Stop Brainstorming and Start Sprinting

A brief history of the design sprint

Back in 2008, when I worked at Google, I ran a lot of group brainstorms. For a long time, I’d been interested in helping people be more productive and effective at work. Structured group brainstorming seemed perfect. After all, people brainstormed already — why not teach them how to do it properly? When engineers followed the classic rules (defer judgment, encourage wild ideas, and so on), they were able to generate stacks of solutions. Not only that, they enjoyed the process.

Four big fixes

In my experience, there are four major problems with group brainstorms. When I designed the sprint process, I built in steps to address each one.

1. Brainstorm problem: Shallow ideas from the group

In a group brainstorm, ideas are shouted out loud, rapid fire. The goal is quantity, with the assumption that there will be diamonds among the coal. But details matter, and good ideas require time for deep thought.

Sprint solution: Detailed ideas from individuals

In a sprint, each individual considers several approaches, then spends an hour or more sketching their solution. In the end, there are fewer solutions than in a group brainstorm, but each one is opinionated, unique, and highly detailed.

2. Brainstorm problem: Personality outshines content

If somebody has a reputation for being smart or creative, their ideas are frequently overvalued. And a group brainstorm can be a nightmare for an introvert. Charismatic extroverts who give great sales pitches often dominate.

Sprint solution: Ideas stand on their own

The sketches in a sprint don’t have the creator’s name on them. And when we critique them on Wednesday, the creator remains silent and anonymous, saving any sales pitch until after everyone else has given their opinions.

3. Brainstorm problem: Groupthink

The collaborative, encouraging environment of a brainstorm feels good, but often leads teams to talk themselves into watered-down solutions.

Sprint solution: Opinionated decisions

In a sprint, decisions are made by one person: the Decider. The Decider is a CEO, executive, product manager, or other leader. For example, in a sprint with Medium, the Decider was founder Ev Williams; in a sprint with a cancer data company called Flatiron Health, the Decider was Chief Medical Officer Amy Abernethy. With the Decider in the room making all the calls, the winning solutions stay opinionated.

4. Brainstorm problem: No results

Worst of all, brainstorms result in a pile of sticky notes — and nothing else. It’s a loose methodology to begin with, and there is no map to get you from abstract idea to concrete implementation.

Sprint solution: A prototype and data, every time

The sprint process requires your team to build a prototype and test it. By the time you’re done, you have clarity about what to do next.

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Writer, designer, person. Author of SPRINT and MAKE TIME. Co-founder of character.vc. More at jakeknapp.com.

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Jake Knapp

Jake Knapp

Writer, designer, person. Author of SPRINT and MAKE TIME. Co-founder of character.vc. More at jakeknapp.com.