Ming Chan

Nov 7, 2017 • 10 minute read

A New Sprint: Why Companies Need More Than Speed To Survive the Innovation Crisis

Whether or not they realize it, many big businesses are trapped in an innovation crisis. And unfortunately, that crisis is likely the direct result of success.

At the enterprise level, consistency and structure can be a good thing. Whether it’s for R&D, production, or operations, investing in developing repeatable, scalable processes can be considered a competitive edge. These processes, however, can also create internal challenges that discourage rapid changes and lower the overall tolerance of risk in building something innovative and new.

If that weren’t enough, as the customer base of a company grows, servicing the needs of a huge customer set while balancing the high expectations of yearly sales creates another unique conundrum. In professor Clayton Christensen’s renowned book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, he explains, “The next generation product is not being built for the incumbent’s customer set and this large customer set is not interested in the new innovation and keeps demanding more innovation with the incumbent product.”  True innovation, it seems, is not always accepted so easily.

Still, no one debates the value of innovation. 43% of business executives have agreed that innovation is a “competitive necessity” for their organization. Some have even tried to run their organizations like startups, hoping to mimic their drive for disruption.  So why do so many still fall short?  How can enterprises adopt their own rapid startup prototyping processes, like design sprints, that will lead to a startup-like pace of innovation?

Maybe the solution lies in really understanding how startups differ from enterprises. By focusing on the needs and challenges that are unique to large companies, these businesses can adopt a different type of sprint, able to combat the lack of innovation at the enterprise level.

The Difference Between Startup and Enterprise

The first way to solve or at least minimize the challenges of innovation is to understand that enterprise is not a startup. This may seem obvious, but the internet is filled with opinions equating the two and theorizing on why startups are better at generating new ideas.

It’s still common to think that startups are more “successful” when it comes to innovation. In truth, innovation is not only about creating new methods, ideas, or products but also better solutions that meets requirements or existing market needs. Given the 90% fail rate of startups due to lack of market need, one might argue that startups are no more successful at innovating than enterprises.

Instead, it’s better to recognize a startup for what it is. A startup, by definition, is a temporary organization designed to search for repeatable and scalable business model. By design, it embraces the pressure of building something that can meet a market need quickly, before the startup runs out of money. That “innovate or die” structure is why startups are often celebrated for their breakneck “innovative culture.”  Along with other popular methodologies, design sprints, a five-day framework for implementing business strategy, interdisciplinary collaboration, rapid prototyping, and user testing, was designed to meet this need for speed.

Enterprise has a different primary need. These companies are often built on scaling to the needs of their customers through carefully collected historical data and research. And that need to carefully scale based on the needs of their existing customers is the exact barrier for them to innovate, rapidly.  So, we tried to create a new sprint with enterprise in mind.

Sprint for Enterprise

As an agency working with enterprises and trying to improve innovation processes, we realized that the principles of the design sprint could be hugely beneficial for enterprises as well.  But building a sprint for the realities of enterprise is no easy task. After all, we can’t force a process onto an organization that isn’t created to naturally embrace it. So instead, we tried working within the existing culture of the enterprise as well as tweaking the sprint process, keeping the principles and innovation goals intact.

For example, often within enterprise, the senior management identifies the problems to solve and comes up with the strategy and success definition without involvement of the middle managers. Middle managers are responsible for the execution of a product or project. This hierarchy is not ideal for the collaborative nature of a design sprint. Design sprint promotes working together on an even field, allowing teams to discover new ways of approaching problems. But in the hierarchy of enterprise, it could be very uncomfortable for middle managers, having to tell their bosses that their way of solving the problems might not be the best way to execute.

To tackle these issues, we realized we’d need to educate and align the management teams from the very beginning of the sales process, before we truly begin working together. In a series of meetings, we explained the benefits of the design sprint instead of the process of design sprint – the “why” before the “how” and “what”. This allowed the teams to better understand the goals and minimized the discomfort of true collaboration.

But there are other practical challenges as well. For these companies, diverting five days of their time for a single project was a tough sell when employees work on countless projects. Moreover, budget allocation in enterprise is usually determined quarterly or at least well before a new product or project is initiated, further complicating the timeline.

To combat these issues, we sometimes separated the normally continuous five-day sprint into two phases, days 1-3 and then days 4-5, to ease companies into the process. In some instances, we would just complete the first part of the design sprint, and later work with their internal user-testing team to execute the final “prototyping and user testing” part.  This allowed their existing process to play a bigger part in guiding the structure of the sprint without sacrificing innovation.

A Potential Sea Change

Every enterprise design sprint we’ve run, from mid-sized enterprise like LegalZoom to Fortune 100 giants like Cisco, has been slightly different because of the personnel and the unique culture of each organization. As a creative partner, we must be agile enough to understand there is no one single process that will work for all organizations and constantly tweak and improve the exercises within the design sprint based on the client’s needs and personnel.

Changes often start small and while design sprint isn’t meant to replace enterprise process, it does introduce specific elements or even principles that are often missing in big business models. From nimbleness and agility, to cross-department collaboration and, most importantly, tolerance of risk for innovation, design sprint can create a ripple effect for mid-to-large-scale brands and help them avoid their own innovation crises.

This article was originally published on Advertising Week