The perception of the 100-metre sprint is that it’s won between the blocks and the finishing line. I’ve often heard the same said about the five-day design sprint format popularised by Jake Knapp and the team from Google Ventures. Get Monday to Friday right and success is pretty much guaranteed.

But, it’s not just the 9.58 seconds of running fast that makes Usain Bolt a world champion sprinter. Similarly, a successful design sprint requires both a warm-up and a post-race plan.

This truth, unfortunately, changes the strapline of the Sprint book to the less catchy ‘Solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days plus a few more for the admin’.

Sprint to unblock creativity. Sprint to unlock innovation.

Despite the title of the article, I’m not trying to dissuade you from undertaking a design sprint. I’m a big fan of design sprints. I’m an even bigger fan of design sprints done well.

I’ve had the pleasure of running design sprints for many clients across different business sectors to tackle a diverse mix of challenges. I’ve found the following checklist of considerations a useful predictor of getting better outcomes from any design sprint.

Tackle the calendar challenge

Idea generation seems easy when compared to aligning multiple calendars. Getting each sprint team members to clear their diary for a week and to find a vacant space can quickly feel like a Sisyphean task.

Ideally, you want to find a room with plenty of wall space (to put up ideas as they emerge), a projector, and furniture that can be configured for different activities (carrying out interviews, mapping the problem space, and sketching). Even better: find a space with natural light, as you’re going to spend a lot of time in it and few people work best in a bunker.

A single location is important. Moving rooms each day becomes tiring. Locating your new home each morning becomes disorientating.

It definitely helps to make friends with your facilities team or to consider moving off-site and hiring a space for a week.

Get commitment

Most organisations I work with have a stronger meeting culture than a making culture. A design sprint runs contrary to this and can be an alien way to work for many.

Clearly set the expectation that between 10am and 5pm, the whole team will be fully immersed in the design activities. That means no phone calls. No quick emails. No sneaking out for meetings.

I like to email the sprint team beforehand to introduce myself and set the expectations for the week. I also give them a clear opportunity to bail out beforehand if they can’t be there for the duration. I’d rather you weren’t there at all than partially present.

On a recent design sprint, a team member set her out of work email to read ‘I can’t give you a reply this week as I’m working on something cool for 5 days that will make our customers smile’. I’m going to include this in my next introduction email as a suggestion for all team members to use in their out-of-office message.

Find the right team with the right skills

Design is too important for the growth of your business to be left solely in the hands of designers.

I’m a strong advocate for using design sprints as an excuse to assemble a team of highly talented problem solvers. No prior design skills necessary. The emphasis should be on a wide mix of perspectives and a curiosity to explore customer pain points.

The one caveat to this is to ensure you have enough design firepower for the prototype-making day. At Clearleft, we run design sprints with two people. One person is focussed on facilitation and the other on prototype production. Both people actively coach design thinking from the participants through exercises and activities.

Prep your ingredients

Although it's framed as a week of design work, there is a lot to sort out in advance. The more preparation you do, the more impact it will have on the time you have to investigate and design.

On my week-before and often-forgotten list are:

  • Find and book subject matter experts for the team to interview
  • Gather design assets to accelerate prototype creation
  • Recruit usability testing participants
  • Reserve a place and space for the team to eat together

My few days before to-do list includes:

  • Check the stationery (it’s embarrassing when all your Sharpies are low on ink)
  • Buy sugary and healthy snacks to fuel energy levels
  • Send out a welcome onboarding email to the team
  • Charge up a Bluetooth speaker to play my Spotify playlist of workshop music through

Follow-up (the sooner the better)

The final tip on the checklist is: don’t start a design sprint until you know what you’ll do with the ideas being generated.

If participants are putting effort into solving tricky business problems, then I believe you have a responsibility to maximise the chance of the design solutions being taken forward.

You’ll likely be emotionally and physically tired at the end of a design sprint. Decide ahead of time what to do with the output. If nothing else, it’s one less decision to make at the end of a long week.

At a minimum, decide how you’ll document the thinking behind the prototype, the learnings from usability testing, and recommendations of what the team would do next if they had more time.

One step better is to have a plan to socialise the work. I encourage design sprint teams to present a playback of their prototype at an open invitation Town Hall style meeting. Teams are often surprised by the large amounts of interest from their colleagues.

To go a leap further, get the organisation ahead of the sprint to ring-fence some budget and time to further develop inventive ideas. On a recent project, we ran three separate design sprints, with different teams. All three teams were then invited to present ‘Dragon’s Den’ style to senior business leaders with the winning team securing further time to develop their idea.

However you follow up, do so as soon after the sprint as possible when the team still has momentum and energy for their ideas.

Get to your future quicker

A design sprint is one technique, and a potent one, to fast-forward into the future.

As a facilitator, your role is to set the conditions to best enable the assembled team to think deeply and creatively. You’re asking for companies and people to make a serious investment of time, focus and energy. So it only seems fair to tackle a design sprint if you are properly warmed up and have a post-race plan.

A few extra days for set-up and feedback is a small but vital investment in time worth making to better your chances of a successful outcome.

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