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The Design Sprint Quarter: How to Make Design Sprints Work at Big Companies

A Three-Month Strategy from Design Sprint to Execution.

Let me introduce myself: My name is Steph Cruchon, and I run a company called Design Sprint Ltd. At the time of writing, we have led close to a hundred Design Sprints in 4 years, mainly in Switzerland and Europe, with more than 50 different companies — mostly large organizations, leaders in their field.

In recent years, after signing about 115kg of NDAs (I’m barely exaggerating 😅), we’ve had the chance to enter dozens of war rooms, innovation labs, to be in contact with the teams and to exchange ideas on their practices in depth.

And one question kept coming up:

“What happens after a Design Sprint?”

In this post, I’ll share the three month Design Sprint follow-up strategy we’ve been working on, which we call “The Design Sprint Quarter”.

The Design Sprint Quarter printed timeline
The Design Sprint Quarter

But first, a quick story:

One year ago

It’s 5pm on Friday afternoon, the end of a Design Sprint.

We’ve just finished testing our prototype with five customers.
I look at the team around me staring at the screen. The cells in our test scorecard look like a funny red and green Tetris. I’m enjoying the moment, we’re close. “We have something here, customers react positively to the concept, but marketing needs to be refined.

The smiles on their faces show a sense of pride. They high five.
“Well done team, great Design Sprint. Have a good weekend!”

Stéph Cruchon from Design Sprint Ltd at the end of a workshop holding a Time Timer
Steph all happy at the end of a workshop
Design Sprint scorecard
End of Sprint scorecard. In this case the results were really positive

Yes but… What comes after?

As I’m packing my things, the Decider sits beside me looking a bit worried.

“Steph…” he says. “ What do we do now?”

I look at him, a little surprised.

He keeps talking. “I mean… Okay, we definitely have to build this product, but what do you think the next steps are? I’m going to have to fight to get the budget, show the value and get a team. We may lose months again.”

The person in question is an experienced manager, who has worked in digital for many years. When I talk to him about building a V1 of the product quick and dirty with a small team, he cuts me off.

“Yes, Lean Startup, I know, but that’s all theory. I mean in concrete terms, in my case, in a big organization, what would you do?”

I understand what he’s getting at: the Design Sprint, created by Jake Knapp at Google, brings a real sense of security, a battle-tested clarity of the way forward. Any type of company — even the most rigid — is able to put itself in “startup mode” for 5 days and run a Design Sprint, like an experiment. Because the process is very clear. Just like a recipe.

5-day Design Sprint (Google Ventures)
5-Day process (source GV)

How, in this case, does one manage what comes after, and build on the positive energy of the Sprint? How to maintain that energy as everything becomes blurry, slow, bureaucratic again?

As Sprint Master consultants, the hardest thing for us is to have to leave a team after a week. Each Sprint is a new story, an adventure, and it feels like you have to jump off the boat just as it leaves port. With my team at Design Sprint Ltd, we had been discussing for a long time how we could support our customers for the next steps.

What if we could extend the very idea of Design Sprint (a step-by-step process with a limited time period) to the post-Sprint period?

Post-Design Sprint challenges

Every company is different, more or less mature in terms of digital or product design. We’ve seen a lot during the last four years. But one pattern between all of them was remarkably similar — Most teams face the same three obstacles after running a Design Sprint:

  • The real decision-maker was not in the room.
    For a startup, it sounds realistic to ask the CEO to take on the role of Decider during the Design Sprint. When sprinting with a large company, it’s often a senior exec (VP, Senior VP) who holds this role. Unfortunately, at the end of the Sprint, he or she might not necessarily have the power to unlock large budgets or allocate resources to a new project.
  • Budgets are validated once a year and are calibrated to maintain and optimize products and services already in place
    How, in this case, can we finance a new project which was not planned long ago? How to obtain more resources to explore new directions?
  • Execution is outsourced
    In Switzerland and Europe, few large companies have their own in-house design / dev teams. When it comes to creating a new product, most use external agencies or service providers. Contracts typically involve very large amounts (between several hundred thousand and several million dollars). Of course our friends in the legal department make it super hard and procedural. The consequence is that any project takes months to even get started and the energy of the initial design sprint is long gone.

After seeing these problems over and over, we decided to do something about it. About a year ago, we set out to answer the question:

“How might we accompany our clients after the Design Sprint?”

To answer this question, of course, we used a Design Sprint. Our team got together and spend five days, and our prototype took the form of a timeline:

Early versions of the Design Sprint Quarter
Awful picture of the very first versions of the timeline. I can’t believe we even dared to have this tested at the end of the Sprint!

We prototyped and tested this timeline with our clients, friends and colleagues. All these truly smart and innovative* people took the time to consult and react to it, which allowed us to iterate and improve it over the months.

Over time, we felt ready to share it with some international experts: Googlers; people doing their academic thesis on Design Sprint, and; of course, our friend Jake Knapp, who has accompanied many startups with Google Ventures and who is the author of the book.

Jake Knapp, Sabrina Goaerlich and Christen Penny at the Design Sprint Retreat in Switzerland
Jake Knapp , Sabrina Goerlich and Christen Penny discover our timeline during the Design Sprint Retreat. Our validation process generally worked as follows: 1) ask people to map-out the critical steps AFTER the first Design Sprint, based on their experience; 2) introduce them to our timeline and observe their reactions. What was similar or different was then discussed, as well as their suggestions for improvement.

Our Design Sprint Quarter Timeline is not perfect and will evolve over time, but we are already very happy with what we have learned. We think it’s now time to make this tool available on a larger scale.

Three months is the most useful timeframe for most companies

When designing the original timeline, this three-month duration was a natural choice. Most companies think in quarterly terms. That is to say, they can obtain budgets during these deadlines but they must also be accountable and show tangible results.

Okay, Steph, where’s that timeline?

Here it is:✨

The Design Sprint Quarter Timeline
Alright, you have to squint a bit to read it. But we got your back: Here is the large version

Optimized for big companies

This program is aimed primarily at big companies wishing to integrate Design Sprint into their innovation process. If you have already run Design Sprints, or are already versed into Design Thinking, good news: you have the right mindset and are ready to start!

If you’re at a startup, I hope you’ll find some inspiration in this process, but you will certainly be able to shorten it a little.

There are only three important things to keep in mind before you start.

  1. Budget one quarter at a time – Instead of trying to get the budget for the entire project, budget initially only for the first three months, with the possibility of stopping after the first Sprint if the product concept fails. The team must accept this rule of the game: the project can stop after the first Sprint.
  2. Launch something in just three months – The Design Sprint works perfectly thanks to the time pressure that you set from the beginning. It works the same here: we can guarantee that something will be released after 3 months and presented to the general public. During this process, we will define what should be actually presented to customers. The time is fixed, as well as the budget. Only what is actually built in this timebox will vary.
  3. Keep the team together – Assign the project responsibility to a small team who will remain working on this project throughout the three months.
    We propose to structure it as for a classic Design Sprint:
    • the internal team (max 5 people with various profiles: marketing, sales, technical, and the Decision Maker)
    • the external agency, specialized in organizing and leading Design Sprint consisting at least of the Sprint Master and the Designer in charge of the prototype.
Design Sprint Quarter printed Poster
The Design Sprint Strategy Timeline.

How to run your own Design Sprint Quarter

First month

Design Sprint Quarter Month 1

Week 1: Before the Design Sprint

Define the challenge and team

The Sprint Master and the Project Manager (at least) meet. The idea is to talk about the issues of the next 3 months and to prepare the first Design Sprint. At this stage it is necessary to validate:

  • the Sprint Goal “How might we…” and KPIs
  • a priority “target” (business users, etc)
  • the team that will participate in both Sprints
  • logistical aspects (venue, schedules, etc)

Week 2: 5-Day Design Sprint ⚡️

Well, this part you know.
We are huge fans of Jake Knapp’s original 5-day Design Sprint formula (we’ve tried many modifications of the process, including shortening to 4 days, but we always came back to the good ol’ 5-day).

If you are not familiar with the Design Sprint yet, discover this short video featuring Jake or, even better, grab the book.

Week 3: Refine

A. Improve Prototype

After the first user tests, we’ll be able to detect a good number of necessary modifications, usually in terms of content, ergonomics or graphics. Between one and two days are generally necessary at this stage to correct these “low hanging fruits.”

Sprint agencies, like AJ&Smart or Etch, propose to run the second iteration Sprint back-to-back, the week after. This works if it’s planned upfront and if the agency folks do most of the job. In our experience, it seems sometimes smoother to run the follow-up Sprint a bit after, with the full team. It gives everyone time to recover a bit and take care of their other projects.

B. Fill out Value Proposition and Business Model Canvas

This tool, created in Switzerland 🇨🇭 by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, appeared to be a useful business activity to add to our timeline.
When you enter a new customer’s war room, or a space dedicated to innovation, you always look carefully at what’s on the wall. The Value Proposition Canvas, which goes hand in hand with the Business Model Canvas, was very often displayed there. This was in Switzerland, of course, but also applied wherever we went in Europe.

Value Proposition Canvas and Business Model Canvas — Strategyzer (Pigneur — Osterwalder)
Value Proposition Canvas and Business Model Canvas (source: Strategyzer)

During the last Sprint Conference in 2018 at Google in San Francisco, I learned that it was being used internally and that Googlers were looking for a connection with the Design Sprint.

During one of my short meetings with Yves Pigneur, I asked him directly how to interface the VP Canvas with the Design Sprint. For him, the ideal is to fill in the right part (customer segment) either before the Sprint or on the first day, before the MAP exercise. The Value Proposition part (the product, on the left) can be filled in at the end of the Sprint, as a summary of the future product in a way.

Week 4: Judgment day 🔥

This is the key moment of the timeline. In some of our Design Sprints, despite clear results on day 5, the team was not in a position to make an immediate decision, especially when the results were negative. The question became: “Should we continue and look for a solution or just kill the project?”

Friday is an intense and very emotional day. It is difficult to analyze the results on the spot. We saw earlier the problem of not necessarily having the real decision-maker in the Sprint. It takes real courage to nip a project in the bud, especially in the face of the team that has given itself body and soul for a week.

That is the reason for Judgment Day. Gather the person or people who can judge objectively according to these three criteria (IDEO):

  1. Desirability — will customers buy our product or even care about it?
  2. Feasibility — do we have the teams, the know-how?
  3. Viability — do we have the resources and likely budget?

(Ahmed Al Ali just published a great article about exactly this topic.)

If the CEO has only one morning to devote to this project in the next 3 months, it should be on Judgment Day.

This half-day can be structured around two tools:

  • The Business Model Canvas that I have already mentioned, which will allow us to discuss the future product and its place in the company’s ecosystem, and;
  • The Innovation Project Scorecard, which is a brand new tool from Strategyzer, which will make it possible to evaluate in a pragmatic way the chances of success of the project against precise criteria.

Judgment Day has two outcomes:

  1. A binding GO ✔/ NO GO 🚫 for the next steps.
  2. GO means the project has the green light to continue. The Decider validates how many people will work on the MVP. You can calculate the budget for the next two months like this:

Example of MVP team/budget calculation

  • 1 Designer (UX/UI) for 4 weeks =20 days
  • 1 Developer (full stack) for 6 weeks = 30 days
  • + 3 x Sprint review meetings (4 hours) with 4 more people = 6 days

If the outcome is NO GO, the Decider might choose to reset the three month strategy and ask the team to explore a new solution.

GO! → Second month

Design Sprint Quarter Month 2

The second month of the project is entirely devoted to the design and build of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). By this I mean what will actually be presented to the general public at the end of the three months. Is it a tiny but functional product? A landing page with a compelling video? The form of the MVP is up to you, but you must be able to launch it within the 3 month timebox.

The success of the Design Sprint Quarter Strategy depends on our ability to guarantee that something will come out at the end of the 3 months. This almost never happens in the corporate world!

  • At the end of the first Design Sprint, a prototype is tested with 5 potential customers (but only 5 — beyond that, the prototype can remain a secret)
  • At the end of the 3 months, we expose the MVP to as many people as possible, in a public way

Week 5: (3-Day Design Sprint) ⚡️

In most cases, a second Design Sprint is crucial in order to fix the things that didn’t work in the first prototype. For this 3-Day Design Sprint, we assemble exactly the same team as the first Sprint, this time with the goal:“define the MVP — What are we trying to learn and what do we need to build to learn that thing?” If developers or engineers were not involved in the first Sprint, it is essential to integrate them at this stage.

You will notice that the Sprint is shorter. This is simply because it’s a follow-up Sprint, with the same team, and will focus on one element; defining the MVP. For this 3-day format, the shortened version of Google called Product Design Sprint seems to us to be an excellent fit.

(Note: In some cases, a second Sprint will not be necessary. Sometimes the first Design Sprint identifies a product that is coherent and lean enough to be built quickly.)

Week 6–8: Design and Begin Building the MVP

We recommend keeping the team as nimble as possible. In the case of a digital product, if the MVP has been correctly scoped, a designer and between one to two developers should be sufficient.
Ideally, these resources are located internally or with the agency that accompanied you during the Sprints. In some cases, an external partner could be involved.

Third month

Design Sprint Quarter Month 3

Week 8–12: Build the MVP

The end of the second month and the entire third month are devoted to the construction of the MVP. At this stage, the small team will be left to self-organize in order to optimize speed and efficiency.

Week 8, 10 and 12: Test and Plan

Every two weeks, the team holds a progress meeting on the construction of the MVP to measure what has been achieved and define the work for the following week. Even if you do not work in agile-Scrum, or even in a digital context, the Sprint review model could be useful to you in structuring this meeting.

Week 12: Reality check

The Design Sprint Quarter makes it possible to de-risk the project and to test it with outside customers as well as team and company decision-makers.

It is now time to publicly launch your MVP.

Beforehand, you will have established a series of hypotheses and you are now ready to receive the market’s feedback.

Hurrah 🎉!!!

Alright Steph, but… what’s next?

😆 🙄

This is where our timeline ends, and three intense months that have taken us from an initial problem to a product.

In the coming weeks, you’ll be able to measure your MVP using quantitative data tools like Google Analytics, Firebase, Hotjar, Hubspot. Now you can start measuring those traditional numbers everybody loves:

  • number of customers/visitors
  • bounce rate
  • time spent and journey
  • number of signups
  • average basket…

In short, a veritable gold mine of information to measure the impact of the product or service, plan its future evolution, and start growing!

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The Design Sprint Quarter: How to Make Design Sprints Work at Big Companies

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