I first learned about the Google SPRINT framework in early 2017 from Matt Randall, the founder of Twyla. Google Ventures (GV) funded Twyla’s series A and GV worked directly with Twyla’s management team to implement the framework to find solutions for some of their most critical challenges. The results were impressive, and I immediately decided I wanted to apply the framework at my company Boundless.
I quickly realized that it could be challenging to do it for the first time without any experience or guidance from GV. Fortunately, Matt introduced me to his CTO at Twyla, Douglas Ferguson, who had been responsible for running several of their SPRINTs. Douglas was just breaking out on his own to start a consulting practice Voltage Control focused on helping companies apply the framework, so the timing was perfect. We scheduled our first SPRINT in July of 2017.
In short, the process requires 7 people with a wide array of skill sets to be locked in a room for 5 full days to find an answer to an important challenge. Douglas helped me identify the right combination of people internally and I asked six people on our team to clear their schedule for a week. They all asked “What problem are we trying to solve?”, and my answer was: “I don’t exactly know yet. That’s what the first day is all about”. Here’s an overview of the the very structured schedule for a SPRINT:
Day 1 — Map out how you conduct business today. Interview experts in your industry and identify one critical area of pain or opportunity.
Day 2 — Team members individually (no group think allowed!) identify potential solutions to the problem, and everyone votes on the best solutions.
Day 3 — Create a detailed solution sketch for the selected solution.
Day 4 — Build a prototype of the selected solution (yes you can do it in one day!)
Day 5 — Test the solution with real customers and record their feedback.
Douglas helped us prep for the week (it’s important to have all the right tools and supplies in place), and we kicked off the week with a lot of excitement. The morning of Day 1 made it clear that we has several potential areas we could focus on, and after talking to several industry experts that first afternoon, one area emerged as the clear leader.
One surprising side benefit to the process was that the expert interviews lead to several other insights that we did not have time to cover in the SPRINT, but that were still really beneficial to our business. One insight helped us improve our sales process to enterprise accounts, which lead to us kicking off a separate strategic initiative after the week was over.
The issue we decided to focus on was around buyer self-service, and how we could use our data insights and intelligent search to make smart suggestions and help buyers do more things on their own.
The entire team were pumped up about the concept. During Day 2 we came up with a bunch of great ideas on how to help buyers find the perfect product for what they were trying to accomplish. We selected one, and during Day 3 we sketched out a compelling vision of how an intelligent platform could help simplify life for our buyers. Day 4 was a frenetic race to the finish line trying to create a compelling prototype in just one day. In parallel to the prototype building we recruited actual customers from different companies, and were able to find a nice selection of folks with buyer responsibilities in different size companies and industries.
So by the end of Day 4 we had created a clickable mock-up of a new exciting solution. To give our test customers a fair frame of reference we decided to test the new prototype compared to our existing platform. To make it an apples-to-apples comparison, we created a clickable prototype our our current platform too, so that one would not feel more robust and complete than the other.
Finally it was time to share our vision with actual buyers! We were excited, feeling confident that buyers would love our new ideas. I was doing the customer interviews, and the whole team were watching from another room, video taping the whole thing, including screen capture of the interaction with our prototypes.
The first interview went okay. The buyer liked the look-and-feel of the new solution, but did not quite engage with the new functionality the way we had hoped. We hoped it was an anomaly. The rest of them would probably love it. They did not. The next buyer really did not like what we had created. She said she would never use it. She would not trust the recommendations the system made. She wanted to search on her own, and not answer a bunch of questions. Buyer 3 felt the same way. We started to feel deflated. Then buyer 4 and 5 had similar opinions. Nobody really liked what we created.
There was a sinking feeling in the team room. We had just spent a week of our valuable time creating something that our customers universally did not like.
We had planned a happy hour on Friday to celebrate the completion of the SPRINT, but nobody felt like celebrating. We were tired, spent, disappointed. Time to go home for the weekend.
However, over that weekend, I started to realize that another consistent theme had emerged: all the buyers actually liked our existing solution. So while we didn’t get the answer we were expecting and hoping for, we got a potentially even better one: the solution that we already have actually does a really good job addressing the buyers real needs.
It’s okay if customers don’t like what you created. Don’t take it as a failure. Celebrate the negative feedback as much as the positive
As we debriefed with Douglas and the entire team that following Monday, we realized that we actually had (at least) three big wins coming out of the week:
- We realized that we should not build what we prototyped. If we had not done the SPRINT we may have prioritized this development effort, and spent a ton of time and money building something that nobody wanted.
- Our existing solution is good. Buyers like it. It provides what they need. We identified several smaller usability issues that we can address quickly to make it even better.
- We got a bunch of other insights from both the experts on Monday and the Customers on Friday. Several of them have resulted in smaller platform changes or process improvements already, and we are going to use these type of customer interviews consistently going forward.
We also learned a few valuable lessons to apply in the next SPRINT.
- When you select customers for the interview, try to find customers as similar to each other as possible. You will get statistically significant results with only 5 customers (with 87% accuracy), but only if the customers you talk to are similar in nature. We deliberately selected different types of customers with different needs, thinking that would provide more diversity, and thus ended up with too few data points for each customer type. Focus on your most important customer segment for your SPRINT. You can always test on other segments later.
- It’s okay if customers don’t like what you created. Don’t take it as a failure. Celebrate the negative feedback as much as the positive. Now you can move on to building something they really like!
When all was said and done, the SPRINT was a very valuable exercise. I recommend it to any company. I also recommend bringing in an expert like Douglas to help. He helped make sure that we stayed on track, that we didn’t get stuck, or went down into rat holes and lose momentum.