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Management How your team can sprint to a solution in just five days

At first, the idea Jake Knapp proposes sounds idiotic: Take a big challenge facing you, such as launching a new product, clear a week, and solve it by bringing a small team together, prototyping three possible solutions, and testing them on customers. From problem to solution in five days!

But he has been doing it over and over with entrepreneurs using the services of Google Ventures, where he is a design partner.

It's called a Design Sprint and offers a rigorously defined schedule for the week, so your team just has to grapple with the specifics of the challenge you have been assigned. And although there is a team and ideas are tossed out, it's quite different from brainstorming, which he once favoured but realized too often diluted ideas to maintain collegiality. In sprints, people move from individual to group work continuously, gaining the advantages of both.

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It starts by determining the exact challenge and gathering the right team. You don't want more than seven people but the team can't be so small as to limit diversity – ideally, you pick individuals, from engineers to salespeople, who connect to the new product or service you are developing in different ways.

You also want the ultimate decision-maker – in a startup, the CEO – in the room, if not continuously at least making cameo appearances for the decisions only he or she can make. "In a sprint we test two or three ideas against each other on the Friday. It can be risky, so you want the decision-maker involved," he says.

Everybody clears a week for the sprint. Monday morning you start at the end, agreeing to a long-term goal, and then mapping out the challenge in a simple way – the steps involved in using your planned service, for example. Monday afternoon is devoted to Ask the Experts: One-on-one interviews are held with individuals from your sprint team, around the company, or outsiders who have special knowledge that can assist. Finally, pick a target: The most important customer you want to reach and at what particular stage in the customer experience.

Tuesday focuses on solutions. Some time will be devoted to "lightning demos," in which the team members talk about their favourite solutions from other products and different domains. Time and again, the most compelling ideas come from similar problems in different environments.

"It's like playing with Lego bricks: First gather useful components, then convert them into something original and new," he writes in Sprint: Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, with colleagues John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz. The ideas are then sketched out. Not everybody is comfortable with sketching but these can be quite simple – text, triangles and stick figures. The intent is not artistry but just conveying the approach to others.

Wednesday morning the team members study the sketches, hung on the wall as if an art museum, except the names of the proposer is not revealed to avoid bias. Usually there are about 10 to 12 sketches, and stickers can be placed on aspects of each that particularly appeal to the viewers, creating a "heat map" of where overall interest lies.

A speed critique follows, quickly discussing the highlights of each solution. Unlike most business situations, the originator doesn't speak at the outset but at the end. A straw poll is held with each person choosing one solution. But those are preliminary votes, which the ultimate decision-maker takes into consideration in choosing the preferred three to develop further.

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Thursday a prototype is developed of those ideas – perhaps a PowerPoint display of how it might work, or a modest computer model, or a simple mechanical example, perhaps focused on a key element of the future product. Knapp stresses you aren't making the final product but a façade, like the street backdrop in an old Western movie, exterior walls with nothing behind them. "I didn't think you could prototype everything. The more I do it the more optimistic I am that you probably can prototype anything," he says in an interview.

On Friday, five customers are individually shown the prototype and asked probing questions by an interviewer, while everyone else watches a video feed. It's the moment of truth and the responses may be negative. But you are gathering information to decide how to move ahead – to get into more detailed production, if the assessment is positive, or to rethink and try another sprint if that is necessary.

It's quick and effective – a structured way to devise ideas, sort through them, and get them evaluated in just five days.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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