• Opinion
  • July 17, 2019
  • 11 minutes
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The 6 principles for a successful design sprint

Opinion: Here's how to run a one-week design sprint in one day

This article was written by Jordana Globerman, Design Thinking and Innovation Advisor at the Innovation Lab, Canada. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ESDC innovation lab. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Design has become a buzzword and, for many, it’s meaning remains amorphous outside the world of communications and product development. 

But there is no need to make it complicated: Design is simply the process of taking something which exists, imagining an improvement, and bringing it about.

It’s striving towards the ideal. In the social innovation world, this is a tangible concept. We are always striving for improvement upon existing modes of working and mechanisms of support — whether these be incremental or transformative. 

Practising what we preach

The beginning of a design process is always the easiest and often the most fun. 

It calls upon you to dream and explore. However, challenges begin to crop once you start to put the ideas into practice . Tough decisions need to be made and technical restrictions are taken into account. This is where keen project management becomes crucial: you need a strategy to propel the process.

A design sprint is time-constrained, creative approach to production that expedites the phases of a design thinking cycle. It is the nexus between project management and design. First developed by Google and individual practitioners, the approach unites an interdisciplinary team to rapidly prototype solutions and test them with users, all in a week’s time. 

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I work in the Employment and Social Development Innovation Lab within the Government of Canada where we manage several concurrent design projects for partners throughout the ministry. 

Recently, we worked on an internal project that allowed us to take ourselves on as the client: this was the creation of our 2019 Annual Report, a document capturing 18 months of Lab work and insights. We treated this project as a design thinking initiative requiring empathetic research, collaborative framing and idea generation, prototyping and testing. In other words, it was an opportunity to practise what we preach.

We held storytelling circles with client partners and drafted layout prototypes to test with users. Through this exploratory process, we collected many beautiful fragments of corporate conscious — memories of project highs and lows, lessons learned, and moments of mindset shifts within our organisation — only to realise we didn’t have a clear strategy for how to synthesise and analyse that input. 

A week’s work in a day

A design sprint was necessary.

The process commonly involves a week of dedicated work, but unfortunately, this wasn’t possible for the Lab. 

Instead, I developed a plan for a truncated design sprint — one full day of prototyping. A few on our team were skeptical that an entire draft report could be compiled in less than a day. “Our Monday morning updates usually take at least an hour,” a colleague pointed out.

But, we managed it. I’m not too surprised; our team is brilliant, hard-working and supportive. 

We had the right people in the room, and a few guiding principles to help. I’ve picked these principles up throughout my career and want to share them with you, should you and your team want to run your own design sprint:

1. Have Faith

I was surprised by the doubt that several of my colleagues had at the beginning of the spring, as they expressed concerns over constraints, whether we had sufficient time to do the sprint, and over a new, unfamiliar way of working.

Our Lab is full of experts, but with many “creatives” imposter syndrome — the pervasive feeling that we are secretly not good enough for the jobs we are in — runs strong. Many of us sell ourselves short and that can hold us back. 

It’s important to have faith in what we do, what our teammates offer, and our methods, especially when tackling a huge challenge.

2. All for one, or none at all

The main factor determining the success of a design sprint is whether or not you have a dedicated, interdisciplinary team. It is crucial that all the individuals needed for developing a prototype are in the room for the entirety of the sprint. 

Close collaboration is crucial and a product cannot be successful without the integrated input, knowledge and skills of each team member. It’s also very important to have support from your senior leadership as they can encourage a team commitment. 

We were lucky to have the support of our director, who supported our team to clear their schedules for the sprint.

3. Give a Frame

“Creatives” have a natural aversion to strict parameters of working, but when a group is collaborating on a single prototype, some structure is needed. For this sprint, I developed a clear agenda with precise activities and deliverables: storyboarding to set up narrative structure, research, first draft (by lunch), and revision.

It was clear that there also needed to be some conceptual heavy-lifting prior to the sprint; we needed to agree on the different pieces of content that would go into the report report and a means of ensuring consistency in the voice of our storytelling throughout the report. 

To accomplish this, we set a short meeting the day before the sprint and voted on the content pieces that would be developed the proceeding day. Projects without a key lesson learned were thrown out while those that outlined challenges and how we overcame them took priority. 

I created a storyboarding exercise to develop a consistent conceptual approach to all the report’s elements. The exercise asked participants to consider the emotional highs and lows of the story they were trying to tell, and had them structure these along a timeline of introduction, context, crisis, resolution and impact. 

This established a consistent mindset behind our storytelling. The frame guided participants but left space for creativity, which enabled the team to start of the sprint aligned and inspired.

4. Be Flexible

A flexible frame is one you can dismantle altogether, if necessary. 

Half-way through our event, it became clear that timings and teams would need to change for us to meet our goal. We reshuffled teams based on who could speak best to which subjects and moved mini-deadlines as required. When all hands were needed on deck to finish a more difficult piece, we all supported each other as needed.

5. Don’t ask for perfection

70/30 is the rule: When working on a sprint deliverable, the final product should be 70% completed to good quality and 30% still needing work.

Remember, you are prototyping. The sprint produced a draft which included photos of whiteboard sketches instead of illustrations and too many words, but it gave us a product that we could test with readers and develop in a smaller team based on feedback. 

The point of the sprint was not to have a perfect product, it was to have a workable base from which to test and iterate.

6. Have fun!

If it’s not fun, what’s the point? Play music, make time for breaks, snack, snack, snack, support each other and laugh through it. 

The most rewarding part of the sprint is creating something with people you care about and in seeing the beauty many heads working better than one!

If you are looking to read more on the ins and outs of a design sprint, I highly recommend Sprint by Jake Knapp. It’s a detailed primer and easy read. — Jordana Globerman

(Picture credit: Unsplash, Jordana Globerman)

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