An interview with Design Sprint author John Zeratsky and Sprint Coach (and GoKart Labs Alumna) Jackie Colburn.
It’s early in 2019, and like a lot of people — GoKart Labs is knee deep in celebrating the turn of a new year. We’re goal setting, tidying, and continuously pruning the methods and tools we use to help businesses bring new value into the world.
A methodology that will continue to be on our list of must-haves is a Design Sprint. Design Sprints were made popular in 2016 by Google Ventures’ partners Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz. It focuses on breaking challenges into workable/testable problems allowing you to move from problem to customer tested solution — in just five days.
Since early 2016, we’ve been using Design Sprints to help our clients (and internal teams) make decisions, move forward and test new ideas. We’ve got a partner that just celebrated their 25th Sprint with GoKart Labs, every time bringing a different problem to solve and a commitment to test a solution at the end. It’s been remarkable to see how much our teams can accomplish using this methodology, one problem statement at a time.
We’re big fans of the Design Sprint and jumped at the chance to sit down with one of the book’s authors (John Zeratsky) and former GoKart Labs alumna, Jackie Colburn who together, recently led a day-long boot camp on the Design Sprint process and how to bring Design Sprints into organizations (big and small).
Here are some key takeaways from our interview, we’re thrilled to see the growing interest in Sprints and hope to see you deciding and conquering more in 2019.
What inspired the Design Sprint process?
John – Jake Knapp created the Design Sprint process at Google in 2010 because he saw too many teams struggle with bringing ideas to market. Good ideas would get stuck in a vortex of pointless meetings and endless email, never seeing the light of day, while bad ideas would sometimes get pushed through to launch, only to learn after the fact that they were no good!
In 2011, I joined Google Ventures (GV), and saw that startups were a perfect testbed for the Design Sprint process: they had a fixed timeline, they wanted to take big risks, yet they struggled with the same workplace defaults they inherited from big companies. We brought Jake to GV and began fleshing out the process, using our 200+ startups as a laboratory.
As the process spread throughout our portfolio and beyond, we realized that Design Sprints weren’t just a way to quickly test ideas—they gave teams a new set of default work behaviors based on face-to-face time, uninterrupted focus, and purposeful work. They were a recipe for better ways of working together. And they introduced thousands of companies to the power of design in solving all kinds of problems.
If you had to pick, what’s more important? Mindset or Methods?
John – Mindsets are really important, but Methods matter more, because Methods are action, and action is where things get done. I’d rather have someone do the right things and not know why than give them a good mindset but no tools to put it into action.
Jackie – I agree with John. It can be hard to shift mindset but with practice (method) the mindset eventually shifts. It’s like trying to break a habit or learn a new sport. You have to put it into practice and then with time, your mind changes.
What is the right kind of problem for a Design Sprint?
John – The best Design Sprints are at the interaction of high uncertainty and high cost. If a project has an uncertain outcome but it’s easy to do, you can just do it and see what happens. If a project will be costly (in time, money, or energy) but has a predictable outcome, you can evaluate the ROI and decide if it’s worth it. (And of course, if the cost is low and positive results are certain, what are you waiting for?)
But it’s those stressful, high-stakes, make-or-break projects—like introducing a new product, launching new marketing, or reaching a new type of customer—where the Design Sprint really shines.
As a general rule of thumb, sprints work best at the beginning of projects.
Jackie – I often run Design Sprints with teams who are having a hard time either: focusing or gaining consensus for work to be done.
On focus: I see that teams want to work on a given problem but are spread too thin and aren’t able to spend the time needed to design a new solution. A Design Sprint gives them the ability to really dig in and work on the problem for a focused period of time.
On consensus: Teams need to work together to create great new products and services. If they aren’t working together, it can create a lot of churn. When they Sprint together, the team must work together to get to a shared vision and create a prototype of what the new experience looks like. Validating it with customers is the icing on the cake.
What do you think works well in politically challenging environments?
John – A few of the Design Sprint activities can make challenging environments a bit healthier:
- Being honest about how decisions get made by identifying a Decider
- Gathering input from everyone on the team, even if they’re shy, new, or not known for being “creative”
- Listening to real customer feedback as a group
Jackie – John said something in our workshop that I loved – “If you have a challenging politics, the Design Sprint won’t fix it.” This is true and when I see the risk with a team, I will recommend that we do some work in advance to have hard conversations and level set before going into a Sprint. However, a Sprint can have a positive impact on an org, giving a team the autonomy to work on a problem and gain support for the solution. Customer validation goes a long way. Sketching and voting methods also do a great job of bringing forth great ideas from people who might otherwise not speak up.
What advice would you give for people doing this for the first time?
John – I’m biased, of course, but my advice would be to read the book and do exactly what it says! 🙂 Seriously though, we spent five years refining the Design Sprint process before writing the book about it. We tried shorter sprints and longer sprints, and we experimented with dozens of modifications to the process. The checklist in the book is not the only way to run a sprint, but we know that this way works.
Running a sprint is kind of like baking a cake: If you don’t follow the recipe, you might end up with a disgusting mess. So for your first few sprints, follow the steps. Once you’ve got it down, feel free to experiment, just like an experienced baker. And when you find something new that makes the process work better for you, please let us know!
Jackie – Of course, read the book. Try it. Set yourself up for success by following the process as it’s defined. I agree that it’s like a cake recipe and if you have never done it before, you will benefit from following the book. However, I also strongly believe that it’s better to spend “some time” than “no time” or to adapt than to do nothing at all. In the case that you need to adjust, it may benefit you to hire an experienced facilitator to come in for your first Design Sprint.