The World Cup is a great time. It is the time when people eat, drink and talk to good friends in good weather – and of course watch some soccer. Recently I had an exciting exchange with a colleague who travels a lot on business during a not so interesting game. As an internal auditor, he spends most of his time somewhere in the world at a local branch. I asked him what his duties were when he got back to headquarters in Switzerland. His answer: „Finalize the reports. And work on my other projects, but I’m not really getting to that.“
Projects on the side – that doesn’t work
This last sentence was the trigger for our exciting conversation. Because projects that are run as a sideline – that doesn’t work. Especially when several people are involved. In such cases it is obvious how the participants meet irregularly to discuss the project. But there is no real progress.
Design Sprints as a focused problem-solving approach
I then told my colleague about the design sprints described by Knapp et al (2017) in their fantastic book „Sprint – Solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days“. These sprints are designed to run through a Design Thinking cycle in five days to have a tested prototype at the end of the week. This absolute focus on problem solving is for me, besides the design-based approach, the great strength of this methodology. If you don’t want to read the whole book, you will find a summary of the idea here.
Projects are not completed in one week
My colleague’s justified objection was that projects are not completed in five days and it is often utopian that knowledge workers are able to focus on only one topic or project. We then found two solutions: on the one hand, knowledge work as such should be generally questioned and an absolute focus promoted. On the other hand, we can already promote our project management competence today in order to increase our implementation impact. The latter seems essential in a world in which complex problems are increasingly becoming everyday working life.
An instrument for agile and design-based problem solving in projects
For this second aspect, my colleague and I then outlined an approach based on Scrum (Schwaber und Sutherland 2016) and Design Thinking (Lewrick et al. 2017; Uebernickel et al. 2015). We were so deepened that we didn’t notice that Denmark had won undeservedly 1-0 against Peru. However, we have learned something else that I am now happy to share.
- Understand the „why“
The complex problem (of the customer) must be understood and regularly questioned. This continuous reflection on the understanding of the problem is particularly important for two reasons: On the one hand, our understanding of the problem is an assumption. Assumptions are never (completely) correct, which is why we can increasingly sharpen our understanding through iterative reflection. On the other hand, problems change over time by new insights or the situation might shifts otherwise
- Prioritizing all activities that serve to solve the problem (product backlog)
Once the problem has been defined, it is necessary to collect approaches and activities in a „product backlog“ that contribute to solving the problem. For example, data analysis, research into good practices or customer surveys. These activities are then prioritized by the product owner together with the stakeholders on the basis of the defined problem definition.
- Determination and implementation of sprint activities (sprint backlog and sprint planning)
Based on the prioritized product backlog, the project team then determines which activities can be completed within a sprint. For a limited period (around 1-4 weeks), it is defined which resources are available and which activities from the product backlog can be completed during this period. The more complex the problem, the shorter the time period should be. These activities are then carried out according to defined resources. Thus it is still possible for knowledge workers to work on several projects in parallel – even if this is not really beneficial for the focus. However, there is a commitment to invest the specified capacities for the project within a limited period of time. This gives every project employee full transparency as to how much time they can and must invest in which activities.
- Continuous reflection of sprint activities (design-based, reflexive sprint)
Design Thinking and the Design Sprints according to Knapp et al. (2017) can now also be used during the sprint where it makes sense. In addition, so-called „stand-ups“ take place daily, in which the project team reflects on what has been achieved on the previous day. The team then looks forward to the goals of the next project day. If the sprint cycles are longer and the capacity used is lower, the daily rhythm should be deviated from. The aim of the stand-up is to make fine adjustments in order to achieve the sprint goals and to learn from experience. At the end of a sprint, a more extensive reflection takes place, during which the sprint result is reflected (review) and the cooperation is discussed (retrospective).
- Planning of the new sprint and possible adjustments to the backlog (iterative project procedure)
After the sprint has been reflected accordingly, not only results are available which ideally contribute to the solution of the problem. Rather, it was also possible to gather new findings that contribute to sharpening the problem. For this reason, after the reflection of the sprint, the product backlog is questioned as to whether it still arranges the right activities according to the appropriate priority in order to solve the problem. As soon as the product backlog again includes the appropriate activities with the corresponding prioritization, the cycle starts again.
Lewrick, M., Link, P. & Leifer, L. (2017). Das Design Thinking Playbook. München: Franz Vahlen.
Schwaber, K. & Sutherland, J. (2016). The Definitive Guide to Scrum. The Rules of the Game. http://www.scrumguide.org. Zugegriffen 17.03.2017.
Uebernickel, F., Brenner, W., Naef, T., Pukall, B. & Schindlholzer, B. (2015). Design Thinking. Das Handbuch. Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Allgemeine Buch.