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The key do’s and don’ts of Design Sprints

Sarah Serneels

Service Designer
The increasing acceptance of Design Sprints shows the willingness of business clients to gear up for pragmatic innovation; perhaps the phenomenon of Design Sprints even demonstrates the perceived necessity of innovation. The fact that innovation is a strategic necessity for all kinds of businesses has been our mantra ever since Achilles Design exists. Consequently, Achilles Design runs innovation workshops and Design Sprints since many years.
A Design Sprint is typically a five-day innovation process, designed to find answers to critical business questions by applying design thinking, prototyping, testing and validating innovation ideas with clients. If organised well, Design Sprints can deliver insightful innovation ideas that can show the direction of more fundamental innovation designs.

1. Experience helps.

Not only do you get better at something by practicing it, you are also typically better at running innovation workshops when you know what it takes to implement innovative ideas. Having gained experience in multiple workshops or sprints, you might also discover hacks and tricks that reduce time and effort and increase effectiveness.

2. The composition of the group is critical.

It is important that the client contributes constructive people with experience but also ambitious newcomers. Next to that, it is typically not promising to have either ‘blockers’ or ‘dreamers’ in the room. A combination of a certain sense of reality as well as ambition is important. Moreover, other sector expertise is valuable in order to reflect on entirely new ideas and to introduce best practices that have not yet broken through in the client’s industry. The kind of expert you invite differs from workshop to workshop. When the theme requires insights from the consumers perspective, it might be interesting to invite a market researcher or sales person, while other workshops might require an engineer or app architect to provide technical insights.
Throughout the years of practice, we have learned a great deal about the do’s and don’ts of facilitating such workshops, and we have learned that there are a number of critically important success factors.

3. A good idea counts for 30% of business success or less.

At least 70% of business success is in the execution, i.e. the design of business processes, and the avoidance of stakeholder pain points – all are actual design challenges, often involving disciplines such as service, digital, and product design. This reality is again part of the necessary expectations-management.

4. Sufficient preparation and post-processing time are key.

The better a facilitator understands how the client organisation ticks, the more promising the outcome. Group dynamics can be very different as well. Some groups need to be triggered by examples; others churn out idea after idea. It is important to understand the key challenges of the sector and the client’s in particular, and it is valuable to have a good idea of cutting-edge innovation and the main trends in the client’s industry. That’s why a good amount of preparation time is important. Don’t underestimate processing time either. Gathering all of the insights, data and ideas produced during the sprint, making sense of them and connecting all the dots is a time-consuming job.

5. Group members should be individually focused on innovation ideas, not just in the group.

Group dynamics can destroy the freedom of idea-sharing. Too dominant people, be it due to their seniority level or their personality, can stop creative people from speaking out freely. It is therefore important to get the best ideas out of everybody before any group dynamic influences ideas into certain directions. Every group member should therefore list a number of ideas before sharing them with the group. One way to do this is through brain writing, where you put each challenge on a large sheet of paper and let each participant brainstorm ideas for a couple of minutes. The paper then gets passed down to the next participant who can build on the ideas of the previous participant and so on. Limitations can also lead to a more creative outcome. E.g. if somebody were to ask you to draw something, you might find it difficult to come up with something. However, if somebody would ask you to draw five different landscapes, it would probably lead to more creative ideas.

6. Frequent market validation cycles quickly reject non-starter ideas.

Market validation is always critical. A business can think of the most innovative ideas; if the market turns out not to value these ideas, the idea is worthless. It is important to quickly run market surveys or to implement quick digital market validation tools to understand how possible customers react to certain ideas. To keep the direction of innovation market-relevant, non-starter ideas should not be further pursued. Market validation should be done in multiple phases of the design process: analysing problems, needs, wishes, verifying larger concepts, selecting specific product or app features, etc.

7. Follow-up and implement.

Many external consultants know how to create a buzz in the client organisation for a handsome fee – but then what? Leaving the client organisation after having created some innovation buzz will often result in business depression rather than business innovation, which is not valuable for the organisation in the long term. After making plans, other consultants are often hired to implement these plans, quickly coming to the conclusion that the plans need substantial rework to be implementable. This is a frustration that is avoidable if you run innovation workshops with the mindset of having to implement the ideas. The reality is that client organisations need guidance and support during the whole process of innovation – from ideation to implementation.
Hence, our mantra: design thinking is not a skill – it is a mindset, and an important sculptor of that mindset is actual design experience.

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