The Design Sprint: an Interview with C. Todd Lombardo on Ultra-Rapid Product Innovation

Lombardo-1400x1400-200x200In late 2015, O’Reilly published Design Sprint, a book that guides product and design teams through a process for prototyping and testing digital products—and ideas—in as little as five days. The book is the brainchild of C. Todd Lombardo, Chief Design Strategist at the Boston-based agency Fresh Tilled Soil and former head of the InnoLoft accelerator at Constant Contact; Richard Banfield, CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil; and Trace Wax, Managing Director of thoughtbot.

In this interview, edited and condensed from its full length, Lombardo talks about the origins of the design sprint, the power of design thinking, and the lost art of face-to-face problem-solving. Lombardo and Banfield will talk about Design Sprint at the next BPMA event in March 2016.  Additionally, Banfield will lead a hands-on Design Sprint Practitioners Workshop in April at District Hall in Boston.

Q. What are the origins of the design sprint?
I had been doing design sprints for a long time, and Richard (Banfield) had, too, calling them “Deep Dives.” The difference from person to person was in the details of the approach. Jake Knapp (of Google Ventures) is the guy who I believe coined the term, and he recently came out with a book. I think we beat him to market with ours, but that’s a story for another day! (Laughs.)

We interviewed about 24 people for the book who had varying degrees of experience with design sprints, and they reported lengths of a few days to six weeks. Each called their design sprints different things. The “classic,” five-day version that Knapp evangelized often works well, though we’ve seen many different flavors. But time boxing is the element that drives the sprint home and makes sure you arrive at an outcome by a particular day.

Q. Why should a company incorporate design sprints into their product design and development?
The design sprint is a mechanism that uses design and design mindset to solve problems. It’s the intersection of the scientific method, crossed with the design process, wrapped in an Agile package and framework. The combination of these three elements is what makes the design sprint so powerful. I call it the “descientist.” You have to be part designer and part empathic maker, but also part scientist in that you are rigorous, hypothesis-driven, and have a structured approach. The Agile part is that the process is boxed into a week or two.

Traditionally at the end of sprints, you push a product to production. I think the term “design sprint” may be bastardized in a sense because your outcome may not be shipping something to production. At the end of one, though, you will have something tangible in your hand, a roadmap or something to build and test with end users.

Also, we found that design sprints can accelerate projects—or stop them dead in their tracks. At the InnoLoft accelerator where I was before Fresh Tilled Soil, maybe 10 or 20 percent of the design sprints we ran killed something! (Laughs.) But it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because we may have saved one startup $400,000 or $500,000. It’s like a pharmaceutical company: fail fast, fail cheap. Don’t go through three stages of clinical trials just to fail in stage four. Fail early and it won’t cost you as much money.

Q. It seems like the design sprint endorses the power of good, old-fashioned face time?
Yes, another thing the design sprint does is align teams. Because it’s a co-creative activity, a good chunk of the team must be involved in every phase. They come to conclusions together because they’ve all worked on it together. You don’t have two people running off into a corner, doing something, and then coming back and saying, “Hey, look what we did! Now let’s go do this…” Instead, the process is very collaborative. The whole team works together to solve the problem.

In a design sprint, people’s time has been freed up to focus. In 2015, I ran a design sprint with a client, and three days in, they said, “This is amazing. We’ve never had this opportunity to really think through everything like we’re doing right now. This has been so valuable.” This was for a big website they had redone a few times in the previous couple of years, and they had struggled to get it right.

In part it’s because they had never allowed themselves the time and focus to do it. Again, you can do a design sprint in a handful of days, but you do have to have that focus and the buy-in to say, “OK, let’s put aside all our other responsibilities and focus on this task. And wow, we can get something along pretty far in a very short period of time.”

Q. Can the design sprint be used to help organizational transformation?
Organizational alignment, yes. There’s a martial arts metaphor I like: “Shoe, Ha!, and “Re.” The shoe phase involves learning the forms of the martial art just as the instructor tells you. You reach the Ha! phase when you start making the moves your own. You start changing how you shift your weight or your form for a particular punch, twist, or kick. You make the moves your own, integrate it into your own process, and make everything work better for you.

The Re phase is when you’re really not thinking about individual moves any more. Everything just flows together. There are no rules any more, it’s natural to you, it’s now a way of thinking. I think about the design sprint in terms of organizational transformation in the same way. First, just start doing it, and over time you’ll start thinking differently. Then you’ll start integrating the approach, the exercises. and the way to do it, and you’ll make it your own.

Which is what we saw when we interviewed folks (for the book). One team did design sprints over four weeks. Every Tuesday and Thursday they carved out time from 10 to 12:30, and over those four weeks, they would work through the phases of the sprint. They would pull in people for those 2.5 hours, and do a couple of other things outside those 2.5-hour boxes, and then later bring the whole team back together. They made the process their own. Ultimately it becomes a way of thinking, the natural way of doing business, the natural way of operating.

Q. Do clients ever react with disbelief when you tell them the goal is an outcome in five days?
It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard that. When starting out at Constant Contact, I would hear, “In a week we’re going to do what?” One thing the design sprint does is focus people. Put the laptops and cellphones away, and let’s focus together on this problem. It reminds us how we’re distracted by so many other things in our organizations and that by forcing a team of 4, 5, 10, 12 people to focus on solving a problem in a week or two—they actually can do a lot of great work in a short period of time!

To answer your question about expectations, you can get a lot done and it may be more than you think, but sometimes, again, it may kill your initial idea. So you have to be mindful that sometimes you have to let go of your baby. What you initially thought was so right may not be what the customer or user actually needs or is willing to pay for.

Q. Can you give an example?
I ran a design sprint for a company at the InnoLoft, and by the end of the sprint, we discovered that their business model was broken. They were creating a service that would aggregate and analyze data to sell to companies that marketed solar and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) systems. Let’s say they wanted to run a marketing campaign in eastern Massachusetts for solar panels for houses. The region-specific data would help you avoid the “peanut butter spread” so you could take a targeted approach and realize a greater return on your marketing dollar.

From the design sprint they learned that customers wanted an on-demand reporting service, not a once-monthly software as a service. In the six weeks following the design sprint, the company changed its business model, and revenue went up by a factor of eight! This example may be at one end of the spectrum. But everything that comes in between, in terms of helping you create value for your customers and determining the right direction for your product, those things can be extremely valuable to your organization.

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