What traditional publishers can learn from design sprints

What traditional publishers can learn from design sprints

Running a successful business is a marathon not a sprint. And yet, when you hit an uphill struggle, I’ve found it’s better to speed up rather than try to pace yourself. Sprinting not only solves problems faster but the solutions created in an accelerated process can take you further than you thought possible.

For the past year I've been experimenting with design sprints following the model created by Google Ventures (GV). It’s been used to rapidly prototype products, dive deep into data to uncover hidden patterns, test ideas with users, and crowdsource solutions to what felt like intractable business problems.

So, how can a method designed for solving problems faced by startups be applied to an established business?

As head of innovation at Emerald Group Publishing I’d been looking into dual operating systems that take a two-speed approach to business development. I was hunting around for a process for accelerated development and, as always, the best ideas come when you’re away from your desk. In my case I was lying on a beach in the Mediterranean listening to an episode of the StartUp podcast that featured the GV design team ‘faking’ an app for Gimlet Media. My challenge was to see if it could work for a publisher.

Once I’d dusted the sand from my feet and returned to the office I set a goal to develop a sprint process tailored to the realities of a traditional academic publisher. I gave myself 12 weeks to implement it and recruited a paid intern to help me run the experiment. Together we tested and iterated until we had a robust process to roll out to the business. We made lots of mistakes along the way, but we were able to fail fast and learn from doing.

So what exactly is a design sprint and how does it work?

Jake Knapp, designer of GV’s unique five-day process, calls it “a greatest hits of business strategy, innovation, behavorial science, design, and more.” It was created to help tech startups answer crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas with customers. The process found fame with the likes of Facebook and Airbnb, and has been used by all sorts of businesses including management consultants McKinsey & Company and ad agency Wieden+Kennedy.

The GV design sprint offers a step-by-step guide that takes five full-time days for a small team. The blog and book Sprint: Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days outline in detail the objective of each day, giving lots of practical advice, case studies and handy checklists of what to do and buy, including suggested snacks.

A classic sprint follows a strict pattern:

  • Monday creates a path for the week. It starts with agreeing a goal for the sprint and mapping the challenge. Experts are brought in from the business so by the end of day the team can pick a target problem to solve during the next four days.
  • Tuesday is all about generating solutions through sketching ideas. The focus is not artistic ability but critical thinking.
  • Wednesday kicks off by critiquing all the solutions from the day before and deciding which ones have the best chance of achieving the goal. The selected solution gets made into a storyboard.
  • Thursday the team takes the storyboard and makes it into a realistic prototype. That means building something. As time is limited (there’s only one day to build) the main principle is: fake it.
  • Friday is the day the prototype is put in front of real customers who will be interviewed and observed using the prototype.

It’s a robust process that’s proven to work. Tinkering with it is not advised. However, by reviewing each sprint we found that slight adjustments improved how the process worked for us. Through iterating we created a new process that we called Spark Labs.

Though we extended the process to include preparation and follow up activities, the week itself works within the same constraints of time. Each day has objectives, centred around structured meetings and specific roles for different members.

It was interesting that even though there was a budget the teams preferred a DIY approach to building prototypes. For example, a couple of weeks ago we ran our first overseas sprint with colleagues in Sao Paulo to make local language videos. Rather than pay for professionals they storyboarded, acted, did the voice over, drew illustrations and edited two videos within the week.

We’re coming up to our first anniversary and sprints are now business as usual. We’ve averaged one pretty much every three weeks and worked with colleagues in all aspects of the business not just product development. Kat Palmer, innovation manager, now trains staff to run sprints themselves, and keeps a backlog of business ideas to accelerate. She said:

“I love that I enable people to feel like they’re in a start-up rather than an established company nearly 50 years old. It’s an incredible environment for the team; a space for shared responsibility, no hierarchy and real drive and motivation to succeed. It helps us feel truly connected to our customers by having the tools and techniques to address their needs through rapid prototyping. Time and again we have seen incredible results through this method!”

Sprints work best when you’re feeling stuck or facing a big challenge. I urge everyone to give it a go. Run a sprint as an experiment and I promise you’ll be surprised how much you can achieve.