Most teams have one major thing in common. It’s consistent across industries, functions, startups, and enterprises, and it’s keeping people from accelerating their decision making process (and making real progress).
Everyone is constantly switching priorities and putting out fires.
Strategic decision making is critical for leaders. Yet in a survey of nearly 1,500 executives, McKinsey & Company found that only 9% were “very satisfied” with how they spent their time. An astounding 30% were “actively dissatisfied.” And even more so, only 52% said their time largely matched their organizations’ strategic priorities.
Nearly half of respondents admitted that they were not concentrating sufficiently on guiding the strategic direction of the business.
The ability to focus on the right thing has become an organizational problem, not just an individual one. We’ve seen it time and time again in our work with clients and managing competing priorities consistently comes up as the #1 struggle for leaders and their teams.
But the problem is complex, and there isn’t a simple solution. According to McKinsey, the “root causes are deeply embedded in corporate structures and cultures.” This is why we believe frameworks based in design thinking and sprint methodology are so useful—they help teams accelerate in a focused direction.
Our favorite decision-making process we use to take rapid, focused action is called a Decision Sprint. This framework helps teams cut through the noise and align key stakeholders in a matter of minutes.
We know you weren’t hired to be a firefighter (you know, unless you work at a fire station), so let’s dive into how you can stop putting out fires, get back on track, and make better decisions, faster.
What is a Decision Sprint?
A Decision Sprint is a fast-paced exercise that helps your team decide how to move forward on a specific problem in 45-60 minutes. Through a series of quick exercises, you will capture, organize, and decide on the most pressing challenges and possible ways to solve them.
By the end, your team will align on a solution and create a clear, prioritized list of action steps.
- TIP: Run a Decision Sprint in-person or remotely, with ideally 3-7 participants.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to running your own Decision Sprint.
Step 1: Prepare for Your Decision Sprint
Like any successful sprint, preparation is key. The better your prepare, the faster and more effective your sprint will be.
Choose a topic to frame the sprint.
Remember that your ultimate goal is to align on a solution to a specific problem, so pick an area where there’s opportunity for improvement.
Some examples include:
- Content creation process
- Weekly leadership meetings
- Sales discovery calls
- Employee engagement survey
- Messaging for your newest product
Decision Sprints can be used for nearly any problem. If you’re facing some meaty, complex problems in your organization, this decision making process can help you get initial traction—fast.
Gather a small group to help you.
We suggest 3-7 people in total. These people should have a rich perspective on the topic you chose. If there’s one person that could derail your idea following the sprint, get them in the room so you can be aligned upfront.
Designate a Decider.
This will be one of your 3-7 people participating in the sprint. The Decider will make a final call only if the group gets stuck. This ensures forward movement.
Organize your materials.
Once you’re ready to sprint, give each person a stack of post-it notes, a sharpie, small dot stickers, and large dot stickers.
- TIP: If you’re running your Decision Sprint remotely, ensure each person is joining from their laptop. Having some people in-person and some join virtually creates an imbalance that will not serve your sprint. Once everyone has joined from their own device, we recommend using a collaborative tool to create and see edits in real-time. Some of our favorites are Dropbox Paper, Miro, Mural, Whimsical, and IdeaFlip. We also recommend a video tool like Zoom (with the video actually on!) to allow for screen sharing, discussion, and that extra human connection.
Well done on your preparation! You’re officially ready to begin and dive into your first exercise.
Step 2: Start Sprinting!
Once everyone is gathered in-person or on video, give a brief intro of the Decision Sprint to the group. This will help make the process run smoothly. We like to have the Facilitator share his or her screen and explain shared norms. Some of our favorites are:
- No distracting technology.
- Give constructive feedback. Use phrases such as, “I like …, I wish …, I wonder.”
- No silent detractors. If you’re not fully on board with something, say it in the moment—not afterwards to one teammate.
- No armchair sprinters. Don’t lean back and watch others work—dive in!
Now it’s time to begin the first exercise.
Capture ideas and insights.
Spend about 5-10 minutes having each person, silently and on their own, capture answers to the question, “What’s going well?” We start with what’s going well because it’s helpful to anchor in the positive before venturing into what feels more frustrating.
Specifically, you want to uncover what’s going well with the topic you chose to sprint on.
For example, “What’s going well with our content creation process?” or “What’s going well with our weekly leadership meetings?” Ensure everyone is writing one idea per sticky note using their sharpie—we’re going for ideas, not novels!
We call this process working alone, together. It’s perfect for getting everyone’s ideas out, not just the loudest ones. (You know the ones we mean)
- TIP: For remote sprinters using Dropbox Paper, add your ideas as bullet points. Simply type on different lines at the same time. It may take a few minutes to get used to it, but once you get the hang of it, it’s great seeing everyone’s ideas get captured.
Review all the ideas.
Next, put the post-its on a whiteboard or wall so the group can see them. Spend another few minutes sharing the highlights. Ask the group:
- What surprised you?
- What did you expect to see?
- What’s really resonating with you?
Capture and review…again.
Return to your seats and spend another 5-10 minutes working alone, together. This time, capture answers to the question, “What’s not going well?” This should still be related to your chosen topic to keep everyone on track.
Put everyone’s post-its on the whiteboard or wall again so the group can review all the ideas. Have another brief discussion and ask questions.
Step 3: Organize Into Categories and Themes
Now that you’ve seen and discussed everyone’s ideas, it’s time to organize them.
Organize all the post-its (or bullet points) into categories and label the themes.
Put like ideas together so you can more easily see what you’re working with. If you’re sprinting on your weekly leadership meetings, possible themes might include: tardiness, lack of engagement, agenda (or lack thereof), time allotted, etc. Depending on the number of ideas, you will most likely end up with somewhere between 5-8 categories. The purpose for categories/themes is to help the team sort through everything more easily.
Next, take 5 minutes together to heatmap the post-its. Together, everyone should place a dot sticker on anything that speaks to them. This could be because it’s important, a big opportunity, or a real risk. Anything that needs attention. If something is really compelling, then place 2-3 dots on that one idea. You will begin seeing what resonates most with the group.
Dots are unlimited, but remember that voting for everything is the same as voting for nothing.
After heat mapping is over, set another timer for 5 minutes to chat about the post-its and/or themes that have the most heat. Again, is it surprising? Is the heat clustered or spread? Why might that be? Discuss. (briefly)
Step 4: Decide What’s Most Important
It’s decision making time! Each person will now get to vote on a single post-it note using their large dot sticker. This vote will indicate what they believe to be the most important challenge the team is facing. Take 2 minutes for each person to decide which post-it will receive their vote.
Then, all at once (so as to not bias anyone), place your votes on the post-its.
The post-it with the highest number of votes will be the challenge you work to solve throughout the rest of the Decision Sprint.
- TIP: Sometimes it’s helpful to rewrite the top challenges into “How might we…?” questions (HMWs). For example, “How might we reduce the number of meetings we’re expected to attend?” We don’t always rewrite the HMWs, but we do want to make sure the top challenge is crystal clear. If you need to adjust the wording for clarity, do that now.
- ANOTHER TIP: When we do remote sprints with Dropbox Paper, we like to have a little extra fun with heat mapping and voting. We use the “=” sign to add heat (like the small dot sticker) simultaneously. For voting, we each choose our favorite emoji in place of a large dot sticker. Just the emojis themselves can bring some light humor to the sprint.
Step 5: Repeat the Model — Capture, Organize, Decide
Now that you’ve specified your most pressing challenge, start over from the Capture stage—this time having everyone capture ideas answering the question, “How might we solve this problem?” You may choose to ask a more specific question since your challenge is defined, such as “How might we ensure consistent attendance at our weekly leadership meetings?”
Work through the rest of the Capture, Organize, Decide process until you reach a handful of up-voted solutions.
Step 6: Prioritize Solutions
At this point, you’ll need to decide which ideas to move forward with. There are several prioritization frameworks that we like to accelerate the decision making process, but one we find most helpful is the Effort/Impact Matrix.
Draw a matrix with the x-axis representing effort (low → high) and the y-axis representing impact (low → high).
Place the winning post-its from your Decide stage within the matrix based on the effort the team believes it would take to realize that solution and the impact it would have.
- TIP: This is a time where it’s important to be ruthless, or you’ll end up with all your ideas in a single quadrant.
Step 7: Take Action
You should now have a better sense of what can be done to make meaningful progress, as well as the cost/benefit of each potential solution. The goal is to move forward quickly with the High Impact, Low Effort solutions.
- TIP: If you’ve reached this point and none of your winning ideas landed in the High Impact, Low Effort quadrant, we’re guessing they landed in the High Impact, High Effort quadrant instead. Don’t worry! Try turning those meatier, but worthwhile, efforts into something manageable you can do right away.
At this point, it can be helpful to allow for five minutes of discussion time. How well is everyone aligned on the matrix? Does the Decider see things differently? Which ideas do you want to move forward on, and which have you already been doing?
Create your next steps.
After some brief discussion, it’s important to write next steps for a single solution. These should be things you can accomplish in the next 1-2 weeks and help you experiment with this solution—think small prototype, not large-scale systematic change. Your focus should be on validating whether or not this solution even solves your problem at all, not on implementing a permanent change.
Commit to what’s next.
Before leaving, remember to answer questions like:
- When will we follow up?
- Who is taking point?
- How will we know we’re making progress?
Some of this can be clarified immediately, and some teams may need more time to hammer out the details. Either way, this step is critical in the decision-making process. The Decider is usually the person who will make sure the change carries forward following the sprint.
Congratulations! You’ve completed your first Decision Sprint.
Feel free to start brainstorming your next Decision Sprint topic.
If you have questions or want hands-on help getting your team to adopt this process, let us know.