- British software company Bright schedules quarterly innovation sprints of 2 to 5 days to get new ideas onto the product roadmap.
- “[They] have been a revelation to us,” says Caroline Collyer, Bright’s Head of People. “They help us to harness the expertise of our team – plus customer feedback and data.”
- The company of 40 is divided into small groups of 5-8 people, with each group focused on a specific goal.
- “One of the key ingredients … is having a structure that allows absolutely anyone to bring ideas to the leadership team,” says Collyer. “Having that fluid structure is crucial because great ideas can come from absolutely anywhere.”
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” is a time-honored truism used in companies around the world to guide their business strategies.
But here’s the problem: that “truism” is pretty misleading. Running fast and running far are not mutually exclusive – not for marathoners, and not for businesses. In fact, long-distance runners often use interval sprints to build up endurance before a race.
Balancing long-haul stability and growth (the marathon) with short-term bursts of creativity (the sprint) is a strategy that British software company Bright has learned to fully embrace – in a very literal way – by using innovation sprints. Taking this dynamic approach to customer-focused creative collaboration is reaping remarkable rewards for the digital asset management software company (and longtime Atlassian customer).
What are innovation sprints?
Put simply, an innovation sprint is a short, dedicated period of time (normally between two and five days) where a team turns a good idea into a strong business concept. Problems are confronted, weaknesses are pinpointed and solutions are identified, all in a highly focused professional dash. It’s a breakneck approach that’s proved so successful for Bright that they now fire the starting pistol on company-wide innovation sprints every three months.
“To be honest, innovation sprints have been a revelation to us,” says Caroline Collyer, Bright’s Head of People. “They help us to harness the expertise of our team – plus customer feedback and data – to accelerate new ideas into our product roadmap.”
The quarterly innovation sprints among Bright’s 40 employees (normally split into groups of five to eight), aren’t just about cooking up hot new concepts, however. They’re also about honing and refining existing ones.
“We often use these sprints to come up with creative solutions to improving functionality in pre-existing product,” says Collyer. “It would be easy to become complacent when we have functionality that broadly works, but we want things like Asset Bank [a digital asset management tool for brand media] to seriously help our clients – and for them to have the best possible experience when using the product.” To that end, Bright works closely with new customers to configure Asset Bank to meet their specific needs and use cases. Those interactions can provide inspiration for future innovation sprints.
It starts with a problem
On a more specific level, an innovation sprint at Bright – which is headquartered in hipster-friendly Brighton, aka “London-by-the-sea” – starts with a simple problem or question, and accelerates from there. The idea, always, is to fuse the innovative wattage of Richard Branson with the raw velocity of Usain Bolt.
“During a recent innovation sprint, for example, we focused on the question of facial recognition,” says Collyer. “We wanted to know how it could be used to better help our customers, so we started by speaking to them: finding out what assets they had and identifying the jobs they were trying to get done. That really helped us to appreciate that data entry was a huge burden on their customer teams, so we focused our energy on that aspect first. Development is an expensive process; it’s essential to ensure you’re building the features that people actually want, rather than the easiest or the coolest ones.”
As with all of Bright’s innovation sprints, the key impetus came from the development team.
“First, we look at the feedback we’re getting from our customers (via the customer success team) and then at the challenges facing the development team,” says Collyer. “From there, the development team suggests candidate problems or questions for our next sprint.”
It’s essential to ensure you’re building the features that people actually want, rather than the easiest or the coolest ones.
How it works
Once the course has been agreed upon and the sprint begins, each race takes a familiar form.
- First, a brief is written focusing on the area of interest or problem to solve.
- Available employees are split into evenly matched groups, based on interests and experience. Team leaders are selected.
- Each team is given a specific goal to achieve within the timeframe (usually two to five days).
- The teams come together on the final day to present their findings to the company.
- The obvious, and tangible, end products are the research and prototypes each team produced.
“Much of this is a collaborative process, but there’s an aspect of excitement and competition between teams, too,” says Collyer. “Innovative ideas are aired, discussed, evaluated, and iterated upon. The feedback at the finishing line is crucial too: helping us to enhance and improve the suggested solutions and prototypes.”
The key to success
Innovation sprints are becoming an increasingly common work practice across the world, as managers become more aware of their swift, far-reaching results. Tracing their roots back to traditional “hackathons” (like Atlassian’s own ShipIt), they not only help the business identify new avenues and solutions – they’re also a great way to build team morale. By giving staff the chance to contribute directly to idea generation, they invigorate and empower, as well as building valuable connections between employees and senior management and bringing staff closer together through facing and overcoming challenges as a unit.
“One of the key ingredients of a successful sprint is having a structure that allows absolutely anyone to bring ideas to the leadership team,” says Collyer. “Having that fluid structure is crucial because great ideas can come from absolutely anywhere.”
Gathering ideas in between sprints
As anyone who’s tried running on a treadmill for long periods knows, you can’t sprint forever. That’s why Bright keeps its innovation sprints restricted to once every quarter. But that doesn’t mean innovation has to stop for the rest of the calendar year.
“Every Thursday, we have knowledge sharing sessions as a company,” reveals Collyer. “These are great for finding creative leads: sowing the seeds that can later grow into strong ideas, products, or practices,” she says.
“It’s really easy to implement,” she explains. “We had a company-wide update briefing in place every Thursday anyway, so we simply added an extra half hour to that, and invited anyone to share something they had learned, that they felt inspired by, or that they thought might help others. It’s completely voluntary. For instance, last week we shared a review of “Messy” by Tim Harford – a brilliant book on how to be accepting of chaos and risk, and to use disorder to your advantage. That was a great example.”
Bright’s knowledge-sharing sessions every Thursday morning and innovation sprints every three months have one key element in common, of course: collaboration.
“In both cases, we were looking for effective ways to strengthen our business development and team morale at the same time,” says Collyer. “True innovation is a collaborative process, ideally including people from outside your regular team. The best ideas don’t appear complete – they thrive on fresh perspectives and feedback.”
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