A sprint is a quick jaunt from one place to another. A sprint isn’t meant to take long. Speed is part of a sprint’s allure. In comparison, a marathon can be thought of as a feat of endurance moving from one place to another. Marathons are tests of will. According to Greek history, the first marathon commemorated the run of Pheidippides, a soldier from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C. According to legend, Pheidippides ran 25 miles to announce the defeat of the Persians to the nervous Athenians.
What happens when the distance covered is not measured in feet or miles but by ideas?
How much time should be required to move from many ideas to a single idea, and act on it?
Innovation Strategy Sprints are a new way to reach a mental destination without a marathon of discussions, debates, meeting notes, follow-ups, mass distraction tactics, or hurt feelings. The word “Innovation” sets a tone that we seek new answers—ones we usually don’t hear. When we discover problems, we tend to treat them the same way we’ve always treated problems. Problems can quickly get out-of-hand. The world today experiences change at a pace humanity has never experienced before. To face this problem, we need to adapt more quickly, and the first step is moving beyond the process of the “same old solutions.” Sprints are focused on bringing the “talent” and “brains” into a single room to play through a series of frameworks for the goal of solving big problems. Problems against which old solution fail. Problems which require experience to imagine new solutions.
These exercises change the corporate decision-making paradigm. This is the addition of Design into the thinking process of business, and this process departs drastically from standard business school training. The Design Value Index (https://www.dmi.org/page/DesignValue/The-Value-of-Design-.htm ) tracks the performance of design-driven business relative to the overall S&P 500 Index. Design-driven typically companies outperform the S&P 500 by at least 211%. Three ways Innovation Strategy Sprints change a typical corporate decision-making process are a shift in focus from discussion to individual idea production, organizing and ranking solutions, and the transformation process from decision as solution to solution as opportunity.
Focus on quantity not discussion
If you’ve ever sat through a meeting where two team members hash out their deep-seated trust issues by stonewalling a decision; you may have wondered if a decision can be made without anyone saying a word. Yes, in fact it can. One strength of sprints is the responsibility on the individual to contribute as much as possible to aid the process. In fact, silence is best. Each step of the process is time-boxed; which drives focus on production rather than discussion. If someone fails to think of the “perfect” solution during the time-box they can always add it later.
Having conducted several of these sprints, the brain of players functions in a similar order, regardless of content of the exercise. First, the person writes common words or ideas. These ideas tend to be most common in to that person’s mind, culture, and perspective of society. In a well-aligned corporate culture, many of these initial solutions match between players. Next, the brain searches for connections that are less common, and still good solutions. However, this step is often interrupted by the “monkey brain” which insists on giving nonsense answers. It’s important to write these nonsense answers down like any legitimate idea. This allows the brain to keep branching out in a web of personal reflection and symbolic connection. Resisting the “monkey brain” ideas tends to make them stick around longer; simply writing these solutions lets the mind move forward. Eventually, one or two truly unique ideas move into consciousness and can be captured. This is the way brains connect ideas with solutions and re-creating the sprint with the same participants will often result in the same solutions because the individual brains continue to function the same way. To get new results one must change the game, change the participants, or radically shift the experiences and beliefs of the same team.
Decisions are not about personality
I once sat in a meeting about the style of cafeteria chairs. For weeks, I worked with HR and Office Services to select brand-appropriate options that fit a tight budget. I walked into the meeting with a PowerPoint showing nine primary chair options, broken into three groups; with a breakdown of costs. In walked three VPs, the CEO, and his executive assist. In less than five slides the meeting devolved into stories of old chairs, comparisons of chairs to monsters, and an added order to research restaurant-style booths. We decided additional research was needed and rescheduled the chair presentation for another time. It turns out the budget information and direction which guided our initial search was only from one decision-maker, and the other personalities shifted the vision toward solutions that took another nine months to sort.
Sprints focus on the solutions on the table. Using every solution present, players organize and rank the solutions in multiple ways. This process uses the power of the human mind to recognize patterns and reach creative conclusions quickly. Simply reading two words, which previously only existed in the minds of two separate people, is a synthesis of creative insight. Connecting and ranking these insights determines an order for solutions. This order is based on the information given and not on personal feelings and stories.
Solutions are Opportunity for Testing
Maybe this has happened to you. You’re gathered together with others from your team for a annual team meeting. At the end, you sit back and stare at a list of commitments that took three days of brainstorming. Each item is a carefully negotiated action. Whether it came from a team-member or higher up the ladder, it’s now on the schedule. Until later when it feels “undo-able” and is cancelled. Or the demanded ROI far outweighed the support, or the budget associated to the project is dropped entirely.
Sometimes the clarity of a list isn’t good enough to express clarity of focus. Ranking solutions provides ample room for exploration and experimentation. Every solution has potential as a viable real-world solution if given budget, time and feedback. The real world doesn’t always reflect our assumptions about problems and solutions. The best way to move sprint solutions into the real world is to test it as a hypothesis. Move through each solution, ranked from the highest to lowest, for viability. Select KPIs that tell us if a solution is working. Test the hypothesis. We can even test multiple solutions consecutively if time and budget allow. Starting with small tests allows us to move toward larger solutions while engaging our brains and training our processes for later scaling.
Sprinting to the Conclusion
Working through business challenges with a design thinking framework is different from what many business leaders have experienced. It’s not a linear process, and it’s certainly not dictated from the top-down. The sprint process is group-sourced and unifying; it relies on everyone’s diverse expertise to imagine valid solutions. Using sprints in business grants us a process to examine challenges and openly imagine novel solutions. The concept of Design works in this capacity as the driver of divergent ideation. New concepts come from the creativity of the process and the combination of individual contributions reduced in a convergent funnel. The outcome of both divergent and convergent thinking is clear and actionable solutions waiting the opportunities for testing. With tests we learn which ideas actually impact the world.