Sprint | Book Review

"Good Lord, I'm a-wondering what all of us could do if we had faith in our ideas and put all our heart and mind and energy into them like those Wright boys did!" (p. 231)

Like John Boyd, Jeff Sutherland and Stanley McChrystal before them, Jake Knapp with John Keratsky and Braden Kowitz of Google Ventures have thought a lot about how work gets done. Knapp recalls "I wasn't spending my effort on the most important work" (p. 1), reminiscent of the Pareto (80/20) Rule.

Sprint, by name and function, is a natural extension of Scrum techniques. Knapp noticed [his] best work happened when [he] had a big challenge and not quite enough time (p. 2). He recalled several factors when working far more effectively with colleagues in Stockholm (p. 3) - than in a normal daily routine.

First, there was more time to develop ideas independently, but not too much time. The other key ingredients were the people. The engineers, the product manager, and the designer were all in the same room together, each solving his or her own part of the problem, each ready to answer the others' questions (p. 3).


Monday                Map out the problem and pick an important area to focus
Tuesday               Sketch competing solutions on paper
Wednesday          Difficult decisions - turn ideas into a testable hypothesis
Thursday             Hammer out a realistic prototype
Friday                  Test it (prototype) with real live humans

In our Setting Leadership Priorities workshops, we often find many tasks both important and urgent (high stakes), often without enough time for completion each day. These two conditions or just being stuck are ideal circumstances for using sprints (p. 26). Like a scrum focus on immediate value delivery, a sprint concentrates on the most pressing questions. Additionally, a sprint allows learning from just the surface of a finished product.

Chapter Three, Time and Space, tells us why. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, reported that it takes on average twenty-three minutes for distracted workers to return to their tasks (pp. 38-39). In sprints, no dreaded, productivity killing context switches are allowed between different projects (p. 39). For sustained energy, there are only six hours in the typical sprint day (p. 39). Lastly, since spatial memory is awesome - magic happens when using big whiteboards to solve problems (p. 43).

A sprint contains six expert roles (pp. 34-35): The Decider, Finance expert, Marketing expert, Customer expert, Tech/logistics expert and a Design expert. Bringing the troublemaker, scheduling extra experts for Monday and picking a facilitator are also encouraged (p. 36).

This review showcases key leadership aspects for each day. Consider reading the Frequently Asked Questions (pp. 251-257) before the Monday Section.

Monday | Aligning and Accomplishing Goals

Like Christine Comaford's emphasis on promises - Monday starts at the end with agreement (commitment) to a long-term goal (p. 51), while reflecting team principles and aspirations (p. 56). Aligning our Personal Leadership Philosophies and core value behavioral statements are an excellent way to do this.

Jeff Boss' Navigating Chaos diagrams and explains movement from chaos toward certainty. By turning potential problems into questions (like coaching) sprints make them easier to track -- and easier to answer with sketches, prototypes, and tests. Sprints create a subtle shift from uncertainty (which is uncomfortable) to curiosity (which is exciting - pp 57-58).

Sprints map a customer-centric story, with a list of key actors on the left, a beginning, a middle, and an end (p. 65). In McChrystal's Team of Teams, knowledge sharing greatly accelerated when each team member knew at least one member of every team. In the same fashion, Monday afternoon is devoted to an Ask the Experts (ATE) exercise: a series of one-at-a-time interviews with people from your sprint team, from around your company, and possibly from even an outsider or two with special knowledge (p. 68). Many of the author's ATE descriptions sound like After Action Review (AAR) techniques.

The final Monday task is choosing a target (or goal), asking "Who is the most important customer?" and "What's the critical moment (or highest value) of that customer's experience?" (p. 84)

Tuesday | Pre-Decision Making

In our Effective Decision-Making workshops, one of the noted pitfalls of a participative process is groupthink. Working alone avoids this, allowing formation of different strategies. Also in sprints, limited benefits are found from looking at products from the same industry (p. 96). A coaching, or inquisitive point of view helps:

"What's the big idea here that might be useful?" (p. 99)

Sprint Tuesdays may appeal to our creative, or right-brain (yellow/blue E2L) personality, as the authors suggest several idea capture methods. First, Lightning Demos, or combining the ideas captured on Monday (p. 101). Next, is Sketching, the fastest and easiest way to transform abstract ideas into concrete solutions (p. 107).

The authors also use Notes (write down the long term goal and then gather key info), Ideas (doodle solutions), Crazy 8s (create variations) and Solution sketching (figure out details) (p. 109) - preparing for an informed decision-making process. We can think of these methods as a combination of (individual) journaling, followed by sharing, leading to effective brainstorming.

Wednesday | Time-based Decision Making

If we think of Tuesday as developmental-based (pre) decision making, Wednesday's process is time-driven, and the goal for Wednesday morning is deciding which solutions to prototype (p. 128). The team votes on best ideas (via a heat map - p. 133), then performs a three-minute speed critique capturing standout ideas (p. 136). It's a terrific method to combine the best of two very different decision-making approaches.

Supervoting allocates more voting power to decision-makers. If there is more than one winning sketch, an assertive (compete & collaborate) conflict leadership strategy (called Rumble) is used. The winning sketches are then turned into storyboards, much like Pixar films, which devote considerable time to get storyboards right before ever committing to animation (p.149).

Thursday | Building a High Performance Prototyping Team

Before team formation, adopting a prototype mindset (watch out perfectionist green/blue E2L profiles) helps (p. 169):

• You can prototype anything
• Prototypes are disposable
• Build just enough to learn, but not more
• The prototype must appear real

This is because the longer [we] spend working on something -- the more attached [we'll] become, and the less likely to take negative test results (feedback) to heart (p. 168) -- much like a strong identity trigger, lowering us into our protective instinctive profiles.

Prototyping embodies the Scrum idea of delivering 80% of the value as soon as possible in that the objective is value demonstration. To do this, the Facilitator creates a team with these roles (p. 187):

• Makers (2 or more)
• Switcher (1)
• Writer (1)
• Asset Collector (1 or more)
• Interviewer (1)

Friday | Feedback | Knowing-Doing Gap

Knapp relates the fantastic story of multiple Harry Potter manuscript rejections -- by children's publishing experts -- until someone actually listened to a kid (pp. 195-196). Jakob Nielsen found 85% of problems were observed after [interviewing] just five people (p. 198). Additionally, we also learn an important insight... why things work or don't work (p. 199).

In fine detail the Five-Act Interview (p. 202)

1. A friendly welcome to start the interview
2. A series of general, open-ended context questions about the customer
3. Introduction to the prototype(s)
4. Detailed tasks to get the customer reacting to the prototype
5. A quick debrief to capture the customer's overarching thoughts and impressions

reads much like wonderfully orchestrated coaching session.

We can probably recall many successful inventions or ideas which started by first forming a question, building a prototype, and running a test. The authors retell the story of the Wright Brothers (p. 227 - 228), but we could also imagine the story of the personal computer launch in the 1970s.


To cross the Knowing-Doing Gap, Pfeffer and Sutton teach us knowledge must be turned into action. Sprint is a terrific leadership manual guiding us step by step toward prototypes that accelerate our journey toward doing.

JE | September 2016