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Read time: 13 min

Like the authors: Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz – and demonstrated by you reading this summary – you have a desire to improve productivity. We can all track activities; try to establish the best time to do specific tasks; identify when we are in the “zone” for creativity; and no doubt are aware of countless ways to create a to do list!

In Google Ventures (GV) Knapp and Co focused on improving team processes: how can we work better together.  Coupling this with their responsibilities in GV and their objective to identify the “next best thing” the concept of Sprints was derived. 

Good ideas are hard to find. That’s true whether you’re running a startup, teaching a class, or working inside a large organization. Sprints can assist that search. This book is a DIY guide for running your own sprint to find your good ideas. 

On Monday, you’ll map out the problem and pick an important place to focus. On Tuesday, you’ll sketch competing solutions on paper. On Wednesday, you’ll make difficult decisions and turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis. On Thursday, you’ll hammer out a realistic prototype. And on Friday, you’ll test it with real live humans. 

Addressing the Challenge 

No problem is too large for a sprint. First, the sprint forces your team to focus on the most pressing questions. Second, the sprint allows you to learn from just the surface of a finished product. The surface is important. It’s where your product or service meets customers. Human beings are complex and fickle, so it’s impossible to predict how they’ll react to a brand-new solution. When our new ideas fail, it’s usually because we were overconfident about how well customers would understand and how much they would care. Get that surface right, and you can work backward to figure out the underlying systems or technology. 

Picking the Roster.

Ocean’s Eleven is a great movie. In the film, Danny Ocean organizes a band of career criminals for a once-in-a-lifetime heist. A sprint resembles that perfectly orchestrated heist. You and your team put your talents, time, and energy to their best use, taking on a major challenge and using your wits to overcome every obstacle that crosses your path. To pull it off, you need the right team. 

Knapp suggests the ideal size for a sprint team to be seven people or fewer. With eight or more, the sprint moves more slowly, and you’ll have to work harder to keep everyone focused and productive. With seven or fewer, everything is easier. 

Here are Knapp’s suggestions for team members:

  • Finance expert who can explain where the money comes from (and where it goes) 
  • Marketing expert who crafts your company’s messages
  • Customer expert who regularly talks to your customers one-on-one 
  • Tech/logistics expert who best understands what your company can build and deliver 
  • Design expert who designs the products your company makes

Also bring the troublemaker, that smart person who has strong, contrary opinions. Their crazy idea about solving the problem might just be right. And even if it’s wrong, the presence of a dissenting view will push everyone else to do better work. 

The final member of the roster is the Decider. These Deciders generally understand the problem in depth, and they often have strong opinions and criteria to help find the right solution. If your Decider doesn’t believe the sprint or its focus to be worthwhile, that’s a giant red flag. You might have the wrong project. Take your time, talk with the Decider and figure out which big challenge could be better.

Monday – Day 1

Monday begins with a goal setting exercise -a look ahead to the end of the sprint week and beyond. If you could jump ahead to the end of your sprint, what questions would be answered? “Why are we doing this project? Where do we want to be six months, a year, or even five years from now?” 

Your goal should reflect your team’s principles and aspirations. The sprint process will help you find a good place to start and make real progress toward even the biggest goal. Once you’ve settled on a long-term goal, write it at the top of the whiteboard. It’ll stay there throughout the sprint as a beacon to keep everyone moving in the same direction. 

The Customer Journey Map 

The Customer Journey Map will show customers moving through your service or product. You’ll use the map to narrow your broad challenge into a specific target for the sprint. It helps you keep track of how everything fits together, and it eases the burden on each person’s short-term memory. Here’s how.

List the actors (on the left). The “actors” are all the important characters in your story. Write the ending, your goal (on the right). Now add words and arrows in between. The map should be functional, not a work of art. Words and arrows and the occasional box should be enough. No drawing expertise required. 

Your map should have from five to around fifteen steps. If there are more than twenty, it’s probably too complicated. By keeping the map simple, the team can agree on the structure of the problem without getting tied up in competing solutions. 

For the rest of the day, you’ll interview “experts” to gather more information about the problem space. As you go, you’ll add more questions, make updates to your map, and perhaps even adjust the phrasing of your long-term goal. Your job on Monday afternoon will be to assemble one cohesive picture from everyone’s pooled knowledge and expertise. 

If the expert isn’t part of the sprint team, tell her what the sprint is about and give them a two-minute tour of the long-term goal, sprint questions, and map.  For all experts,  ask them to tell you everything they know about the challenge at hand. Ask the expert to fill in areas where they have extra expertise. Fix the whiteboards. Add sprint questions. Change your map. If necessary, update your long-term goal. Your experts are here to tell you what you didn’t know (or forgot) in the morning, so don’t be shy about making revisions. 

Fixing on the Target 

Your final task on Monday is to choose a target for your sprint. Who is the most important customer, and what’s the critical moment of that customer’s experience? The rest of the sprint will flow from this decision. The target is the place on your map where you have the biggest opportunity to do something great (and also, perhaps, the greatest risk of failure). Can’t decide? Too many options?  Ask the Decider to decide. That’s why they have the big salary! Once you’ve selected a target, take a look back at your sprint questions. You usually can’t answer all those questions in one sprint, but one or more should line up with the target. 

Tuesday – Day 2

AM

You’ll begin Tuesday morning by searching for existing ideas you can use in the afternoon to inform your solution. Knapp’s method for collecting and synthesizing these existing ideas is an exercise called Lightning Demos. 

Your team will take turns giving three-minute tours of their favorite solutions: from other products, from different domains, and from within your own company. Ask everyone on your team to come up with a list of products or services to review for inspiring solutions. Remind people to think outside of your industry or field, and to consider inspiration from within the company. Everything you review should contain something good you can learn from. After a few minutes of thinking, everyone should narrow down to his or her top one or two products. Write the collected list on the whiteboard.

One at a time, the person who suggested each product gives a tour – showing the whole team what’s so cool about it. Each tour should be around three minutes long. Capture big ideas, themes and opportunities as you go and add to the whiteboard.

PM

On Tuesday afternoon, it’s time to come up with solutions. But there will be no brainstorming; no shouting over one another; no deferring judgment so wacky ideas can flourish. Instead, you’ll work individually, take your time, and sketch. 

Each person takes his or her strongest ideas and rapidly sketches eight variations in eight minutes. This exercise forces you to push past your first reasonable solutions and make them better, or at least consider alternatives. Take a favorite piece from your ideas sheet and ask yourself, “What would be another good way to do this?” Keep going until you can’t think of any more variations, then look back at your ideas sheet, choose a new idea, and start riffing on it instead. 

The next step is each person’s best idea, put down on paper in detail. As these sketches will be looked at – and judged! – by the rest of the team they need to be detailed, thought-out, and easy to understand. Each sketch will be a three-panel storyboard drawn on sticky notes, showing what your customers see as they interact with your product or service. 

Once everybody is finished, put the solution sketches in a pile. You’ll only see them for the first time on Wednesday. 

Wednesday – Day 3

AM

Your goal for Wednesday morning is to decide which solutions to prototype.  

  1. Put all the solution sketches on the wall with masking tape. 
  2. Look at all the solutions in silence and use dot stickers to mark interesting parts. 
  3. Quickly discuss the highlights of each solution and use sticky notes to capture big ideas. 
  4. Each person chooses one solution, and votes for it with a dot sticker – as many as they would like from the quantity given. 
  5. The Decider makes the final decision, with – you guessed it – more stickers. 

By lunchtime on Wednesday, you will have decided which sketches have the best chance of answering your sprint questions and helping you reach your long-term goal. Next, it’s time to turn all these decisions into a plan of action so you can finish your prototype in time for Friday’s test. 

PM

On Wednesday afternoon, you’ll take the winning sketches and string them together into a storyboard. This will be similar to the three-panel storyboards you sketched on Tuesday, but it will be longer: about ten to fifteen panels, all tightly connected into one cohesive story. You’ll use your storyboard to imagine your finished prototype “in the market”, so you can spot problems and points of confusion before the prototype is built. You’ll start drawing your storyboard in the top left box of the grid. This frame will be the first moment that customers experience on Friday. Choose an opening scene: How do customers find out your company exists? Where are they and what are they doing just before they use your product? 

From there, as a team, you’ll build out your story, one frame at a time, just like a comic book. Whenever possible, use the sticky notes from your winning sketches and stick them onto the whiteboard. Work with what you have. Resist inventing new ideas and just work with the good ideas you already came up with. Your storyboard should include rough headlines and important phrases, but don’t try to perfect your writing .

Include just enough detail. Put enough detail in your storyboard so that nobody has to ask questions like “What happens next?” 

Thursday – Day 4

Thursday is all about illusion. You’ve got an idea for a great solution. Instead of taking weeks, months or years to build, you are going to fake it. You might make the real thing someday, but isn’t it best to check if the solution fits the bill? Not every idea is a winner and its best to find out sooner rather than later.

Building a “fake” may be uncomfortable for you – you need to change your mind set from “perfect” to “just enough” from “long term quality” to “temporary simulation” – a prototype mind set.

Why should we take this approach? We can prototype anything. Product, service, hardware, software. Everything. Prototypes are disposable. If it doesn’t work you can throw it away with no regret. We only need to build just enough to learn but no more.  No need for bells and whistles. Just the minimum viable product. The prototype must appear real however. Let’s not forget an obvious fake will not hook the same attention as a novel approach.

Every prototype is different so there is no exact step-by-step process to share. But Knapp gives the following guidelines.

  1. Pick the right tools – if its on screen choose Keynote or Powerpoint. If its on paper Word or publisher could be options. If it’s a service write a script. For a space, modify another. If it’s an object, modeling clay, bricks or if you can a 3d printer will work.
  2. Divide and conquer. Split the team into task groups. Makers create the components. Stitchers put them together. Writers create the scripts. Asset collectors collect what is needed to give substance and Interviewers – a key role – needs to know how to demonstrate to the customer.
  3. Stitch it together. The Stitcher needs to make sure everything ties in, Like continuity in a film and a gladiator with a wrist watch, errors break down the fascade.
  4. Do a trial run. Obvious isn’t it. In the fascade you need to give the impression that you’ve been using the solution for ages and it actually exists. We’ve all experienced a bad presentation. 

Friday – Day 5

The last but potentially the most important day. The external test of your solution.

Here is how Friday works. One person from your team acts as Interviewer. He will interview five of your target customers, one at a time. He will ask them to complete a task with the prototype and ask a few questions to understand what they are thinking as they interact. The rest of you will watch a video stream of the interview and make note of customer’s reactions.

These interviews are an emotional roller coaster. When customers get confused by your prototype you’ll be frustrated. If they don’t care about your new idea you’ll be disappointed. But when they complete a difficult task, understand something you’ve been trying to explain for months, or if they praise your solution you will be elated.

Why five? After five interviews the patterns of success or failure will be easy to spot. There is little benefit from running more than five. ROI drops significantly. Five is also a convenient number – you can fit five one hour interviews and time for review in one day.

The interview should follow five steps. A friendly welcome. Context questions, Introduction to the prototype. Task using the prototype and finally a debrief.

Context questions allow you to find out more about the drive and needs of the customers which will help you interpret their reactions.

Tasks can follow a scripted “nudge” asking the customer how they may engage with the prototype. You can focus where you need by asking: What do you think of that? What do you expect that will do? What’s going through your mind just now? What would you do next?

Throughout the day you will collect clues. Some will help you crack the case, some may lead you in the wrong direction. Only at the end of the day will it all come together. How can this be aided?  Watch the recorded interview videos together. Conclusions will be better made together. Many brains working together can make an informed decision on what to do next.

Look for patterns. Review the outcomes against the sprint questions from Monday. Remember its for the customer so what did they experience? Remember a sprint should lead to some form of conclusion – it works, it doesn’t work, it needs more work. Each is progress.

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