Building an Ethical Sprint Culture


Today’s episode features Kai Haley, Lead of Design Relations and the Sprint Master Academy at Google. We talk about design sprints and building a “sprint culture” as well as a much bigger question: The need for ethics in design. If you can build anything, faster, it’s a kind of super power. And with great power comes great responsibility. While you might have heard Spider-Man say that, it also made me think of my favorite Plato’s Dialog, Gorgias, which points out that power without knowledge of good (and evil) is pretty dangerous. Kai believes that training a sprint master means giving them the tools to keep people honest and mindful of their choices.

What I really love about this episode is how open, honest and humble Kai is about how hard this work is. The Sprint can make it seem like solving big challenges is simple – all you need is five days and Google’s list of activities – widely available on the internet! (and in the show notes!)

But Kai makes it clear that any attempts to “copy & paste” the Sprint (just like any new way of working) into an organization will experience some turbulence.

Adopting a new way of work can create a wave of change that will ripple out into the organization. To find sustainable success means changing rewards and recognition practices, building training and management support and lots and lots of flexibility and patience.

We don’t get into the basics of the design sprint in the interview so I’ll say a few words of background. A design sprint is a structured process for getting a group of people to get together and make a big decision in a shorter—than—normal period of time. Sprints are a general term in use in Agile software development for some time and they have become really popular in the digital product design world as User Experiences Designers have had to contend with the spread of Agile in the world.

In the last few years Google has developed an approach to design sprinting that blends parts of design thinking and parts of Agile into a powerful structure; building a clear, compelling narrative thread in the process. Inside Google, sprinting has developed into a key part of their culture, and the world is starting to take notice – starting with the NY Times bestselling book “Sprint” by former Google Ventures employees Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky who took their own unique flavor of the Sprint and wrote a clear, thorough, check-list approach to the method that made it seem simple enough for anyone to try.

While it’s often shorter inside Google and other organizations, the canonical structure is a five-day workshop that opens up a key challenge for a group or a company, explores several options to solving it and closes the loop with user research. Often workshops (that people like me run) *can* wind up feeling like Innovation Theater. Workshops can help teams get clear on a strategy and excited about big ideas. But those ideas can fade once the workshop ends. The ideas and the excitement get lost inside the organization. People who weren’t there can question the validity of the ideas and power of their shared conviction. The Sprint format helps a workshop gain momentum and power though a key difference from the average workshop.

For Kai, the key distinction between a workshop and a sprint is that a sprint develops a prototype and puts it in front of customers to get feedback on a key idea. A sprint helps end debate with evidence – and helps continue the conversation long after the workshop.

The Sprint makes use of the Conversation OS in some interesting (and totally unintentional) ways – pulling on a few key levers of conversation design:

 The cadence of work is sped up to force a decision and to create positive pressure, all while holding the work within a clear and powerful narrative thread. The visual map of the 5—day process helps get teams bought in on the power of working this way, establishing clear goals and agreements – regardless of how tough the middle of the week-long workshop gets, there are customers being recruited to test out the ideas, making it harder to give up and loose momentum!

Pair this episode with a few others for a richer perspective on these issues:

—> Conversation with Dee Scarano, who’s a Design Sprint Trainer and Facilitator at AJ and Smart, for more background on the sprint and being an awesome facilitator

—> Conversation with Alistair Cockburn, one of the original Agile Signatories, if you’re new to agile or want to go deeper into it

—> Conversation with Daniel Mezick, who uses a unique, open-space approach to bring agile practices into organizations at scale


Google Sprint Kit

GV Sprint on Medium

Sprint Stories on Medium

The Sprint Book

Plato’s Gorgias

Gransfors Bruk Axes: We have unlimited responsibility for Total Quality.

Changing the Conversation with Sprints

The Conversation OS Canvas

Everyday Design Sprints with Dee Scarano

Agile and Jazz Dialog with Alistair Cockburn

Agile as an invitation to a game with Daniel Mezick