Enterprise Design Sprints

Getting senior buy-in and support


by Richard Banfield

James Bull, a senior leader of R&D programs at Shopify, set up a design sprint workshop to spotlight different exercises. He invited his senior leadership to participate. Following the workshop he sent this email:

“The team is so hyped on the design sprint. The fact that our chief design officer and co-founder were there was even better. They’re thinking, ‘Hey, if the senior folks are there then it must be worthwhile.’ Huge win for us this week.”

Including senior leaders in a handful of exercises could be all that’s required to get their buy-in and enthusiasm, which is hugely important. If your leadership can’t see the value in what you’re doing, the project likely won’t get far. It’s been my experience that organizers who spend time rallying their leaders’ support for a design sprint are more successful than those who leave the preparation and communication to chance.

Leaders are often tasked to make decisions regarding resource allocation, planning choices, and talent acquisition. To get a leader’s support for the resources and access your design sprint requires, you need to put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they require to feel excited about the sprint. The more relevant information you can provide them, the more likely you’ll get their blessing.

When communicating with leaders—or anyone who has an interest in your design sprint—consider their motivations and priorities. Being empathetic and thoughtful about their needs gives you the perspective to help make your work relevant to their goals. In some cases, you might be able to connect the outcomes of the design sprint to a person’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

Frequently these outcomes need to be balanced by the risk of doing the additional work required by a design sprint. Anytime a team is engaged on a design sprint they will not be working on other work. In cases like these, asking for a little space to experiment with design sprints goes a long way.

Justin Sachtleben, Design Director of USAA, explains how this worked for his team. “We approached the senior leadership and said, ‘Look we’ll do whatever you want after a couple of weeks, but just let us do a design sprint and show you the results first.’”

USAA is a massive financial services organization with 30,000 employees and 30,000 external partners. Those two weeks of experimentation gave the design team the wins they needed to create trust with the leaders. “It was wildly successful and we all had some great ideas, now our leaders want us to go work on those things for the next year or so,” says Sachtleben.

Related to this is that most leaders hate surprises. Their jobs require them to be informed, so the more you can prepare them with knowledge and understanding, the better their chances of looking good. If they look good, then that smooths the path for your design sprint. The best receptions for design sprints are fostered when both top-down and bottom-up approaches are run simultaneously. Having a senior leader champion design-thinking techniques will grease the wheels, while actively involving your colleagues in workshops and design sprints will convert them to believers.

While the “ask forgiveness, not permission” strategy might appear to be the way to go for some of you, the benefits of getting senior buy-in are far greater. “The biggest piece of all this is the transformational way we work, and the cultural shift in how we work,” says Home Depot’s Creef, about getting buy-in from the top. “Even our CMO has been exposed to what design sprints can do, and the benefits of it. Basically, he’s like, ‘We should be working like this all the time.’”

Kai Haley, Marta Rey Babarro, and Jenny Gove from Google speak about the history of design sprints at Google and how the process spread into teams like Corporate Engineering.

More tips for greasing the wheels

“Most of our ideas are wrongheaded,” says Lean Enterprise author and facilitator, Barry O’Reilly. “In fact, 60–90% of ideas do not improve the metric they were intended to improve. You can invest in convincing people why your idea is the best, or you can invest that time in testing it to find out.”

Chances are your organization has lots of ideas or potential solutions for the problems it faces. Ideas tend to be a dime a dozen. The challenge is creating a reliable way to test ideas to determine if they’re worth following through on. That’s what design sprints do well.

Here are several suggestions for helping your team and leadership buy into the design-sprint process and not get bogged down in assumptions and opinions.

  1. Prepare long before the sessions are scheduled. Share info and insights about design thinking with influencers for several weeks. That way they aren’t surprised by your request for a workshop when the time comes.
  2. Make any design thinking workshop about them—your leaders. Do your research and find out what they’re working on and what’s a priority for them. Then you can include those insights into the outcomes/goals when you request their time for a workshop or session.
  3. Educate each participant about the session before they arrive. Nobody likes to look stupid, so invest time making them feel comfortable. You can do this with one-on-one’s or by sharing materials on what to expect.
  4. Focus the team on outcomes that are aligned with their goals. Give them something meaningful to work towards and don’t get too distracted by the “how.”
  5. Start each session with openers instead of icebreakers. Get them to open up and share some recent embarrassing or vulnerable moments with each other. Research shows this type of sharing helps people trust others more and increases brainstorming creativity by up to 26%. This also sets the tone for the rest of the session by making everyone more receptive to difficult conversations.
  6. If senior leaders are reluctant to support something that sounds like it’s only relevant to designers, then consider changing the name of the design sprint to something that aligns with your organization’s culture and goals. (More on this in the next chapter.)

Greasing the wheels is not a one-and-done effort. Sharing the value of a design sprint is an ongoing effort and can be done informally and formally.

Paul Stonick says there’s an opportunity to further establish design thinking at Home Depot by sharing the value of design sprint work. “We’ve done a considerable amount of socialization outside with the articles we’re writing, and how we’re going to be partnering with conferences,” he says. “We’re also going to be working closely with our internal groups, like our HR team, in terms of internal learning, continuing education. So we’ve launched a new program called Degreed, which is a learning platform, which allows people to pick specific tracks that they might be interested in.”

Working with and around research departments

Enterprise research departments are often stretched thin, a situation that can compromise a future design sprint through a lack of relevant data.

Renda Morton, VP of design for The New York Times, explains how the organization deals with the situation. “The qualitative team on its insights is struggling to keep up with the demand across the whole product and design team, so we really have to prioritize what type of work they can take on,” she says.

To get around this obstacle, Morton suggests a DIY approach to qualitative research. Her team simply goes downstairs to 42nd street and talks to people on the street. Or they ask random people in the building’s cafeteria. However, Morton understands this type of research is limited. “You can’t really get to the larger why questions or uncover emotional needs, but it’s a good start.”

Merging design sprints with agile, lean, and design thinking

For enterprises, knowing how a design sprint fits with waterfall, agile, or lean process is important. Although agile, lean, and design sprints are complementary, interrupting the daily schedule to host a five-day session can be challenging. So let’s discuss the ways these processes can blend to deliver value to the teams that use them.


The primary advantage of using an agile framework is the confidence it gives a team in knowing what to build next. Agile provides a way to deal with ambiguity by reducing the need to scope and define an entire product upfront and instead deal with the highest priorities first. Working in short bursts, or agile sprints, gives the team an opportunity to course-correct before it’s too late.

Design sprints work well to add another layer of confidence to the prioritization by answering tough questions quickly and turning assumptions into facts. Both types of sprints are valuable, timebox elements that provide guardrails and discipline to the work of product, design, and dev teams. The design sprint suggests what to build, while the agile sprint suggests how you’ll build it.

The traditional agile sprint was the inspiration for the design sprint, and thus the timebox of a design sprint nests into agile methodology with relative ease. Done at the beginning of a project, a design sprint can provide the answers that a delivery-centric agile process needs to be effective.

There is no clear answer to the question, “Should I run my design sprint in parallel or interrupt my agile sprints?” Design sprints that are run in parallel to an existing agile sprint schedule tend to be effective when the answer you’re seeking is discrete enough that it doesn’t need the entire team’s attention. However, if you’re trying to solve a big problem that’s holding up further progress on your project, then interrupt the schedule and get the answers that are blocking your team’s progress. This interruption will pay dividends throughout the rest of the delivery cycle.

More reading on this topic.

Lean UX For enterprise

Fundamentally, the lean UX framework is similar to the design sprint. Both follow the scientific method of establishing a hypothesis and then testing that hypothesis in an effort to reduce risk and maximize understanding. This is good news for lean organizations because your design sprint participants will feel at home with the process.

What will be even more familiar to lean practitioners is the emphasis on testing ideas and “getting out of the building” to talk to customers. In no way is a design sprint a replacement for the lean methodology, a process which incorporates several aspects of discovery, development, and delivery.

Ian Armstrong, principal UX designer at Dell EMC, describes the relationship between the design sprint and the lean UX approach like this, “Lean UX follows a build > test > iterate loop. The idea is to get a product in front of real people, learn from them, then improve it. The problem with lean UX is that users aren’t very forgiving and they aren’t big on second chances if we piss them off.”

“Design Sprints are part of a dual-track agile methodology. They follow an unpack > ideate > evaluate > test > refine pattern that results in a user-validated (but rough) draft in a short span of time. It’s a non-standard sprint, executed with the express purpose of defining a robust agile backlog for design and development.”

The opportunity for lean teams is that the design sprint will formalize the interview and qualitative data gathering a little further by providing a very specific hypothesis to test against. If you are using lean as your primary delivery process my recommendation is to use the design sprint as a way to reduce initial risk on new initiatives or as a way to get answers to big questions.

Ultimately, talking to customers is a priority in any investigation of what works and what doesn’t. Agile, lean, and design sprints all put an emphasis on testing assumptions with real users. If you’re already doing this as part of your design and development work, then you’ll find it very easy to get support from your team for the testing that’s part of a design sprint.

Design thinking

In essence, Design thinking is the umbrella under which the methodologies of lean UX and design sprints reside. Therefore, fitting a design sprint into a culture of design thinking is generally easy as there will be a deep understanding of the principles that guide the process.

In spite of that understanding, there might still be resistance to the specific exercises or rigid five-day schedule of a design sprint. In these cases, I recommend showing how the flow of the design sprint matches the double-diamond flow of the traditional design thinking methodologies.

Common questions and answers for leaders

Here are some common questions or push-backs senior managers have when asked to give up time for a design sprint:

Q: What is a design sprint and why do I need to be part of it?

A: The design sprint is a customer-focused method used to unpack problems, get answers, and validate potential solutions. It’s become a popular way to efficiently and collaboratively jumpstart a project or initiative. Your involvement will increase the chance of us discovering answers to some of the tough questions we’re dealing with. Without your involvement, our progress won’t be as significant or we may miss something important.

Q: That’s nice but I’m not a “designer.” Is this workshop still right for me?

A: Design sprints aren’t just for designers. They’re actually most successful when cross-functional teams work together to uncover and test a problem or set of problems. The focus is on understanding problems and developing solutions, not on design. Design sprints are frequently applied to challenges within all facets of business including product design, marketing, and operations.

Q: My team is already represented at this workshop. Why do I need to be there too?

A: If your representative has the authority to make decisions on your behalf, then you won’t need to be there. However, if you’re concerned they might lack important insights or perspectives that will impact the outcomes, I’d recommend you personally participate.

Q: What can I expect to get out of this?

A: We will actively solve problems that are holding your team back. Common outcomes include getting answers to tough questions, validating solutions, removing obstacles in understanding, and increasing team motivation and momentum.

Q: I can’t be there for the full five days.

A: Ideally, we’d like you there for each day, but we can make some adjustments. If we can’t have you for all five days please join us for the first two phases and the final phase. This is when we’ll agree on the problem area that needs the most attention, and when we’ll test the solutions with actual customers. On the days in between, we’ll make decisions on the solutions and how to test. If you want to be part of that, you could call in for certain exercises.

Q: Do I need to prepare for this?

A: No prep work is required for participants except to consider that this is a proven approach to answering tough questions. All you need to do on the days of the design sprint is show up ready to collaborate, participate, and have fun. If there’s any research we feel you should read before the start, we’ll send you a summary to review.

Ultimately talking to customers is a priority in any investigation of what works and what doesn’t. Agile, lean, and design sprints all put an emphasis on testing assumptions with real users. If you’re already doing this as part of your design and development work, then you’ll find it very easy to get support from your team for the testing that’s part of a design sprint.


About the Authors

Richard Banfield
CEO, Fresh Tilled Soil

Richard recently published Enterprise Design Sprints, a collaboration with InVision. Before that he published Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams, which he co-authored with Nate Walkingshaw and Martin Eriksson. He also authored Design Leadership and Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products, which he c-oauthored with CTodd Lombardo and Trace Wax.

Richard is the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil, and under his leadership, Fresh Tilled Soil has delivered UX and product design to 700+ clients across the world. Clients include American Express, FedEx, Keurig, Intel, Harvard University, GE, Walgreens, BBVA, Shopify, Titleist, Citrix, and Genetech. His colorful life experience includes being an officer in the army and a dive master on the remote Islamic Republic of the Comoros.

Currently listening to: Loving J.S. Ondara’s Tales of America. This young, Kenyan born musician has a healthy dose of Dylan with the soul of Rodriguez.
Currently inspired by: Paul Klee inspires me every day. Transformed himself a dozen times through diligent introspection and a willingness to abandon old habits for new learning.
Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Loving all the Yuval Noah Harari books, and inspired by the work of Japanese architect Tetsuya Nakazono.