Why Design Sprints are best for exploring the unknown

Design Sprints are like sending a probe to Mars before colonizing it. It just makes more sense.

Design Sprints are like sending a probe to Mars before colonizing it. It just makes more sense.


How most big changes are carried out

We’ve been in corporate gigs and talked to professionals during our Design Sprints and Design Sprint training. Pooling from this knowledge collective, here’s our take on how most big new projects look:

  1. Get assigned a big new project. Figure out the untested solution leadership has decided they want.

  2. Spend most of your budget on consultants to justify leadership’s solution.

  3. Hold four months of leadership meetings. Receive unrealistic demands and confirm they don’t understand the challenge they are trying to address, or what it takes to build the solution they are proposing.

  4. Hold four months of team meetings where the same issues are rehashed. Confirm your team believes they are building a solution that doesn’t make sense.

  5. Receive consultant report and presentation.

  6. Rewrite consultant report to make it relevant to your organization and leadership.

  7. Write up the specs for building the unvalidated solution leadership wants.

  8. Ask your project team to do six months of development in six weeks.

  9. Deploy solution late with bugs and missing features.

  10. Repeat steps 1-9.

Yeah...I'm gonna need you to implement my pre-determined solution to this new challenge...

Yeah...I'm gonna need you to implement my pre-determined solution to this new challenge...


Traditional project approaches make me cringe

Ugh. Reading the above steps makes my skin crawl.  Many organizations run new projects in this way. It is an agonizing and terrible way to manage a project for everyone involved—leadership, middle management, and the on-the-ground professionals who have to develop the solution.

Those I’ve talked to about this business-as-usual approach get angry when sharing their experiences. They recount getting pulled into a new project and being told (or having to figure out) that the assignment isn’t to come up with a solution. No, that’s already been figured out. The assignment is to execute a solution that’s been handed down from someone in leadership. This leader has figured everything out without consulting anyone who may have real knowledge of the challenge. She hasn’t talked to customers the solution is targeting or stakeholders who would carry out the solution. Yikes!

Too often, the pre-determined solution you’re responsible for bringing to life doesn’t make any sense to you or your colleagues. And you have little power to alter the course your leadership has determined for you. You’re on the hook for something you don’t understand or believe in. You feel the weight of a long, arduous, and purposeless project journey ahead. And you can’t help but fear the worst—that you’re being set up to fail.

If you’re a C-level leader, please read the following closely. It’s maddening to be on the receiving end of these scenarios. Just ask Jessica.


Jessica is angry at you, Ms. Leader—here's why

A close friend of mine (we’ll call her Jessica) is ticked off by her company's leadership.

Jessica works for a large company in the healthcare industry. She’s got a corporate job at their office headquarters in a major U.S. city. She leads a small group tasked with managing large capital projects. She’s seen a lot of big initiatives come down from leadership over the years.

Jessica told me about an innovation initiative at her company. It hasn’t been communicated well across the organization. From what she can gather, the initiative aims to address the company's self-assessment that it isn't innovative. Like most big industries, the healthcare sector is titanic in size. It’s slow to adapt to tech, social, and most other trends.

The initiative seems reasonable to Jessica. It’s no secret the company moves slowly. But Jessica’s still frustrated with the initiative and her leadership. Why?

Well, the big innovation initiative is being led by an executive—let’s call her Anne. Anne got to hand pick the team members without any communication about the selection process. Jessica learned second-hand about the process the organization has identified for the new innovation team to bring about non-obvious, value-added changes (or how I would define innovation).

Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Find an executive sponsor (Anne). Check.

  2. Assemble “innovation team.” Check.

  3. Crowdsource ideas from different departments within organization. Okay...

  4. Innovation team selects which ideas they want to implement. Really? How?

  5. Innovation team works with departments to implement solutions. Seriously?! That’s it?


Jessica is frustrated for two reasons

Reason #1: Jessica believes the process that’s supposed to lead to innovative solutions is flawed. Worse, there’s no clear path for her to raise her concerns and be heard, let alone try to improve it. It’s set in stone. Her leadership saw a challenge and manufactured a process solution. An “innovation team” will leave their day jobs for a few hours a week and shakedown solutions from their colleagues. Then they'll pick the ones they think are best and build them outright. To Jessica, that’s not an innovation process. Except for the crowdsourcing of ideas, this is a business-as-usual, ready-fire-aim process. It's destined to lead to incremental or failed solutions.

But there’s nothing Jessica can do. She’s reached out to Anne to make her case. No response. She tried back-door channels with other executives she knows. While the other executives have been sympathetic, no changes have been made.

*must resist urge to flip table*

*must resist urge to flip table*


Reason #2: Whatever solutions the “innovation team” select will be implemented. So, if they select a solution that impacts Jessica’s group, she’ll have to execute that solution. Yes, there’s a chance Jessica’s or her team’s ideas could be selected through the crowdsourcing process. Fingers crossed.

But let’s say they pick an idea that doesn’t make sense to Jessica and her team. Or maybe it has serious flaws. What then? Will they burn hours on something they don’t believe will help, or worse, might do harm? Jessica believes that scenario could play out and it sounds awful to her. It sounds terrible to me too.


Most leadership is savvy on familiar soil. But why not when it comes to foreign territory?

I’ve talked to a lot of people like Jessica. They all agree—their organization’s leaders are highly capable people. They’re savvy and they know how to run and grow the businesses they know. They’re also good at sensing when things aren’t working well, or when market conditions are changing. Hence their inclination to hand out new projects.

If your leadership is dabbling in a familiar world—like, their backyard—their shortcomings may be rooted in their eagerness to jump to a solution (see my post on avoiding idea infatuation). They may understand the challenges and the drivers behind those challenges. But they are likely to travel down two low-value solution paths:

  1. They propose a solution that’s worked in the past, which at best will lead to incremental improvements; or

  2. they jump to a new, untested solution that may succeed by chance, but is more likely to fail after a lot of time and money have been spent.

But if your leadership is undertaking a new project and dabbling in uncharted territory—like Mars—all bets are off. They don’t know the nature of the challenges and their solutions are worth less than the paper they’re written on. Now, this is true for everyone, you and me included. But not everyone is responsible for multi-million dollar enterprises with thousands of employees. Your organization’s leaders are responsible. And they need to get it right, fast.


When going to Mars, send a probe, not the entire space fleet

Leaders are used to guiding and steering the entire space fleet. This is a must for keeping vast operations running smoothly and on target. But years of captaining StarFleet (from Star Trek) or the Republic Fleet (from Star Wars) can have a downside when confronting unfamiliar territory (yes I went there, but I didn’t choose sides). Commanding an entire fleet isn't the same as running a fast-paced exploration mission. And experience in one area doesn’t translate to experience in the other.

When confronted with big challenges on “Mars,” leaders need smart tools and practices to minimize risk. They need to send a probe to explore the Martian landscape and send back information to provide clues about what, if anything, is out there.

What they don’t need is to send the entire fleet. That’s too expensive and risky. What if there are killer Martians poised for a surprise attack? Or what if a big storm arises out of nowhere and endangers the whole fleet?

You never know what's waiting for you out there...

You never know what's waiting for you out there...


Design Sprints are your secret weapon for probing Martian landscapes

Design Sprints are a powerful approach and come with a potent set of tools, when applied to the right challenge and context. What’s the right challenge and context? And when should you run a Design Sprint?

Use Design Sprints when facing big, hairy challenges when time is scarce, stakes are high, or when your project team is stuck. I suggest using Design Sprints when there are too many potential paths to choose from, when no one path stands out, or when there’s no clear path at all.

In this context, Design Sprints are incredibly effective. On Day 1, you sort through key challenges you think you and your team will face on the red planet. You ask the experts on Earth what they think to make sure you didn’t miss something important. You use structured idea generation to elicit non-obvious ideas.

On Day 2, you and your team select the best idea(s) and make it tangible through a prototype. On Day 3, refine your prototypes and schedule their launch to the Mars surface. These prototypes are your “probes” into the foreign Martian landscape. They are the vessels you and your team use to learn about what’s out there in this strange new world.

On Day 4, your prototype “probes” launch and send back data in the form of customer feedback. We decode this feedback with you and your team to find clues about what your target Martians think. Because when it comes down to it, who knows the Martian landscape better than the Martians? Day 4 concludes with extracting meaning from the Martian feedback, and making decisions about next steps, including what part of the Martian landscape you want to explore next.


Key takeaway

Leaders: don't run projects that take you into uncharted territory the same way you operate your entire business fleet. If you’re undertaking a big new challenge, use Design Sprints to build and test your product or service ideas, fast. Learn what your new (alien) customers think. Make informed decisions about what new lands you want to discover next. Once you’ve thrown light on all the scary dark bits of your product or service expedition, go build your product. And pop the champagne, of course.

Want to see a Design Sprint in action? Check out our upcoming Design Sprint Bootcamp with Jake Knapp, the creator of Design Sprints and author of Sprint. Learn more about our Bootcamp at wearewily.com/training.

The leader and crew that Design Sprint together, celebrate together.

The leader and crew that Design Sprint together, celebrate together.

Eric Gorman is owner and designer at Wily, an agency that uses Design Sprints to help people explore new territories. Learn about Design Sprints at wearewily.com/design-sprints.