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  • Kate Ainscough

Four things Learnt from Running Design Sprints in Smaller Businesses


The Design Sprint methodology, developed by Jake Knapp at Google Ventures, brings together a cross-functional team for five days and moves them from problem mapping to testing prototypes with real customers. I have used the methodology frequently with corporate clients such as British Gas, but I was recently asked to run the process for a much smaller business, and I thought it might be useful to share some learnings.

Creative Space – In smaller businesses there is unlikely to be budget available to hire creative funky spaces or large meeting rooms available to book for the week; so you may need to get creative! In this design sprint we totally cleared out the usual workspace – removing all laptops to avoid temptation and stuck to the ‘no devices allowed’ rule. We then arranged all the desks to make a central ‘table’ in the middle of the room. The main challenge was limited wall space to share our multiple Post-it notes, sketches, etc.

Timing – A usual design sprint runs from 10am to 5pm with an hour for lunch and this allows enough time for the team to keep an eye on their day job. However, if you have all the business in the sprint this can become problematic, particularly if something urgent occurs. As a facilitator, you must recognise there will be times when the sprint will be disrupted by important calls and meetings; though this can be minimised by good planning. It’s good practice for the team to have a clear ‘Out of Office’ message on calls and emails explaining they are in an exciting design sprint and will be unable to return calls or emails until after 5pm. I also suggest if a call or meeting has to occur then Thursday is a good day. This is because by Thursdays the big group decisions have already been made and individuals are often working on different tasks and can manage their own time. For example, the designer is building the prototype, the interviewers are working on scripts and practicing for interviews and tech tests for the audio are taking place, etc.

Sprint Roles – Small businesses often have flat reporting structures so it’s important to call out the role of the decider who may be required to make decisions quickly to allow the sprint to move on. Small businesses may not have the inhouse design skills required to make a clickable prototype and may not have the budget to hire a designer for a week. However, a creative or someone who has good PowerPoint skills should be able to produce something of a high enough standard to show customers. Remember at this stage, ‘good enough is good enough’ and our aim is to maximise learning, not execution.

Attitude to Risk – A successful small business has often been built on the passions and interests of their founders, so attitudes to risk and change are inherently different to those working in a corporate environment. Feelings and emotions can run high and need to be carefully managed through a design sprint. I found it useful to run a ‘Stinky Fish’ exercise at the beginning of the sprint to work out the biggest fears of the team and to revisit them throughout the week. It’s also important to position the design sprint as de-risking new ideas by trying them with customers much earlier than traditional product development processes. It can feel uncomfortable to share incomplete ideas with customers at such an early stage but again our aim is to maximise learning.

Although design sprints are a really powerful tool for delivering actionable results its important to remember that they may not be the ‘right’ tool for every project and every business. The time and resource commitment from a small business to run a design sprint is huge but the actual sprint is usually just the beginning.

I'd love to hear about other peoples experiences of running design sprints in small businesses please get in touch at Hello@freestyleinnovation.co.uk

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