Transforming Business Innovation with Design Sprints and Problem Framing

February 2, 2022
John Vetan

You have heard about Design Sprints and are still struggling to understand how they might fit into your organization. Suppose you are responsible for product development, innovation, or creating new ventures. In that case, this article will give you a better idea of how you can use and leverage the potential of design sprints in your organization.

A design sprint is one of the hottest problem-solving and collaboration methods today. It derives from design thinking, packing the best of human-centered design into a compressed five-day, effective and fast process.

Besides design sprints, you will hear a lot about Problem Framing in this article. Problem Framing is a method we developed at Design Sprint Academy to increase design sprints' effectiveness by ensuring we always focus on solving the right problem.

Now that I clarified the terms, I will say that

Design Sprints and Problem Framing can be used in almost any context, industry, and type of organization because, essentially, they are decision-making and problem-solving methods.

And hey, we all need to make decisions and solve problems.

I am also sure that you have already found ways to do these things, so why add new methods? Well, the good news is that design sprints will complement and boost what you are already doing, so you won’t have to change your processes or throw away what’s already working. Let’s see how that might look, depending on your context.

For the past seven years, we have worked with companies of every size, from startups to Fortune 500, in various industries: IT and software, banking, finance, manufacturing, and retail, and we have identified three major use cases for Problem Framing and Design Sprints: product design and development, innovation funnel and new ventures or partnerships.

1. Design Sprints in Product Design and Development

If you are in the product world, you are probably familiar with the diagram below representing an Agile development process.

Agile Product Development - DSA

There is a roadmap, backlog, and time-boxed sprints (1-week, 2-week, up to 6 weeks). At the end of each sprint, the development team releases a new feature, an upgrade, or functionality, to customers waiting eagerly.

Unfortunately, in reality, this ideal scenario rarely works as intended. To understand why, we need to look at what feeds this Agile Delivery Model, namely all of the “product ideas” that go into the development cycle:

Business ideas — business stakeholders will request new features because they think they are good or simply because that’s what the competition does, and they do not want to lag behind. Often these requests are poorly articulated, and product teams fail to understand them.

Tech ideas — tech teams might have their ideas to improve the technology and optimize things, regardless of whether that will create any value for the customer.

Customer ideas — a laundry list of customer requests piling up.

Combined, these will lead to vast backlogs with no apparent business or customer value over time.

And when the finished work gets into the customers’ hands, unsurprisingly, it does not make the expected impact — whether customer satisfaction or revenues for the business.

To run such an Agile machine (and keep it running) is expensive; you need a lot of fuel: your team’s time, money, and other resources (tech, infrastructure), etc. So when the output is subpar, it comes at a high cost.

And surprisingly, this does not have much to do with your team’s expertise or technology. Most of the time, the input generates the problem, which then bubbles up, turning into waste at the end: solutions that customers do not want or use.

What if you made sure the input was always the right one?
What if you already knew that customers would love your solutions?
Design sprints will do that for you.

How? You will de-risk the solutions by running a design sprint before the agile sprints.

Design sprints are week-long experiments that allow your product teams to validate solutions by testing prototypes with real customers, the same who would use the finished product.

Why spend weeks or even months building something that might fail when you could find out in a week and avoid the costly build cycle altogether?

With design sprints, the Agile machine becomes very efficient; you will build the right thing, to begin with. Solutions are validated before development, resulting in valuable outputs.

But is that enough?
Not entirely.

The design sprint is a problem-solving process, and as such, you will spend most of the time in the solution space — four out of the five days of a design sprint.

What if you and your team start with the wrong problem?

A problem that is not worth the investment, not aligned with the business objectives, or linked to the KPIs that your stakeholders badly want to hit. Or a problem that lacks stakeholder support, which would then jeopardize implementation.

What if you could validate problems, just like you validate solutions before building them?
What if you could always focus on a problem worth solving?
Enter Problem Framing.

You will work with the relevant stakeholders to decide on the most promising opportunities, considering both the business needs and the customer problems they solve. Following the process, the decision-makers will create problem statements that merge business and customer outcomes, creating value for both.

Design Sprints and Problem Framing will make any Agile product development process customer-centric. It will involve the right people only when needed, and the customer perspective is there from start to finish.

Problem Framing exposes the leadership to customer insights, connecting business needs and customer problems to generate clear problem statements.

Product teams tasked to solve the problems will have clarity on the business requests and the needed buy-in. They will focus on what they do best, creating solutions, first de-risking and validating them with design sprints, and then building using Agile.


2. Innovation funnels with Design Sprints

Innovation is another field of application for Problem Framing and Design Sprints.

If you manage innovation, you must have an innovation funnel to collect and examine ideas, screen their viability, and decide which are promising enough to turn into new concepts and test.

At the top of the funnel are loads of potentially innovative ideas. Getting these ideas is easy; generally, everyone does a great job here; there’s no shortage of ideas

But how do you ensure that only the most promising and viable remain whilst the others are filtered out?

Problem Framing will help you assess the viability of the ideas, keeping only those aligned with the business goals and company vision and whittling down the waste.

And then Design Sprints provide the means to experiment and turn these ideas into concepts and test them with customers.

Problem Framing and Design Sprints are repeatable, easy to learn, and scalable methods, making them a great fit for any innovation process because they can be plugged into any existing workflow.


3. New ventures with Design Sprints

New Ventures is another area where you can use Problem Framing and Design Sprints.

There are two types of new ventures I will talk about: startups and external partnerships large organizations make with others to explore a new opportunity.

It is well known that the failure rate of startups is around 90%, and most fail in the early stages. Quite often, it’s because the core problem they are tackling is often not well defined or documented enough.

Problem Framing helps startup teams articulate the problem they are solving and whom they are solving it for. Getting the audience right is critical for success.

Founders are in-love with their ideas and have a hard time letting go. With limited funding to launch a successful MVP, going down the wrong path equals failure.

Design Sprints give startups the means to test multiple concepts and approaches before committing their limited resources to build an MVP. Design Sprints can help founders raise capital, as investors will be more receptive to a successful customer-tested prototype than a shiny deck.

Design Sprints’ lean format, speed, and collaborative nature make them perfect for startups.

How to use Problem Framing and Design Sprints in your startup funding cycle

But not only. Large organizations need to move fast. But they are traditionally slow and bureaucratic, which comes in their way when they try to explore new opportunities.

Besides their innovation programs, organizations make partnerships to explore new, potentially profitable ventures. The process involves identifying an opportunity, finding the right partner, forming the partnership, going into an agreement and then working together.

Problem Framing is particularly helpful to identify opportunities (often including the future partners), and then design sprints can be used to validate concepts and the market fit.

The alternative usually involves writing a hundred-page business plan, a five-year financial forecast, and a lengthy partner vetting process — all without speaking to a single customer. What a waste!

Instead, Problem Framing and Design Sprints give an almost unfair advantage to organizations that want to move fast when trying out new ideas.

🤓 There’s no better example than RGAx (the transformation engine of Reinsurance Group of America- RGA) and their approach to innovation and partnerships: Life Design Sprints. Check out the 🎥 video below to learn more.

Conclusions

Design Sprints and Problem Framing are customer-centric methods. They have a clear format (recipe) that makes it easy for teams to learn them and then apply, over and over again with consistent results. For any organization which aspires to be customer-centric, design sprints are more than just a good start. They enable the team to practice customer-centricity and make it a habit. Once a habit is formed, it sticks.

Also, design sprints bring immediate results. Which validates the approach and boosts teams’ confidence, pushing them to do more of the same, and learn more.

Finally is plug-and-play. Regardless of how you work today design sprints and problem framing will fit any existing workflow.