How design sprints build creative capabilities and innovation culture

Design sprints are a fast-paced process for tackling strategic challenges and developing customer-tested solutions. Since Jake Knapp popularized the process in his book Sprint (2016), the design sprint has evolved beyond product design to become a general approach to solving business problems. Design sprints are particularly effective for dealing with problems involving high complexity and risk, with multiple stakeholders and unknowns.

At Hello Again, we’ve found that design sprints are an excellent way of building creative capabilities and innovation culture. We’ve found that foregrounding these benefits helps establish their value to companies that need to innovate but lack confidence in their teams' ability to follow through.

The accelerated flow of design thinking, lean startup method, rapid prototyping and user research involved in the design sprint process is both exciting and educative for corporate teams, who’re typically used to more planning-intensive and regimented modes of work. Design sprints are a great way of introducing these teams to agile and lean practices, while focusing their energies on solving problems through rapid prototyping and innovation.

Structurally speaking, design sprints follow a design thinking approach. Teams start in an empathetic frame of mind, trying to understand the problem that they’re addressing. Next, they go wide with ideas before converging on the most promising solutions to prototype and test. Design sprints differ from most design thinking sessions, however, by eliminating brainstorms — in fact, any kind of extended discussion and debate. Instead of brainstorming and debating ideas, design sprints proceed through repeated phases of independent ideation and dot voting to forge consensus on the best ideas.

How does this process help forge team creativity and culture? A well-run design sprint helps focus teams on the value of three creative capabilities:

  1. The value of high-calibre collaboration
  2. How to produce high-yield contributions from individual team members
  3. The value of rapid delivery through prototyping and testing.

We use design sprints to articulate three cultural goods, corresponding to these capabilities: empathetic learning, gifting games, and a hacker mindset.

1. Empathetic learning

In the design sprint 2.0 process developed by AJ&Smart, the sprint begins with each participant offering their own perspective on the problem the team is facing and the challenges it presents. Assuming a diverse team, including representatives from executive, tech, finance, and sales and marketing, this produces a spectrum of perspectives, which challenges everyone on the team to empathetically engage with questions and issues outside of their domain of expertise, and to try to synthesise these perspectives into a coherent whole.

As team members listen to others present their points of view, they are invited to produce ‘How Might We’ questions, reframing challenges as opportunities to produce original solutions. In this way, they learn not only to empathetically engage with other people’s problems, but also to proactively identify possible ways beyond these problems, a skill that they can take from the session and apply to any conversation. This skill, which I call empathetic learning, is the foundation of any mutually-enabling relationship. It constitutes a valuable first step towards building a robust innovation culture.

2. Gifting games

Gifting games are the cornerstone of any thriving, collaborative environment. These games emerge organically when individuals are given the opportunity to make significant personal contributions to a shared project, contributions that are then affirmed and integrated into the project by the team. The individual feels affirmed and consequently encouraged to continue making contributions to the project. The other team members, meanwhile, recognise that the onus is on them to match or outdo the initial contribution. This creates a virtuous cycle that can take creative collaboration to untold heights.

Design sprints enable gifting games by eliminating brainstorms and requiring team members to work independently on ideas that are filtered democratically through dot voting. Brainstorms tend to generate a lot of vague and imprecise ideas, leading to frustrating, meandering debates which are typically resolved by the rule of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). In design sprints, individuals work independently to produce their best ideas, and then vote collectively to decide which of these ideas are taken forward. The process inspires team members to contribute their best work, while building a sense of common purpose and shared empowerment on the team.

When people really dig deep and try to produce their best work for the team, it creates palpable energy and team spirit in the room. The Design Sprint Master should try to harness and build on that energy by encouraging the team to celebrate and affirm the best contributions as they come to light.

3. Hacker mindset

One of the greatest challenges involved in building innovation culture outside of startup environments is to establish the value of the hacker mindset. This mindset revolves about trying things out and learning by doing. Instead of ruminating on solutions and drawing up a plan of attack, hackers will run short, high-impact experiments to test their hypotheses about the way ahead.

This mindset is expressed in various ways in the tech and entrepreneurial worlds. But it struggles to take root in traditional corporations. The plan and control structure of corporations disincentivises experiments, making it impossible for people to freely explore ideas without incurring personal risk. Because there is no safe space for people to hack at ideas, it doesn’t happen.

Our first attempts to pitch design sprints to local companies were met with incredulity. ‘We’re not a startup’, people would say. ‘It sounds impressive, but I don’t think a 4-day sprint will fit with our culture’. The most startling takeaway for companies we’ve worked with since is that the design sprint does fit with their culture — assuming they give people time and space to hack.

When teams understand that they have 4 days to work uninterruptedly on co-designing, prototyping and testing solutions, they shift into hacker mode. After testing their solution and gathering actionable customer data, they’re ready to do it again (which is why many design sprint agencies try to convince their clients to run two sprints, back to back — the first sprint verifying the solution and the second honing it before launching into agile development).

At Hello Again, we see design sprints through a cultural lens as a transformational device. If you’re struggling with a big challenge, want to test a business idea before committing to it, or take your product to a new level, we can take your team to a new level while helping you get it done.

Tim Rayner runs Design Sprints at Hello Again, a solution design agency in Byron Bay, Australia. He is the author of Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation (Routledge 2018). He teaches at UTS Business School in Sydney.

Co-founder @PhaseOneInsights. Teaches innovation and entrepreneurial leadership at UTS Business School. ‘Hacker Culture and the New Rules of Innovation’ (2018)