The 5 elements of a brilliant design sprint

We’ve long talked about the benefits of using design sprints to solve problems and validate ideas.
Neil Collman

Neil Collman

Neil is a design leader, speaker and foresight practitioner, who cares about making an impact for people and profit through insight and design.


However, we’ve not talked much about what we’ve learned on what makes sprinting really successful, or tremendously painful. So here’s five easy misses that can have a massive impact on a design sprint:

1. Understand the problem you’re working to solve

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, if you don’t have a clear working problem statement early on in the process, things can get complicated!

A good problem statement provides clarity and focus to your sprint — and it’s hard to argue with once it’s defined. The trick is to make it good though — a good problem statement is concise, specific, and measurable. It should offer the team focus whilst at the same time bringing to life an exciting opportunity for creativity. Look out for more articles from us in the future looking at this essential moment in a design sprint.

2. Get the subject matter experts in early – and for as long as you need them

At the start of every project it’s useful to meet the SMEs early — to understand the business, the market, the target audience and users, products, service, and known challenges and issues.

SME and stakeholder sessions are also helpful to understand what other factors within the business are potential barriers to successful change, for example, if work is being duplicated or knowledge is not being effectively shared.

Most importantly, SME sessions, when they are run effectively, can help you narrow down the playing field for defining your problem statement. This can save enormous amounts of time in the longer term.

3. Bring the other essential experts – the users – in early

Designing is bringing something new to the world that enhances their life. To create compelling, meaningful products you need to work together with your users from day one.

On some sprints users are only introduced later on for testing and validation. The problem here is that you can only really understand what they like of what you have done already and you will miss the chance to find out what their real barriers to success — which means you may miss the opportunity to find a really exciting gap in the market to ideate.

We say spend as much time with your audience as early as you can. Listen to them and if possible, work alongside them. By involving your users right from the start, you know that you will create something that they both need and want in the end.

4. Take important people on the journey with you

One of the biggest risks of a design or innovation project is not getting buy in from key decision makers. This means that you can have the best idea, a beautiful solution to a real problem, but if they don’t get it, if they haven’t been on the journey with you and the team, it could be difficult to engage them.

There are a number of ways you can successfully ensure that people who can’t take part in the day to day work are on board. First of all, before you begin your project, work together on a stakeholder map and overlay comms requirements and methods. That way you will know who, when and how to communicate the progress of your sprint.

Secondly, ensure that your work in progress is highly visible — when you are working on site and claim a permanent work room. Create a ‘mind palace’ of what you know and your ideas all over the walls. This way, when important people stop by, you can walk them around the work — it’s much more immersive, engaging and understandable than if it’s all squirreled away on laptops.

Finally, consider using video diaries and regular newsletters to your wider stakeholder audience. This helps people who aren’t local to see what is going on and stay in touch with the work — and get excited about what’s to come.

Communicating in these ways is hugely rewarding, for it can be so engaging and encourages dialogue. On the flip side, be prepared for impromptu feedback and ensure that you have prepared management processes.

5. Build a strong team and working methods

Sprint teams are by their very nature temporary and often involve individuals who have never worked together before — some of whom may also not be familiar with design thinking or sprint methods.

This can be a risk — but it is also a big opportunity.

It’s risky if the team hasn’t done any team building activity. By this we don’t mean raft building or silly games — but activities during set up that are geared towards putting everyone on an equal footing in terms of shared knowledge of methods, processes, outcomes and expectations. It’s also a good idea to do something sociable to get to know each other in a more relaxed manner.

Because sprints often are quite pressurised, simple things like having a shared understanding of words, how to manage each other’s feedback and how to deal with curveballs make a huge difference to the effectiveness of your team.

The opportunity lies in when this is done well, and it’s very satisfying to see how quickly a team can be stood up, how effectively strangers from different backgrounds can work together, and what can be made collaboratively as a team in a relatively short space of time. This is what makes sprinting together so rewarding.


There are many other things which can contribute to the success of your project, such as getting the scope right, having access to the right resources, technology and so on, but in our experience the above 5 are make or break factors. It’s also really important to relax and have fun. Let us know if you agree!