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    8 min read

    How to Innovate and Solve Problems in One Week or Less

    If you're searching for ways to help you and your team blast through a blocker or brainstorm your next big campaign, you're in the right spot.
    How to Innovate and Solve Problems in One Week or Less

    A truly good idea can be a white whale for many marketers. Good ideas motivate us, they inspire our teams, and they get our audience to convert. But coming up with a good idea is a challenge.

    Marketers are as metric-driven as they come, and we can’t spare time waiting for a good idea to hit us when there are goals to hit, deadlines to meet, and business leaders to answer to.

    Good ideas aside, it can be just as difficult to come up with solutions to common problems. From trying to write compelling subject lines that will save a declining newsletter to rescuing falling conversion rates, sometimes we never seem to be able to pivot as quickly as we used to.

    One way to solve for both of these challenges that I’ve had a lot of luck using is using the Design Sprint. While it’s most popular among design, engineering, and product teams, the Design Sprint framework provides a way to make your brainstorms and planning more efficient.

    It helps you bring the team together, collaborate effectively, and sets you on a path to move forward in just a few days.

    What is a Design Sprint

    The Design Sprint methodology was originally developed by Google Ventures, Google’s investment fund. It’s been used by everyone from small startups to large enterprise companies like Airbnb and Uber. I’ve used it myself a handful of times and had a lot of success.

    The approach combines a Design Thinking mindset with Agile and Lean work approaches to create a new and simple step-by-step system for achieving real results in less than a week.

    It can be used to validate business models, improve product offerings, and as a device to brainstorm solutions to complex problems.

    It can also be adapted for marketing teams to develop and test new tactics in just a week. It can be applied by any marketing team looking to innovate new ideas and solve problems faster and more effectively. It’s perfect for annual and midyear kickoff events, at the start of a change in leadership, or whenever you and your team are feeling blocked.

    It helps you bring the team together, collaborate effectively, and sets you on a path to move forward in just a few days.

    Marketing Design Sprints

    A marketing design sprint is an agile process used to develop and test marketing ideas in just four days. In short, it’s a series of creative exercises that allow you and your team to innovate quickly and validate those innovations within a small target audience before investing too much time and effort in executing a larger campaign. The system emphasizes testing and learning to help you iterate on your ideas after validating before launching as well.

    The book, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days recommends a simple four-day schedule for planning your sprint week. The book itself wasn’t necessarily written for marketing teams, but you can adapt this schedule to work for your team and the resources you have at hand pretty easily.

    Here’s my recommended schedule and agenda for each day during your marketing design sprint. I suggest you start right away on a Monday to make sure the design sprint remains the main focus for the week.

    Sticky note illustration that reads "How might we?"
    Sticky note illustration that reads "How Might We?" This is a popular prompt to use in design sprints when brainstorming solutions to the challenge.

    Monday

    The first day of your marketing design sprint is dedicated to defining the challenge at hand. The first task you and the team members in the room need to accomplish is aligning on what success will look like by the end of the week. Remember, your challenge during this week is solving a defined problem. The first step should not be defining the solution to the problem, you’ll be brainstorming ideas next anyway.

    Once you have the challenge clearly defined, write it on a whiteboard or shared document in a way that keeps it prominently displayed. Having this visible throughout the week is going to help you keep things on track when conversations start to travel down tangents and scope begins to creep.

    The rest of the day is dedicated to brainstorming a lot of potential solutions. You’re going to want a high volume of solutions proposed. Encourage the team to share their versions of ideas even when they think someone else has beat them to the punch. Even the slightest difference in detail can come in handy in the later stages.

    Tuesday

    Your second day is a big one. This is the day that you’ll decide on a solution and begin testing. But don’t worry about getting everything right on day two. Should things falter later on in the week, this will be a point you revisit with more knowledge from the previous solution(s) you tested.

    Day two is the day you spend diving deeper into the proposed solutions. Hopefully, you and the team had time to digest everything covered on day one. The first two days can be tiresome. You’ll want to bring in expert witnesses on day two to help you explore potential solutions before deciding on a winner. The experts you invite are hopefully given a heads up that they may receive a short notice invite during this week to speak to their area of expertise. These experts should not be in the room during the full week but instead, work close enough to the challenge being solved that they’ll be able to give valuable insight.

    Once you’ve decided on a solution to pursue, learned more from some investigation with your experts, the last thing you’ll want to do on day two is to begin planning and building your prototype or test. You likely won’t have too much time left in the day, but there’s going to be some excitement among the group by this point that you’ll want to capitalize on before anyone forgets any of what they learned this day.

    Wednesday

    Day three! Alright, the first two days of the design sprint had you and the team going home exhausted. These are not days spent relying on muscle memory as you schedule campaigns, respond to customers, and jump on and off calls. Day three won’t take the mental toll the first two days took.

    If you started your marketing design sprint week on a Monday, today is Wednesday and you’re starting to see progress. Today is the day you’re going to have the team digging in and building out a proof of concept to test. Ideally, you’re on this design sprint journey with a few different specialties represented in the room. You can split them up to divide and conquer the workload.

    By the end of the day, you want to have a completed prototype (or as close as possible to prevent too much work from spilling into day four) and a test audience prepped and ready to go.

    There’s a good chance you’ll have a few loose ends that aren’t tied up by the end of the day. If you can, try to encourage the team members responsible for the work to reconsider its necessity and to finish (within reason) before the full group reconvenes in the morning on day four. If you can, it might be best to have the full group gather an hour or two later if some folks need the extra work time before launching the test.

    Thursday

    Alright, day four. Today’s the day you set your prototype loose into the world. You’ve spent the last three days defining your challenge, absorbing as much information as you possibly can, evaluating possible solutions, and building the prototype of your winning idea. Day four might feel like the end of this long week, but it’s another day packed with more learning, not too unlike days one and two.

    Depending on how your prototype performs, day four may just be the beginning too.

    Before you send your prototype out, you need to make sure you will be able to measure the performance of your solution. If you’re looking to impact a key conversion point or purchase event, several steps into a funnel, you should make sure you have tracking on the earlier steps too (if launched via email, keep a close eye on the deliverability, open rate, click rate, and click-to-open rate). You may be looking to drive impact in one place but your test could have unintended consequences, good and bad, that you’ll want to make sure you have eyes on.

    Depending on how your prototype performs, day four may just be the beginning...

    After launching your prototype or test, you have some time to breathe while the data (hopefully) pours in. You should have enough data by the end of the day to determine whether or not the test was successful. Based on your test results, you’ll know whether or not your marketing design sprint is over or if it’s back to days one or two to restart the learn and test loop.

    My experience using design sprints

    I’ve had a lot of luck using the design sprint framework to problem solve and develop and test new ideas. One of the most successful applications for me was when myself, a product manager, two software engineers, and a couple of team members from our research and marketing teams sat down together to rethink the signup experience on our site for new users. Our challenge was to improve the conversion rate of the signup experience.  

    We took full advantage of the glass wall separating the conference space from the open office we worked in, turning it into a makeshift whiteboard. By the end of the week we had written so much on that wall it was hard to see in or out of the room.

    As part of our first couple of days, we made a point to write down every step our most popular signup flows required of new users as they signed up on our platform. We also mapped every possible entry and exit point of that flow. I found this incredibly helpful to level set with the room a part of the site none of us had used in so long being employees of the company, and an experience we all held different memories and feelings of. Mapping it all on the glass wall helped get us on the same page as we aligned around a single challenge for the week.

    I will concede that the design sprint format, regardless of the team you’re on while using it, is very time-consuming. Many roles will naturally be at odds with the level of attention it requires, especially if you’re a people manager or in a role that interfaces with several other teams regularly. Every time we’ve used this, by the end of the week, the wheels feel like they’ve fallen off the bus a little.

    Overall, it’s a go-to suggestion I’ll bring up around the ends of quarters, halves, and years to help hit the reset button with my team. It’s a fantastic device for brainstorming innovative marketing campaigns and putting them to the test before investing resources too heavily on a hunch. It’s also an incredibly powerful tool for blasting through blockers of all sorts.

    The book

    There’s so much more advice and information about the design sprint approach in the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. I recommend checking it out if you don’t own it already. It’s one of those books that you don’t just read and put on a shelf somewhere. I not only use it when planning and working through design sprints, but also ahead of most brainstorms I’m tasked with leading. The practical applications of what the book teaches stretch far beyond just the use case I talked through in this post. It’s a book you leave on your desk at work so people know you’ve read it. I’ve even gifted it to a couple of my employees and members of our product and engineering team.