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We often use the phrase ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ to encourage long-term commitment and endurance. But sprints are increasingly key to winning the long game. We’re not referring to simple bursts of speed, however; we mean a succession of rapid, customer-driven learning cycles that cumulatively build long-term advantage.

So, what exactly is a sprint? 

Sprints are short, time-boxed iterations of a continuous development cycle. The term sprint originated in software development as part of Agile methodology but is often applied (with adaptations) to physical products, services, and even processes. A planned amount of work for each sprint must be completed by the team and made ready for review, usually within 2-4 weeks but possibly within 5 days or less. The idea is to accelerate time to market, improve team collaboration and innovation, and help ensure commercial success.

There are different approaches for different situations, though all have similar goals. Here are a few that may fit your organization’s specific needs and environment:

  • Scrum is a framework for enabling business agility at scale across an entire organization. Well known for its application to software development, it is now used in other domains at GE, 3M, Toyota, Maersk, British Petroleum, Tesla and other companies. It involves 30-day cycles of plan, build and monitor sprints. (The name Scrum was derived from rugby scrummage as the system involves a cross-functional team that huddles together.) Dr. Jeff Sutherland, together with Ken Schwaber, created theScrum software development process. There’s also what’s known as ‘Scrum for Hardware’ an Agile discipline, taught by Joe Justice, that combines Scrum with modular architecture and Lean/XP practices.
  • The 5-day Design Sprint allows firms to quickly design, prototype, and test business ideas. They can be used to make digital and physical products, new service offerings, or to simply update company processes. Developed by Jake Knapp and the team at GV (the venture capital investment arm of Google), a properly led design sprint combines business strategy, behavioral science, design thinking, and rapid prototyping into a powerful shortcut for answering the big question: what should we make? Many companies, including Google, Slack, LEGO, KLM Airlines to name a few, have applied the 5-day sprint. This approach works particularly well for start-ups and new H3 ventures.
  • Rapid Learning Cycles, as described by Katherine Radeka, are another variation of sprints that work quite well for tangible products, especially in conjunction with Lean Product Development (Radeka’s original expertise area). Teams take time upfront to identify the high-impact, high-unknown decisions they need to make — and what they need to learn to make those decisions with confidence at the right time. They then fill their knowledge gaps through a series of Rapid Learning Cycles: Definition > Concept > Design > Validation > Launch, and use Agile project management methods to stay focused, move quickly, and adapt as new information comes in.

Applied early in development, sprints provide a reliable way for teams to validate that product designs will delight customers. They also provide clarity and space to make sure teams are working on the most creative designs. The risks and costs of conducting sprints are relatively low, and overall cycle time is reduced as uncertainty is removed.

How sprints help win marathons

While sprints are useful in their own right, their real power and value comes from fitting successfully into a company-wide strategic framework.

For those that use a traditional gated process, the Agile Stage Gate hybrid approach pioneered by Dr. Robert Cooper and used by companies such as Danfoss, GE, Tetrapak, LEGO, and Chamberlain, might be the best of both worlds. While the sprints increase speed, accelerate decisions, and increase urgency due to the time-boxed format, milestone/gate reviews provide financial controls as well as qualification and verification.

As Cooper puts it, “the sprints that give Agile its adaptability and productivity are excellent for mapping what the development team should do each week, but that ultra-short-term focus can make it difficult to keep the long-term goal in sight. Nor does Agile deal with the issue of whether the company should be doing the project in the first place; Agile projects are rarely stopped. By contrast, gates bring a strategic orientation to product development so management can consider the bigger questions around a project as it moves forward.”

The hybrid approach works as follows:

Each sprint is planned in real time, on the fly, yielding a process that is highly responsive and adaptive. At the end of each sprint, the project team produces a tangible result of some kind—a prototype or other physical model that can be demonstrated to stakeholders, including customers, for validation and to identify needed design changes.

This rapid, iterative, and incremental release of concepts, designs, and prototypes provides fast customer feedback, which is integrated into the next sprint to move the product closer to what customers want and need.

The post-sprint retrospective allows the team to determine whether the assigned tasks have been completed—whether the sprint is actually “done”—and provides an opportunity to consider how the team can work better in following sprints. As in Agile for software projects, the project team is ideally dedicated to the one project and collocated in one team room and has daily stand-up meetings to facilitate communication and productivity.

Gates and stages remain an important part of this hybrid model. Gates provide go/kill decision points—culling out weak projects, providing focus in the development pipeline, and enabling senior management to review projects at key transition points. Stages provide a high-level overview of the project’s main phases and a guide to required or recommended activities and expected deliverables for each stage.

Example: LEGO is a company that uses the 5-day sprint methodology and the Agile Stage Gate framework. Within stages, teams engage in sprints of one to four weeks; sprints follow typical Agile processes—including sprint planning meetings and daily stand-up meetings—and use typical Agile tools.

There are also frameworks such as the Industrial Agile Framework which help manage the cultural change necessary to truly integrate Agile practices into an organization.

Key Takeaways

While Agile methodology and sprints follow a prescribed set of practices and processes, the way companies conduct them need not be rigid. Each company must determine the right length of each sprint according to its own strategic goals and objectives.

Experimentation, learning and adapting are at the heart of Agile. Early and frequent customer feedback drives design decisions, and the results of sprints provide insights to guide the bigger picture. 

If your organization is just starting out, we recommend:

  • Secure buy-in from the most senior decision-makers. Make them understand that trying a design sprint is low-risk, low-barrier and low-investment.
  • Get straight into it. Run the first sprint right away – strike while the iron is hot or momentum will be lost.
  • For your first sprint, pick curious and enthusiastic people who are not risk-averse to work with. When you get to the second sprint, combine people who’ve done it before with people who haven’t.
  • Start with a small project, define a short duration (2-4 weeks) to apply 3-5 sprints.
  • Do retrospectives. They help resolve any issues and train people fast.

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