The Definitive Guide to Pitching Design Sprints Internally to Your Team Leaders

The Definitive Guide to Pitching Design Sprints Internally to Your Team Leaders

Let’s cut to the chase. Selling a design sprint internally is always going to be a little difficult. You’re asking to take a week of your teammates’ and decision maker’s time. And it’s more than likely you’re going to get some major pushback.

But spending 5 days or less on a design sprint can save you months of time. Sprints get rid of all the misalignment and messiness that comes from projects that drag on and on and on.

For sprints to be successful, however, you need buy-in across the board. Design sprints are all about action, and you need to have decision makers and influential people ready to take part in them, or at least prioritize the work you’ve done.

In this guide, I’m going to teach you how to pitch design sprints internally, from introducing the concept to leadership, to getting buy-in from team mates, outlining your process, and preparing for your first sprint.

Want more resources to help you with your pitch? Check out our guide to running design sprints with examples and case studies of successful sprints from companies like Slack, Google, Headspace, and the United Nations.

Why design sprints get shut down

Before you can get in there and start pitching, it’s good to know what you’re up against. Unfortunately, while you might be convinced of the benefits of running a design sprint, your team will more than likely have their reservations.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Every company says they want to be innovative, but how many actually take risks and try new ideas? The truth is that whether you’re at a startup or a Fortune 500 company, people get entrenched in their own fears and find it hard to deviate from “how it’s always been done”.

  • At startups: Everyone’s busy. Resources are limited. You’re living life on the edge, and taking a week to do a design sprint can feel like a major risk. Sure, it might be the boost you need to succeed. But it just as easily could be the downfall of your business.
  • Large corporations: “Innovation” means a year-long process with expensive business consultants. And with hundreds of stakeholders on every project, how can you do a sprint that’s designed to be done quickly and efficiently?

Even if you’re lucky enough to be in a working environment that’s open to the idea of sprints, you’ll still need to navigate through some of the most common concerns. Here’s a few of the ones you’re most likely to butt up against:

“We just don’t have the time!”

By their very nature, design sprints are short. And in most cases it’s not the time commitment, but the intensity that scares people off. Most companies are more than happy to let a project drag on for months or years, but for some reason balk at the idea of committing the full attention of a small group of people for 5 or less days.

There’s no easy solution here other than explaining the benefits of a sprint and getting your leadership to understand that intensity of focus is one of the most valuable resources you have as a company.

“We already do sprints? Why do we need another methodology?”

While “sprints” is the perfect terminology to explain what happens during a design sprint, it can understandably be a bit confusing for people who don’t know what they are. Maybe your company already does “development sprints” or “Agile sprints.” Or maybe the idea of adding yet another methodology just feels like overkill. Either way, this again comes back to education.

Give them your best elevator pitch: A design sprint is a way to quickly and efficiently discover problems and validate solutions. It’s not changing your entire company structure or development style. It’s simply learning how to make big decisions, in a smaller amount of time.

“Sure that works for other people, but it’ll never work here!”

You’ll always face friction when you’re trying to bring change into an organization. And leadership—especially at larger companies—loves to say “it just won’t work here.” But everyone from massive companies to brand new startups have seen incredible results from design sprints.

Be aspirational and excited about the possibilities and use case studies to show exactly what can be achieved.

The 4 P’s of selling your boss on design sprints

Pitching a design sprint internally isn’t just about having answers to your team’s concerns. It’s about educating them about what design sprints are, how they can be used, and showing them how efficient and powerful they are. If you do your job right, it’ll be less about selling sprints, and more about finding time to schedule your first one.

But you need to be strategic in order to make this work. And the best way I’ve seen this is to follow what we call the 4 Ps: Prepare, Pitch, Prove, and Promote.

Prepare: Research your team and business objectives

Just like a successful design sprint starts with a deep understanding of your challenges, goals, and the current state of affairs, pitching a sprint needs an equal focus on research.

Find challenges:

Start by looking at the challenges you’re facing. You’re trying to bring in a new tool and mindset into a company that’s used to doing things a certain way. And along with the common concerns we covered above, you need to think about the individual fears of the people you’re pitching to.

What are the pain points and fears that your leadership has about bringing in a new process? Is it the time constraint? Budget? Is it because they’re unfamiliar with the process? Are they hitting methodology overload and just want to stick with how things are? Go deep and map out their mental state and how it might become a blocker.

Uncover goals:

Design sprints are action-oriented. And so having a quick and easy way to show their value is a crucial part of your pitch. Selling the design sprint isn’t about you and your position. It’s about finding challenges and problems to solve.

What are some paint points that you know the company has been stuck on? What issues do leadership continually bring up? Look for those lingering issues and fears as places to pitch the value of a design sprint.

Dig into the current state:

How do design sprints fit into your current business objectives? Again, you want to think about how you can be action-oriented here. What are the business issues that have been lingering for ages? Or the approaches you’ve always wanted to test but haven’t had the time or resources to do?

Before you even think about pitching, you need to prepare yourself with the insights that will make your sprints a success. You want to show leadership a future where a sprint has helped solve, or at least answer questions, around some of your biggest issues. Use the challenges they already have and that keep them up at night to test solutions quickly.

Pitch: Sell the features and benefits of a sprint

With your research in hand and a deep understanding of your company’s current state, it’s time to turn into a salesperson. Schedule a time to talk to your manager or leadership and tell them you have some ideas about tackling some issues you’ve seen.

Start high-level by introducing the problems you uncovered while you prepared. Show your understanding of their concerns and how you think there are big opportunities to test solutions and gain insights on the issues that have been plaguing your company for ages. Remember to stick to business opportunities here. Paint a picture of a world where those issues are irrelevant.

Now, it’s time to start the pitch.

If your team’s unfamiliar with what a design sprint is, start with your elevator pitch: A design sprint is an efficient, highly structured framework that validates big ideas in short periods of time.

Then, get into the specifics. Quickly run them through the basic outline of how a sprint works (you can use our guide to help you). And then focus in on some of the biggest benefits of using a design sprint, like:

  • Saving you a ton of time: A design sprint isn’t just another big, time-wasting meeting that will amount to nothing. It also doesn’t require weeks or months of putting together a brief only to have the situation or needs change. With a sprint, you’ll go from problem to solution to real-world tests in less than a week. Making any sort of progress in a time period like that is a huge benefit.
  • Aligning expectations and needs across teams: Disagreements and different opinions kill innovation and put your team in decision deadlock. A sprint forces you to make decisions quickly, meaning teams need to come together and test solutions, rather than get stuck in asking “what if?”
  • Gaining deeper insights into your biggest business problems: Misalignment happens when you don’t know what problem you’re trying to solve. Sprints help you zero in on your biggest business issues, test solutions, and get real, hard data.
  • Allowing everyone’s voice to be heard: Meetings or team politics often mean only the loudest voice is heard. A sprint democratizes the brainstorming process and allows all the ideas and opinions in a room to surface.
  • Regaining excitement on problems that have been dragging you down: Nothing kills motivation like a project stuck in stasis. Sprints give you answers in a week on problems that have been hounding you for years, bringing big boosts in motivation and engagement.
  • Building a pipeline of actionable next-steps: Every sprint ends with an actionable to-do. Meaning one week of work could lead to a year’s worth of solutions, features, and ideas.
  • Learning how to work through issues faster: The mindset you learn from working through design sprints can be used in all sorts of other contexts, like meetings, project kickoffs, and decision-making moments.

Don’t forget to show as well as tell

Whenever you’re pitching a new idea, you’ll always run up against a hater. And despite all the clear benefits of a sprint, someone’s going to say it’s just not possible. That’s where having a library of case studies, examples, and anecdotes comes in handy. As you pitch the process and the benefits of a design sprint, pepper in examples of companies who’ve seen huge success using them.

We’ve put together a list of design sprint case studies, but here are a few exciting ones you can use:

  • Slack used a design sprint to figure out how to move from small teams to large enterprise clients and now counts IBM, Autodesk, and Shopify as customers.
  • Google used a 3-day design sprint to completely re-tool their hiring process, resulting in a suite of tools they now use to evaluate, track, and onboard new hires.
  • Pocket used a design sprint to redesign their app onboarding process and saw an immediate 58% increase in user engagement.

What’s great about all these examples is that they show clear results on issues that the company was facing. Moving an app like Slack from a tool for SMBs to an enterprise solution is no small task. But they did it with the help of a sprint.

And while you ultimately want to focus on the business results of a design sprint, don’t fall into the trap of pitching them as some sort of hack or shortcut. Be just as clear about what a design sprint isn’t (i.e. a replacement for customer research, a comprehensive design process/design thinking, or a way to push someone’s agenda).

Prove: Run a 1-day “design dash” to demonstrate true value

You’re probably sick of me saying this by now, but design sprints are all about action. And once you’ve gotten a nibble with your pitch, it’s time to reel your team in by proving the true value of actually going through with the sprint. If they’re not ready to jump into a full sprint right away, that’s OK. You can still show them results.

One of our favorite ways to do this at Sprintwell is to run what we call a “Design Dash”—a one-day “mini sprint” that tackles a real business problem and shows real results through a combination of brainstorming and planning sessions and a fun 1-hour exercise.

Here’s how these work:

Part 1: Make a plan

Start by understanding the purpose your team sees behind doing the sprint. Why is it important to get answers quickly and test ideas? What are their guiding principles and how does a sprint fit into them?

As sprint facilitators, we come into companies without knowing much about their culture, values, and principles. But even as someone pitching a sprint internally, it’s important to have this conversation. Sometimes culture is lived, but not fully understood. And hearing why teammates are interested in sprinting is a powerful way to get buy-in.

Next, start talking about your desired outcomes. What will success feel like, look like, be like? Don’t hold back or pull punches. Ask people what their ideal outcome would be. Think wild successes and moonshot ideas.

Now, it’s time to move into how you’re going to get there. Brainstorm with your team about how you might achieve your outcomes given your purpose. Keep people thinking about their big ideas and goals but get more specific on what it’s going to take to get there. Suspend your judgement and keep the conversation moving (i.e., jump in whenever someone says “yeah, but…”)

Once you’ve come up with a bunch of awesome ideas it’s time to organize and talk about the realities of running the sprint.Look at all the things that will affect your ability to get through a sprint and work on your ideas. This means everything from constraints, dependencies, and blockers, to enablers, end users, timeline, and budget.

Lastly, choose your next action. What is the immediate next action that moves this project forward?

Part 2: Know what you’re measuring

The best way to sell a sprint is with results. Now that you have a pretty solid idea of what you want to work on, why it’s important, and how you’re going to start, it’s time to think more deeply about what success will look like.

For us, we like to break this down into defining a few key criteria:

  • Objectives: Why is this project important now? The answer might seem obvious (especially after the planning session), but it’s better to unpack than assume. Dig back into your purpose and desired outcomes and make sure you have a solid answer to the question “Why does this project exist now?”
  • Goals: What are the desired changes that you want to see based on the objectives? Make sure everyone is aligned with what the high-level goals are.
  • Key Performance Indicators: What specific metrics will tell you if you’ve reached your goals? This should be something measurable so that you can see whether your sprint took you for 1-3, or 0-100.
  • Targets: It’s time to put a number on it. What specific change in that metric will tell you that you’ve been successful?

Step 3: Dash!

The Design Dash is an exercise that condenses the first few days of a design sprint into just 1-hour.

At the end of the hour, you’ll have chosen the major business problem you want to solve, come up with and voted for the best solutions, and made a plan of attack of how you’ll prototype and test it (with a design sprint, of course!)

Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to how the Design Dash works:

  1. Give everyone 5-10 minutes to write problems or challenges they see on sticky notes. These could be processes, workflows, or specific projects. This should be pretty easy thanks to all the prep work you’ve already gone through.
  2. Once the time is up, put all the sticky notes up on a board and then go around the group and give each person 30 seconds to describe each of their problems.
  3. Give everyone two sticky dots each and ask them to “vote” for the problems they think are most important.
  4. Now, it’s time for you as the facilitator to step in. Prioritize the problems by votes (you can discard any with one or less) and then reframe the top ones as “How might we…” statements. (We go into detail about how to do this in our full design sprints guide).
  5. With your reframed problem, give everyone another 5-10 minutes to come up with solutions.
  6. Again, put them up on the board and ask people to vote on the solutions they want to test in the next week or two. This time everyone gets six dots (they can put all six dots on one idea if they want to). Once they’re finished, prioritize solutions by votes.
  7. It’s time for you to step in again. First, group the solutions by themes, this way you get a bigger-picture view of what people are excited about. Now, draw a simple 2×2 grid on a whiteboard and as a group, score each potential solution by the effort you think it’ll take to complete and the proposed outcome. (If you want to use the decision-making matrix we use to prioritize our internal experiments you can download it here).
  8. Lastly, look at all the solutions in your high impact/low effort quadrant and have the person who wrote it come up with actionable tasks to take to solve it.

That’s it! In less than a day, you’ve defined a serious business problem. Found multiple solutions. And created a backlog of actionable tasks you can do to solve it. If those are the results you get from just a short exercise, imagine what you’ll get from a full design sprint?

Promote: Close the deal and schedule your first sprint

At this point, you should feel confident going for the close and getting your team to commit to their first full sprint. But if they’re still on the fence or seem wary, there are a few final points to drive home to make sure they understand what they’re getting into.

First, be clear about what they’ll receive at the end of the sprint. This isn’t just another meeting or brainstorming session played out across multiple days. Make sure they understand that at the end of the sprint they’ll have a high-fidelity prototype that addresses a real business problem and that has been tested with real users. You’ll have an answer to a burning question and a clear next step to move forward.

Next, reiterate what the time commitments are. Leadership will especially have a hard time committing to a week intense, focused work. But you also need their help and buy-in to ensure the sprint is a success. Remind them that they won’t necessarily have to be in the room for the full sprint (only during key decisions), and suggest bringing in a sprint facilitator to help guide the process when they can’t be there.

You’ll also want to keep pitching design sprints as experiments. This isn’t some magic bullet that will solve all their problems in 5 days. But it is a huge push in the right direction, helping them to iterate on their product or service.

Lastly, focus on speed, efficiency, and potential. Sprints are fast. They get you answers quickly. And they have the potential to uncover company-changing ideas. If that’s the potential reward, the risk of giving up a few people for 5 days shouldn’t even be a question.

Creating meaningful organizational change

Trying to get anyone to change is difficult. The human brain is wired to loves routines and doing the same thing over and over. But when you’re stuck and can’t find a solution to a serious issue, why keep attacking it the same way?

Design sprints are powerful tools for any business. But to get buy-in and make them work you need to be prepared, understand the issues your company and your leadership are facing, and then show the value that a sprint can bring. Get that right, and all you’ll have to do next is schedule your first sprint.

Want help getting the most out of your design sprint? Sprintwell has years of experience facilitating design sprints at companies like LinkedIn, Medallia, SoundHound, Springs Global, and Resolve, which is led by Dr. Tom Frieden – former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We also teach and mentor at the Stanford, General Assembly, and 500 Startups.

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