faster. The magic happens when you put smart people together in a way that lets them be vulnerable to one another and open to creative solutions.

In short, design sprints are a way to change how you think, how you work, and who you work with. You get teamwork, accelerated iteration, and a design process that is more human-centered.

And you transform your business into a real innovation engine that helps you set the pace instead of join the chase.

Get Inspired By Innovation Labs

You can see the potential of design sprints by looking at results from some innovation projects with creative approaches:

● A Nordstrom team camped out in the accessories department of one store and, using immediate testing with customers, built and launched an app for comparing sunglass styles in a few days.

● Bookmarking app Pocket increased its new user activation by 58% with a series of three short sprints to prototype and launch new onboarding flows.

● Home improvement retailer Lowe’s shakes up the usual innovation lab model by encouraging its team to think at the mind-bending scale of science fiction and have in-store experiments with 3D scanners, droids, and an augmented reality “Holoroom.”

● Boutique coffee retailer Blue Bottle doubled e-commerce sales with a new site subjected to rapid iteration and a relentless focus on the customer.

● Lego backed away from the brink of bankruptcy to become “the Apple of toys” with one-week team-building retreats that are capped by a 24-hour hackathon.

Get The Right People Together And Get On The Same Page

When I read through these and other examples, I notice that the recipe for success includes diversity in thought and background—artists, technologists, product managers, and end users. Uninformed thinking can quickly cascade into technical or “blind-spot” debt later in a project by not involving the right people. To truly leverage the power of cross-functional teams, you have to work that way from the start.

For example, Lego hackathons brings together “industrial designers, interaction designers, programmers, ethnographic researchers, marketers,” and even people who are really good at making sculptures from Lego bricks. Design sprints succeed when you let everyone contribute equally. It’s all about getting the makers and the doers together in one place aligned around the same problem.

Get Real About What The Problem Is

What if I asked you to redesign the thermostat? For many, the first instinct would be to connect it to the Internet because Nest is having success there. Or they might want to add a gimmicky feature that automatically told you the forecast while you were picking out clothes. First instincts are a great start, but they’re influenced by how the problem is framed.

When the design team at Nest tackled the thermostat, their initial impulse was to take a Swiss-army knife approach. As Nest co-founder Matt Rogers told Fast company, “We thought about all kinds of crazy animations, background images. But it’s a thermostat: It’s not supposed to cook you breakfast.” They decided that the form of their thermostat should reflect the fact that 99.9% of the time the only thing anyone does is turn their heat up or down.

Instead they focused on the basic question: What’s the most efficient way to control the temperature in your house? A better question has produced a better innovation—a compact stainless-steel cylinder with an elegant LCD screen that intelligently learns what temperature you like.

You have to ask the right question for a design sprint to be successful. It’s always about knowing when to open it up to divergent thinking and then bringing it back to convergent thinking. The sci-fi approach at Lowe’s is a great example of making a lot of room for divergent thinking.

How Smart Design Sprints Are Like A Busy Mom Doing The Shopping

We can all learn a little something from our moms. Mine is the most savvy shopper I know. I’ll spend an hour at the grocery store working through a massive list, but she’s in and out in 20 minutes because she’s on a search and destroy mission.

Her trick is that she breaks her main list into smaller lists–produce, baking aisle, freezer section–and tackles them in order so she never has to backtrack. By tackling each list independently, the sense of progress keeps the momentum and energy up, which is key to completing any race.

Sports psychologists have researched the phenomenon of psychological momentum quite a bit. It’s a real thing! That lucky bounce does change the mindset, which generates self-efficacy, more confidence, and then better results.

Smart design sprints are about creating the first lucky bounce and building momentum. When it comes to building your prototype, the task list is going to be overwhelming at first. You might have a hundred things on there, but if you break them into a series of short lists and divvy them out by person, all that work can get taken care of relatively quickly.

**The Key To Success? Get Rid Of The Words ‘No’ And ‘But’ **

****Imagine you’re trying to design a safer and more convenient way to hail a taxi. Someone says, “Why don’t we make this really simple app where people can order a car from an independent driver?” and the next person says, “Yes, but there are too many legal questions,” or “No, strangers won’t trust each other enough to use it.” Your team would have tossed out the idea of Uber before you’d even considered it.

The word “no” kills innovation. And the phrase “yes, but” is just as bad. Instead, do like improv comics do and try to respond with “yes, and.” (In fact, Kelly Leonard wrote an interesting book titled “Yes, And” about how the Second City comedy troupe method can improve collaboration and teamwork in the workplace.)

Even If You Can’t Catch Up, You Can Still Outperform

We can’t control the business environment. The flywheel of technological and business model change is just going to keep cranking faster and faster. That’s why so many brands are turning to innovation efforts.

But innovation isn’t a task. It’s not a department. It’s not a person’s job. And it’s definitely not a finish line.

Innovation is a way of thinking and acting that is deeply embedded in your culture and ways of working. It’s an entire change in perspective and a cultural shift in how you operate as a team.

That’s why a successful design sprint doesn’t just follow a series of set processes. It creates an openness to new ideas and a sense of community during the whole process. Design sprints work because by compressing timelines and reducing risk, they bring people together to work with a shared purpose.

Again, they change how think, how you work, and who you work with.

What are you doing to keep up in the dead sprint business environment? Think about the structure of your team. Think about what internal and external partners are invested in your innovation. Do you have the right people there? Are you allowing them to be vulnerable?

And think about if you are approaching problems with the same old structure that you’ve always used? If the answer is yes, you are probably running in the wrong direction.