What is an innovation sprint and why your company should run one
January 15, 2018
Author: Simon Smiley-Andrews
Returning to work after the Christmas break can sometimes seem like a strong dose of reality following the New Year festivities but the organisation used this short week as an opportunity to engage the team and run their first Innovation Sprint: a four-day ‘hackathon-esque’ event to push the boundaries of the company’s knowledge. Here I will look at what an Innovation Sprint actually is, how they run in practice and why organisations are increasingly allocating resources to them.
What is an Innovation Sprint?
An Innovation Sprint is a specific amount of time (ranging from days to weeks) spent investigating technologies or ideas. If this seems slightly vague to you, well spotted! There is no set blueprint for an Innovation Sprint. You don’t need to finish with a prototype or be at the cutting edge of technology, instead, you should be pushing the boundaries of the company’s knowledge with the goal of adding value. We will see later how this value can manifest itself in many aspects of a business.
Although Innovation Sprints are fully customisable they often have the following structure:
- Identify areas of interest for the business and write a brief for each
- Split available employees, according to their interests, into evenly matched teams across those projects
- These teams work together to achieve specific goals within a specific timeframe
- Teams come together on the final day to present their findings to the company
How does it work in practice?
Anyone who has experience with Agile or SCRUM will notice the similarities already used with nomenclature in this article — an Innovation Sprint progresses just like a development sprint. If you don’t, have no fear, it is pretty simple stuff.
The first step of the process is deciding on your project ideas. These could be pushing the boundaries of your current knowledge, current technology or just something you think would be interesting to your developers or clients.
Next up is team creation. You need a good mix of experience and expertise to ensure a good melting pot of ideas. A team leader is then chosen to run and supervise the project.
Each morning the team gathers to discuss their progress, their short-term objectives and troubleshoot any foreseeable challenges. Due to the limited time frame, a sprint is an excellent way to experience the full life-cycle of a project. Team members must form, storm, norm, and perform quickly to achieve their goals. With participants from different areas of the company and potentially different states, communication is key.
This turns out to be one of the fundamental strengths of an Innovation Sprint: the opportunity to work with new people. Getting to know and work directly with other members of your company is a great experience. Not only does it build internal links and improve team morale, but it also encourages knowledge transfer with juniors working more closely with their seniors than might usually happen.
As the project progresses problems will be identified and the main focuses may change or adapt. It is important to set project goals which can adapt too. If the scope is too hard, or easy, the team needs to be able to pivot to focus on new goals.
At the end of the project, teams come together to share their findings. This is an excellent opportunity to showcase knowledge gained across all areas of the business. Involving the sales and marketing teams in this meeting will enable them to draw on these insights when pitching to clients, whilst also once again fostering new relationships between colleagues. Showcasing your work to other employees will highlight new areas of expertise, allowing them to identify who to approach if they face similar technologies in the future.
Why do companies do it?
With a history of working for small companies, an Innovation Sprint is a strange and foreign concept to me. In previous roles, downtime was spent improving products or finding new business. Rarely would we have capacity at the same time to work towards a common goal? With many companies preoccupied with maximising their billable hours, being part of a forward-thinking company, building for the future, is a refreshing change.
Just as Google used to give its employees one day a week to innovate and experiment, a sprint allows everyone to collaborate together. The value is immediately obvious when watching teams grow throughout the sprint.
- Idea generation and investigation: An Innovation Sprint is a breeding ground for ideas and inspiration. Concepts can be researched, instigated or rejected. This allows the company to have tangible data on multiple concepts at a very rapid rate.
- Increased engagement and buy-in: Innovation Sprints are fun. They represent a change from larger scale formal projects. They are fluid and can change depending on the results found. This offers a huge amount of freedom to innovate. A relaxed and open setting is a great way to engage employees and show them how valued they are in the company.
- Boost staff morale: In a large company it can be difficult to maintain connections between employees and senior management. Innovation Sprints are a great way to invigorate and empower staff by giving them a chance to contribute directly to idea generation.
What can come from it?
After watching the presentations that came out of our Innovation Sprint, surrounded by colleagues I previously didn’t know, it was easy to see that our objectives had been met. It was amazing to see what the teams had achieved in such a short space of time: five projects showing how far cutting edge technology can be pushed, and a room full of colleagues who have all become closer through facing and overcoming challenges together.
Although there are many obvious benefits of Innovation Sprints, the ones that add the most value to a company are often the intangible ones: increasing morale, enthusing employees, and building a space where innovation is actively encouraged.
The soft-skill benefits of an innovation sprint include:
- Team-building: Teams are formed from across the business. Working with new people improves efficiency and communication at work as well as knowledge of others’ roles.
- Up-skilling: An Innovation Sprint gives employees a chance to learn and develop new skills they might not otherwise have the time or reason to. This might be project-specific (developing in an AR environment) or personal development (using Android to increase their experience portfolio). Taking on responsibility is encouraged and this, in turn, up-skills staff while empowering individuals through work satisfaction and progression.
- Development, prototypes and brand alignment: When choosing projects for an Innovation Sprint, a company can choose to focus on technologies that align well with their current or potential clients. Setting six developers loose on a project for four days will yield incredible dividends. The result: by the end of the sprint you will have prototypes and demos available to show clients, investors, or board members.
- Knowledge: The trials and tribulations faced in an Innovation Sprint will provide you with a large amount of knowledge. This will prove extremely valuable to both your company and your clients. It allows for more accurate and efficient quotes in future jobs and projects architected to avoid potential pitfalls.
What can go wrong?
Honestly… nothing! Any result returned provides invaluable information on your company, your employees, and the areas you have researched. The obvious and tangible, goals of a sprint are the end prototypes and research you finish with. Other less obvious insights might be just as useful: It might be that your teams don’t work well together — is this an issue with their (or your!) management skills, the technology they are using to communicate, or something else? Teams might return with no new research or breakthrough knowledge — is this an issue with time constraints and project scope, that the technology is not ready yet, or that you need to up-skill in certain areas? Each Innovation Sprint will give you information about your company and employees that can be used directly to improve your everyday work cycle. An Innovation Sprint is a safe environment for both management and staff to experiment (and fail) without the risk of reprisals. There will be road-bumps (trust me) but running through the entire lifecycle of a project without needing to finish with ‘tangible value’ will actually provide an environment that will yield significant information about who you work with and how you can improve.
To conclude, an Innovation Sprint will empower and enthuse your employees by giving them the opportunity to show you what they’ve got. By investing in your employees and giving them space to experiment, you will not only bring them closer to the company but also engage them with the company’s current direction. Igniting their passion and curiosity will pay dividends in the projects of the future, and in maintaining a happy and motivated team.
Simon Smiley-Andrews is an iOS Developer at Arq Group.
Images courtesy of Unsplash.