How do the best teams in the world achieve so much? What’s it like being part of a lead team at Google or Uber? Google Ventures Design partner Jake Knapp has spent years working out what makes a team the most effective and productive it can be.
The result is his new book Sprint, co-authored with colleagues John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz. “Sprint” refers to a five-day method for efficient problem solving. Google has used it, as has Uber – even firms this side of the pond, like Secret Escapes. Crucially, because the focus is on teams, not the type or size of the business, a Sprint can be done by anyone.
A team takes a big problem or challenge. They take a week to focus entirely on it, reaching a solution by the Friday. It might seem like an intensive thing to do, but the authors are convinced it trumps the familiar months of indecision and inaction.
Using the case study of Slack, the fast-growth startup founded by Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield, and which Knapp and Zeratsky worked with at the beginning of last year, they explained to me how the Sprint process works.
Slack isn’t an easy business to explain. It’s a collaboration tool for teams, but its benefit isn’t really realised until the whole team is using it instead of email. So although the firm had had a lot of success with tech companies, because it’s not that easy to articulate how Slack works until someone is using it, getting adoption elsewhere wasn’t quite as easy.
Knowing it was about to spend a lot of money on advertising, the firm needed to find a way to ensure that, when someone came to the website, they’d immediately see how Slack could benefit their workplace.
A team of six to eight comes together. There’s a decision-maker, but they take a back seat initially. The group brainstorms ideas and picks a key target – what’s the key customer we want to test this with by Friday? And what are the points of opportunity within the challenge? Slack, for instance, was getting a lot of good press. So the opportunity was for a would-be customer to read about it and end up on the website – then be kept there.
A faster day. Each person comes up with a solution to the problem. This differs from other problem-solving techniques: each person works on a considered response – there’s no noisy vying for attention.
By mid-week, there are a series of detailed solutions. These are kept anonymous, and the team then embarks on a structured decision-making process. In Slack’s case, there were two competing ideas. One – which Butterfield himself came up with – was to explain the product using a team of chat-bots that potential users could interact with, seeing how the product works. The other idea was more conventional – a slide and screenshot tour that would show how Slack works.
Usually, there would be a drawn-out debate – and the ultimate decision might be down to who holds the most power. A Sprint allows multiple ideas to be kept alive for as long as possible, ensuring competition based on consumer reaction.
Prototypes are built. The realisation of how long it’d take to implement each idea (in the case of the chat-bots, it’s months), helped inform the team’s final decision.
Crunch point. Potential customers are brought in. For Slack, this meant non-traditional users – like a call centre for telco companies. While one member of the team demos the products to the customer, other members observe their response. A sit-down afterwards is focused on looking at reaction patterns.
For Slack, the chat-bot idea died a death immediately. Potential customers were just confused by it. Meanwhile, the more straightforward step-by-step tour went down well.
The company followed the Sprint process to actually build the product, too – fast-forwarding what could have been months of work. Since then, Slack has maintained weekly user acquisition growth of 3 to 5 per cent.