How to Use Sprints to Work Smart and Upskill
Today, organizations across industries are using a sprint approach to address complex challenges. But what exactly are sprints? And how might they apply to your day-to-day work? Isabela Sa Glaister, Senior Director of Product Design at IDEO U, explains the core concepts behind a sprint and when it can be most beneaficial in the workplace.
Here are seven takeaways from our conversation with Isabela on the Creative Confidence Podcast. Listen to the full episode to hear Isabela talk about sprint best practices, common mistakes, and tips for leading sprints.
1. A sprint is a focused, collaborative, and outcome-oriented way to tackle challenges.
“The promise of a sprint is that you can make really great and tangible progress on a challenge in a relatively short amount of time.” — Isabela Sa Glaister
Let’s start with the basics: a traditional Scrum or design sprint is a fixed period of time where an entire team works on specific tasks and deliverables at the same time. The goal is to break down a large, complex project into smaller, more manageable chunks. Sprints give teams a process to make measurable progress on a challenge more efficiently, as if you are “sprinting” toward a solution.
Of course, if your team isn’t used to sprinting, it can be hard to carve out the time and focus required to execute a sprint. Isabela recommends using the IDEO U Sprints format—several blocks of time over the course of a few weeks. This is easier to schedule and integrate into people’s work (and doesn’t get in the way of everyday responsibilities).
2. IDEO U’s sprint approach makes learning a byproduct of your work.
“Sprints enable people to learn the skills to tackle challenges without having to step away from work.” — Isabela Sa Glaister
IDEO U Sprints are designed so that learning and problem-solving can go hand-in-hand. While day-to-day work often takes priority over traditional learning through courses and programs, Sprints allow you to use real work challenges as opportunities to practice new ways of working and collaborating. IDEO U’s approach to sprints aims to give teams adaptable, long-term strategies that can be applied to work challenges even after a sprint has finished.
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3. Sprints have four key behaviors.
“Listen to everyone and leverage the brainpower in the room to start capturing thoughts and synthesizing.” — Isabela Sa Glaister
To try a sprint, you need two things: a question and a collaboration tool. While the process may look different depending on your specific project and team, there are four main behaviors typically involved.
- Have team members write down their thoughts individually.
- Ask people to share what they wrote down, and group similar thoughts and ideas.
- Work with your team to identify the main themes and patterns that you notice.
- Choose your priorities by voting as a team.
This process allows you to start integrating collaborative behaviors that invite your team to share their perspectives.
4. Sprints are effective when your team needs clarity, alignment, or tangibility.
“Sprints are great for when you have a very gnarly, complex question and you really need to get to clarity.” — Isabela Sa Glaister
According to Isabela, sprints are especially impactful for cross-functional groups who are not on the same page to get focused and aligned on a specific challenge. Oftentimes, a sprint allows you to build things, make progress, and gain momentum. It’s a great opportunity to bring a collaborative energy to new teams or projects that are just getting started. By the end of the process, clarity and alignment begin to crystallize.
5. Sprints can create an environment for meaningful collaboration.
“How do you enable the people that you work with to show up and really, truly meaningfully collaborate?” — Isabela Sa Glaister
Many complex issues have come to the forefront in the workforce, including a shift to remote and hybrid work due to the pandemic and a renewed focus on inclusion and belonging in our organizations. One goal of sprints is to create an environment where everyone can collaborate effectively (even remotely), in a way that leverages the diversity of perspectives on the team by encouraging team members to share their ideas and input.
6. With the right stakeholders involved, sprints allow you to question assumptions and open up possibilities.
“Sprints help you question the question and reframe the challenge.” — Isabela Sa Glaister
One common mistake that Isabela sees is when teams start with a solution and stay attached to it throughout the sprint. For some teams, it can feel unsettling to participate in a sprint full of ambiguity and questions, but it’s important to go through the process open to what might come out of it. It’s also key to have all of the necessary stakeholders in the room—people who have skin in the game, are committed to getting to the best outcome, and have valuable perspectives that can point to new directions.
7. The sprint lead plays a critical role in guiding the work and team.
“As a team leader and sprint lead, you are guiding the team and content. It’s such a rich opportunity to develop and practice creative leadership skills.” — Isabela Sa Glaister
Sprint leads do more than just facilitate the sprint process—they create the environment for others to collaborate and generate great ideas. As part of IDEO U Sprints, coaching sessions empower sprint leads to create an action plan, identify what might be getting in the way, and map out creative leadership skills needed for the sprint. For example, one skill is aligning on output, and making sure that the output of your team isn’t simply representing the thinking of the strongest voices or an ineffective outcome that’s the result of compromise. With a great team lead, sprints can bring out the fullest creative potential of a team.
About The Speaker
Isabela Sa Glaister
Senior Director of Product Design at IDEO U
Isabela Sa Glaister leads the development of new products at IDEO U. She has a foundation in human-centered design research, user experience, and product strategy. Before IDEO U, she was at IDEO for 12 years designing digital products, with a focus on learning. Her favorite products include an app that helps first generation college students stick through college by providing access to coaches and career advice, and a new gaming environment with engaging characters that supports children with disabilities in learning through music and mischief. Outside of work, Isabela spends a lot of time and energy answering her son’s “why” questions.
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