Sprinting Fast and Slow

Most businesses will have thrown the term ‘Sprint’ around as a means to get to better decisions, faster. But how can they be used in the right way, and what strategies can be put in place to sprint with customers? Charles Drury offers his 5 top tips on how to Sprint better…

Charles Drury

Managing Director at C Space

Charles Drury is Head of Prototyping. He has more than 14 years’ experience in running both creative strategy and qualitative insight projects. He confesses to opening too many meetings with, “When I was studying car design…” – a nod to his Masters in Automotive Design Research. When he’s not running Sprints at work, he’s literally sprinting to keep fit. You can also find him searching for the perfect cat, or practicing handwriting (now in Mandarin) in a size anyone can read.

It’s so appealing isn’t it? Get more done. Escape the office. Trample hierarchy (for a bit). Live an Apprentice episode — for one week only — and no one even gets booted off the show at the end. What’s not to like?

When Jake Knapp, Braden Kowitz, and John Zeratsky first published what would turn out to be a bestseller on the “Sprint method,ˮ their tales of mackling together bits of robot to make charming deliveries to hotel guests for a Google Ventures start-up made compelling sense to a really wide readership. The sheer empowerment of their message has led to Sprint terminology — and methodology — catching on like wildfire.

But now that Sprints are being used for just about everything, tales have started to emerge on their limitations. As more and more organizations have begun to use them to shortcut the inefficiencies created by functional siloes, the ship has started to creak.

To declare my hand for the skip-to-the-end among you (after all, what could be more “Sprintˮ?): in my opinion Sprints are immensely powerful when used for the right challenge, with the right people, in the right way.

What exactly is a Sprint?

“The Sprint is a 5-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers.ˮ Thank you, Jake. There are a few key ideas rolled into this sentence: some assumptions about time, an assertion of importance, some stated methods, and finally, an invitation to the customer. Seems simple enough.

What could go wrong?

The whole point of going faster is to fit in more attempts at getting it right — to learn progressively and empirically. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that in their modern commercial application, failure is rarely considered an option. Company X has just invested a 5- or 6-figure sum with Agency Y to Sprint to the next big commercial decision, and will be distinctly unimpressed if it doesn’t get an answer it is happy with. “Failing fastˮ has gone right out the window.

The reality that Sprints have led to more customer involvement in commercial decision making is a total win. But all too often involving the customer in Sprints involves pulling them in off the street, and asking them in the space of 15 minutes what they think of this new taken-out-of-context thing. That’s 15 minutes for “How are you thinking of planning your Retirement? / Smart home? / Meals for the week?ˮ Of course, no good can come of this, because someone forgot to build a relationship somewhere, rendering a perfectly agile-looking tool worse than useless.

The other pitfalls for Sprints are unforeseen consequences of some of the things that make them so successful. Too often the customer gets totally ignored, because what they’re asking for is too hard to build in the time allowed, or no one takes the time to ask them what they want (or, rather, feel) in the right way.

How to Sprint better?

1. Take listening seriously

Sprints combine a lot of disciplines in a very short space of time. The risk is that they compromise each so that actually nothing gets done well. If the objective of the Sprint hinges on finding the sweet spot between the customer and the business, take the time to understand each in-depth.

When a multinational grocer asked us to reimagine the future of hot food-to-go for them, we not only created relationships with customers in Thailand, Poland, and the UK through online communities, such that we could test ideas overnight, but we also interviewed every senior manager who was going to attend the Sprint to understand the reality of the business they ran. The result: something the customer wants that the business has made happen. The first trial store is now being tested and global rollout will follow.

2. Take making seriously

The same principle as above goes for design. If the MVP needs 3 weeks to build such that it has the fidelity required to get a real read on the opportunity space: give it all 3 weeks. Anything else is lunacy.

When we built a new personal financial planning tool for a global insurance company — if the digital prototype lacked enough of a backend for customers to be able to input their own real financial data, securely, and accurately, then we were never going to get a read on whether it offered real utility. It took a couple of weeks to translate the intent of the original concept into something that was actually usable enough to pass muster. But it was time well spent, and meant we could do better listening as a result.

3. Don’t get locked in

The Sprint room is an exciting place when everyone gets off planes/trains from faraway places, but the novelty soon wears thin.

When we ran a Sprint for a musical instruments manufacturer with Brunel University students, we couldn’t find a venue that would fit the budget for the duration of the Sprint. This was the best thing that ever happened to us as we were forced to move around. Day one was at our offices, day two in the extreme users’ homes, day three in a factory two floors above the students’ degree show, day four in their workshops on-campus, and day five video-pitching to the Board in Hong Kong. As a result, we got to perform each discipline of the Sprint-cycle in the place most fitting for it: in the customer’s world, in competitors’ stores, in workshops with actual tools.

4. Connect up Sprints

“Death by 1,000 Sprintsˮ is a fairly common phenomenon — lots of little initiatives that don’t really amount to anything. What gets lost is the spirit of iteration — asking at the end of the Sprint, “Where did we get to? Do we need to do that again?ˮ Sprints need to be able to fail — in the sense of “return the answer, ‘no,’ ” rather than fail for lack of commitment or focus. Without iteration, Sprinting is just rushing. So make space for it. A good way of doing this is by thinking of “connected Sprints.ˮ Not “one-week-to- rule-them-all,ˮ but rather a series of short bursts that allow you to take good ideas forward fast, and to recycle/destroy the bad ones faster.

5. Follow the spirit, not the letter

Since Sprints are now everywhere, it’s no good expecting one size to fit all. Don’t try to follow the book, just try to act in its spirit. That means remembering what Sprints are really for: getting to better decisions faster. It’s in this context that we all need to get creative (because customers are not getting any more patient). At C Space we’re playing with the idea of the 24-hour Sprint: connecting up global offices so we can make the most of the time zones, fitting 3 weeks “workˮ into 1, connecting with customers and stakeholders in each. Sounds like a corporate fantasy? Well, that’s what Sprints are. So get fantasizing…

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