Jan 5, 2020

How to get leadership buy-in to run a Design Sprint without going crazy

The most common challenge for Design Sprint facilitators (both experienced and newbies) is getting time commitment from the right leaders. Planning a Design Sprint is rough — not only do you have to earn buy-in from the organizational leadership who may be skeptical, but you also have to book a whole week on the calendar with the  critical team members you need to participate.  

Scheduling the first Design Sprint can be an uphill battle at every stage. I have climbed that hill dozens of times over the last four years. To help you get up to the summit and beyond, I'm going to share my best tactics, strategies and phrases you can use to convince your organization to run a five-day Design Sprint. If you've hit a wall or met resistance in planning a Design Sprint, this will help you break through.

Why do teams need Design Sprints in the first place?

Recently, a facilitator I coach complained to me:

"This is the fourth time in a week we will be sitting in a room talking instead of actually making something. They leave every meeting patting themselves on the back—everyone thinks we're making progress, but we're not!"

She was frustrated because no one was getting their hands dirty. No one was talking to customers. No one was proposing a solution. They wanted status updates on status meetings... and progress reports on status updates.

In all of these “critical” meetings no decisions were made. But the worst part was that the meetings were scheduled at a cadence that made it feel like the project was moving forward. In reality, nothing was happening. There were no proposals, data, customer feedback, or concrete ideas.

You're here because you know the Design Sprint will work, but you also know it's hard to convince people to take five whole days to dedicate to one project.I've heard every excuse...Apparently there are a LOT of people who are SO CRITICAL to their company that the business will CRASH AND BURN if they are away from email or miss a few meetings. 😂I’ve developed a toolbox to challenge this resistance and get the Design Sprint movin’.

First, let me share the big picture strategy I use to frame the discussion. After that we will break down specific objections you may be hearing, and practice phrases and ideas you can use to get folks onboard.

The Three-Pillar Design Sprint Sales Strategy 

There are three pillars of my approach to selling a Design Sprint. They’re all team-related and tied to business objectives. At its core, the Design Sprint requires a team. It is only as good as its team is competent and talented. A Design Sprint will not make a bad team good, but it will make a good team excellent. Here is what a Design Sprint does for a team...

1. Design Sprints Accelerate Progress: Five days of a Design Sprint compresses three months of work. The reason it compresses so much time is because people are focused. Typically projects are spaced out over many months, and work is completed in small increments. Instead, a Design Sprint compresses all that time with all the right people in the room. Related data:  In my last 60 surveys across 8 companies, 99% of participants said that the Design Sprint helped them accelerate progress, and the average amount of time employees said this saved them was 2.9 months. 

2. Design Sprints Reduces Risk for Expensive Investments: At the end of five days, you know whether or not to continue in the direction. If the prototype was validated, you continue and iterate. If it was invalidated, you're welcome, we just saved you hundreds of thousands of dollars in time, energy, and frustration. Wise leaders invest in proven ideas, and the way to prove a risky idea is to de-risk it. Talking to customers before building a product is helpful, but showing them a prototype is the best way to de-risk building and move forward with confidence. Related data:  In my last 60 surveys across 8 companies, 86% of participants said that the Design Sprint helped de-risk the project. 

3. Design Sprints Align Teams: This pillar is by far the biggest benefit to most teams. A Design Sprint can set a team in the right direction, together. Maybe you've heard my favorite African proverb... "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." A Design Sprint helps teams "go together" by getting everyone on the same page, by getting everyone to listen to customer feedback, and getting everyone to share and discuss their ideas. If a leader can align his teams towards a set of common goals, his job is done. The Design Sprint is a fantastic alignment tool. Related data: In my last 60 surveys across 8 companies, 93% of participants said that the Design Sprint helped align their team.

Now that we have the framework, here are tactics and phrases you can use that build on top of it. These ideas are copy-pasted from my brain and my experience over the past four years running Design Sprints as my full-time job. 

15 Tactics to Conquer 9 Common Design Sprint Objections 


"Five days in a row is too much. Can we do it in two? Can't we just spread it out? Can we do the activities in meetings over a few weeks?"

"My simple answer is no. If you do that, it's not a Design Sprint. It's just a series of meetings. Do you really expect groundbreaking solutions to appear out of 30 minute and 1 hour meetings? If you run the same process you will get similar results, and it's apparent to me that you are aiming for different results which is why we have to do things differently. "

"I'm not confident enough to deviate from the book and promise the same results. If Google Ventures iterated on this process with over 180 startups and many years to help grow companies like Uber, Nest, Slack, 23&Me, I want to run it their way first before we try and slice and dice it"

"Five days gives our best employees time and space to do what's most valuable for our company - solve problems creatively and collaboratively. Anything less is just a long meeting."

"If we try and compress it, we risk screwing up the process. It puts strain on the facilitator and participants to deliver more than what is advised in the tried-and-true process. It could lead to burn out and even more frustration, including a waste of those two days. If we slice-and-dice the process we may screw it up and 'dirty the water' so that no one else wants to try this, or other creative processes."

"Design Sprints are too expensive" (money) 

How much time have we already wasted on the project? Taking five more days... is that a big investment compared to what we've already spent? The Design Sprint can guarantee results if we run the process correctly.”

“What are we spending now to make progress on this project? If we add up everyone's time in meetings, it's the same cost, it's just spread out. Can we afford to wait anymore?”

A client at a large energy consulting firm was trying to justify my (higher than expected) fee to his boss. His boss liked the Design Sprint, but thought it was "too expensive" for the original project. The way the client justified my fee to his boss was "If we get two new customers from this, it will pay for itself."

"Can't someone internal do it? It's a book right? Just read the book."

“There is a huge risk with using someone internal who doesn't have much experience. If you're going to run a sprint, you're already investing tens of thousands alone in people's time for that week. Even if you had someone do the best possible job they could on their first time, it’s unreasonable to have the expectation that they would do better than an experienced facilitator who has done this dozens of times.”

“Also, the downside of screwing up is really high. Employees will sour both on the process and potentially the project. This is not a huge investment compared to the cost we can’t incur.”

"I’m not sure how it fits into the overall project timeline or strategy" 

This is a great question. They should answer this question if they want to move forward with a design sprint. Your job as a consultant is to help them understand how your work fits into their strategy. The best way to do that is to write a proposal.

"I don't know enough about the process"

Leadership might be open to the idea, but if they don't know understand at least the basics of the process they won't sign-off on it.  A few ideas on how to teach them is to send short YouTube videos, print out and deliver them case studies, or leave a book on their desk with a note. 

Sidenote: Physical reminders are really powerful. When I was working on the Gmail team, I wanted to convince our Director that the name "Inbox" was right for the product, so I bought a physical inbox for him and put it on his desk. He started using it everyday (because his desk was a mess). We named the product Inbox by Gmail

"Do other companies do this..?" 

Leaders want to make sure they aren't making a mistake. If other, name-brand companies are running the process, they will have confidence that they are not making a mistake. One of the slides in my pitchdeck is all the companies that have run or regularly run sprints. That includes companies like Dropbox, Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber but also organization like the United Nations and McKinsey. You can also try appealing to their competitive side by sharing case studies in the same industries.

"Five days is a lot... what do you get at the end?"

Deliverables. It's a good question. Like, what do we actually get in our hands? This is an easy one to address. You can preview what they will get for their 5 days of time. Here's the list I share...

  • A team defined and agreed upon long-term goal.
  • A prototype that tests the teams hypothesis.
  • Test results from five partners on the prototype.
  • An in-depth, detailed executive summary.
  • Recommended next steps and analysis.
  • Documentation of each stage of our process.

If leadership is in, then it's much easier to get participants to clear their schedule. However, it's helpful to get them excited and confident in the process before you start so they arrive with the right attitude. You don't want folks who were forced to participate in a process they don't understand and end up grumbling for five days.

Next Steps

Now that I've shared all of methods for convincing leadership and stakeholders to facilitate a Design Sprint, it's your turn. It's not easy, so I'll share some additional resources.

Additional resources

I'm always learning new tactics. Do you have any tips? How have you convinced leadership to approve and participate in a Design Sprint?

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