To Sprint, or Not to Sprint

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Phew! I’ve just finished a sprint and need to catch my breath.

In a focused, three-week burst, a couple of colleagues and I engaged target users for a B2B digital offering to learn which experiences truly resonate with them. We eliminated several marginal concepts and got focused on two that merit a follow-on investment.

Now, we’re catching our breath, reflecting on what we learned, and getting ready for the next heat.

When clients first approach us, they usually say it takes 6 months to study an opportunity before they can even get started. Then, the Google Ventures team went and wrote “Sprint,” claiming that any challenge can be solved in 5 days!  At Peer Insight, we believe in the sprint cadence, but our firm typically helps clients design and launch new businesses, not software. Over the years, we’ve perfected an approach to exploring new opportunities that takes you from hoping to knowing in six weeks or less – even if it’s an entirely new business.

The sprint is based on a paradox:

Finding product-market fit requires many, many iteration cycles; more cycles than large enterprise resource allocation structures can accommodate. To manage this risk, we need to bypass our traditional risk management process and SPRINT.

The sprint cadence utterly contradicts traditional project management structures. Sprints work, because resources are finite and the emphasis is on the process of learning and iterating rather than the idea itself. Any half-decent idea will improve quickly if you iterate effectively. Sprints are the key to disciplined, affordable iteration.

Sound interesting? In this post, I’ll share our pre-sprint checklist. It will help you answer these questions:

1.    When should I consider a sprint?

2.    What are the elements of a successful sprint?

 

Knowing When to Sprint

A good mantra for efficient innovation is: learn before you earn. Sprints are optimized for affordable learning, so that makes them a perfect mechanism for investing in the face of high uncertainty. As you think about your challenge, here are the three criteria that indicate a good fit for the sprint format.

  • High uncertainty/likelihood of a pivot: Sprints are great for figuring out what to build, less so for figuring out how. If you know what you want to do and are fully committed to it, then the benefits of a sprint cadence are diminished. (Though many firms use agile sprints to break work into discrete bursts.)
  • Attainable, near-term proof points: Since a sprint runs out of resources at the end, it is important to know what will make the opportunity investment-worthy going forward. If the key, unknown variable for investors is “repeat purchase,” and it takes months to observe that behavior, then a sprint format won’t work. That type of longitudinal data requires a patient investment, not a sprint.
  • Fast decision-making process for follow-on investment: At the end of a sprint, the team will be wealthier in knowledge and bankrupt in terms of time and cash. Let’s say the results are encouraging. A new sprint will need to be defined, proposed, and funded. If this process takes a day or two, that’s perfect, because the team needs to catch its breath. If it takes a month or two, then the momentum will be lost, team members will scatter to other projects, and you may as well not have bothered.

This last point is crucial: When sprints fail, it’s usually because they fail to result in a fast decision about follow-on investment.

 

Five Elements of a Successful Sprint

If your challenge is fit for a sprint, there are five elements you need to have in place before you take your marks.

  1. A customer problem: Great problem statements open up new possibilities (what and why) without specifying how, so teams have room to pivot.
     
  2. A small, agile team: Sprint teams can be as few as two people, rarely bigger than seven. Most importantly, the leader needs to be able to navigate ambiguity.
     
  3. Strategic questions: Sprints must by tightly focused on answering strategic questions. Getting smarter is OK, but making strategic decisions is better.

    • New business ventures face many uncertainties
    • Sprints spell them out as assumptions then design ways to test them in the market
    • The unit of progress in a sprint is validated (or invalidated) assumptions
     
  4. Tight resources: This is the defining characteristic of a sprint.

    • Guardrails – Time is the most crucial guardrail, but there can be others
    • Finish line – Concrete success threshold (i.e., exit criteria), based on the assumptions noted above
    • Cliff – Zero-based budgeting going forward (if the venture is going to proceed, it needs to attract new funding)
     

  5. Sprint governance: To oversee your sprint, you need a fast decision-making mechanism which specifies:

    • Investors/sources of funds
    • How to convene them
    • Decision criteria that they will use
    • Ideal investment size (maximum and target)

 

We’ve combined the above into a pre-sprint checklist (download available here).

Grab it… assess each item… take your marks… BANG!… now run like the wind!

Tim Ogilvie