Five days of trials, tech and teamwork: welcome to Sprint Week

Innovation can transform the world. So how can it be encouraged and nurtured? Sofia Klapp, studying my course in “Innovating Organizational Information Technology” for her MSc Management of Information Systems and Digital Innovation (MISDI), reveals how our Sprint Week concept challenged her and her fellow classmates to generate, develop and pitch genuinely groundbreaking ideas. 

It was Monday morning, and 18 multidisciplinary teams were assembled at their desks. It was the beginning of the Sprint Week. We all had our materials ready (post-its, tape, markers, cardboards, and one big whiteboard) and plenty of healthy snacks to keep our energy levels high. Visa, one of the world’s leading payment brands, were explaining their global innovation challenges. From this moment until Friday afternoon, we would have to work in an “agile manner” to create an  innovative digital solution to win this innovation competition.

The Sprint Week: A learning-by-doing process framed as an innovation race

Will Venters and Carsten Sorensen, scholars on the “Innovating Organizational Information Technology” course, came up with a better use for the reading week for the MISDI Programme at LSE. Instead of just teaching about digital innovation and agile theory, why not use this week of no classes to immerse the students in a hands-on learning experience? They called it “The Sprint Week”, and this is the second year they´ve run this 5-day bootcamp.

As if making Sprint Week 50 % of our course assessment wasn’t enough, to add some extra adrenaline the teachers framed it as an innovation competition. Two key partners (Visa and Roland Berger) were invited to make things even more exiting. Both would be judges and choose the best projects for the grand final on Friday. Visa shared its strategic digital challenges to inspire our innovation ideas. Trending topics like mobility, digital identity, and a cashless society, served as fuel to ignite our imaginations. At the same time, Roland Berger, a strategic consulting firm and design sprint expert, was there to support our hands-on learning process.

The Sprint Week Methodology: The MISDI approach to developing digital innovations

But how did it all work? Sprint Week addresses digital innovation development by combining the best of two approaches: Design Sprint Methodology (a five-day work process for answering business questions through design, prototyping, and testing digital ideas with customers created by Google Ventures) and Soft Systems Methodology (a socio-technical approach broadly used to understand, design and intervene in information systems and digital innovation). While the first approach encouraged us to work in an agile manner as a multidisciplinary team, the second allowed us to understand the digital challenges from a systemic perspective considering their social and human implications.

The Sprint Week Experience Challenges: It’s not about intellectual capacity, but about the right mind-set and team-work skills.

Initially, these methodologies seemed simple. But as we moved forward we realised that putting them into practice wouldn’t be easy. For me, the biggest challenges we faced weren’t intellectual, but mostly related to how we managed uncertainty and how we interacted and communicated as a team. Whether we felt lost or on track depended on how well we managed our teamwork, triggering a roller coaster of emotions in our team throughout the week.

Managing the uncertainty that every innovation process entails can be very hard. We humans seem to have a control seeking mind-set that also looks for right answers. Yet working in an agile manner is not a linear step-by-step process. The agile mind-set is about learning and discovering the answers as you go, navigating in a disciplined way the messiness of the innovation process. If you are a control freak, you will suffer a lot. A good strategy was to keep trusting the methodology, accepting uncertainty as a normal feeling during the process while being open to be suppressive by the outcomes of applying it.

All the teams were highly diverse in their backgrounds and personalities. My team mates were from Indonesia, China, and the UK, whereas I´m from Chile; and their backgrounds ranged from IT-engineering, linguistic, international business, innovation and psychology. The methodology encouraged us to interact and discuss in an active and collaborative way. But it also meant dealing with disagreements among team members. We all speak English but our cultural differences and accents meant we had to focus extra hard. Getting to know each other before the Sprint Week and negotiating working styles was very important. We also ran open-heart sessions after each day gave feedback about what we liked and what we could improve for the next day.

What did I get out of all of this? From connecting theory and practice to being inspired by my classmates

As a MISDI student with previous work experience in innovation and agile development, I did not expect to learn as much as I did. The Sprint Week has definitely been the highlight of the MISDI programme so far.

Getting the opportunity to work on a real-life case challenge for a global company, with the input from industry experts, helped to link the theory I´d learned on the course with real world challenges.  And the ideas and discussions it generated between team members from different backgrounds, life-experiences and nations were amazing. Honestly, I feel that in one week it made me a better team player!

Moreover, seeing the teams´ project presentations on Friday was inspiring (all of them, not just the finalists). All the initiatives were so diverse and creative.  They greatly exceeded my expectations: from a data monetization platform that allows individuals to gain control of and get value from their digital data, to a futuristic payment chip inserted in consumer’s hand linked to an integrated app. Even some of the social projects surprised me; there was a donations platform that streamlines the funding of NGOs for increased transparency and another that provides digital sovereign identity and financial inclusion to the unbanked population.

This hands-on experience helped us gain a practical understanding of breakthrough methodologies while developing the multidisciplinary team skills needed to craft digital innovations. But most importantly, this week reminded me that at LSE your classmates are one of the main sources of learning and inspiration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sofia Klapp is from Chile and holds a BA in Organisational Psychology, plus diplomas in Business Management and Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Her experience in leading customer experience evaluations in technology projects in a global IT consultancy enabled her to understand the strategic complexities that digital transformation brings, encouraging her to pursue her MSc Management of Information Systems and Digital Innovation (MISDI) at LSE.

Teaching digital innovation at the LSE: Sprint week with Roland Berger

Organisations need to innovate digital products and services faster than ever before. This requires new skills for digital innovation but gaining skills is challenging. Traditional university lectures and classes are excellent at providing the vital theoretical backgrounds; for example in platforms, business strategy, digital infrastructures, systems development approaches, cloud computing and agility, yet they are poorly designed to provide a visceral understanding of how agile teams really innovate. Addressing this challenge we drew inspiration from  Mark Thompson at Judge Business School who has run small sprints within their MBA and we developed a 1-week “Sprint week” bootcamp within our core MSc course.

This week all our 120+ MSc students studying “Management, Information Systems and Digital Innovation” are coming together in teams of 6 to innovate a new product or service for a real global company during a 5 day sprint [1]. They are supported by faculty and by consultants from Roland Berger who run similar sprint innovations for blue-chip clients, and by the client’s digital innovation expert.

In essence our week follows the Sprint method set out in Jake Knapp’s book “Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days” with some significant changes:

  • Students will use richer (and more complex) modelling methodologies, which makes sure groups appreciate the different cultural, social and organisational perspectives within their design. This ensure they produce designs which are both systemically desirable but also “culturally feasible” wherever they will be applied.
  • Students will be pushed to not just produce solutions based on user interface or web design. They must develop a coherent digital design using basic UML modelling techniques alongside Wardley mapping techniques, to ensure a realistic strategic design.
  • Interspersed with the innovation work are a few short lectures – refreshing them on key techniques and introducing challenges their design will face.

On the Friday, the consultants will select the top groups for a Friday afternoon “Dragon’s Den” where experts from the global company, Roland Berger, and from the consulting and software industry, will put those groups through their paces – asking the difficult questions and pointing out the failings in their design. Finally, and most importantly, there is a party on the Friday evening (kindly sponsored by Roland Berger).

As the week counts for 50% of the student’s course mark, their designs will be marked by LSE academics based on LSE assessment criteria – something that is important to ensure this is not a “game” but a deliverable for our students.

Students will benefit from this unique opportunity and will experience some of the frustration, stress and elation of this kind of digital innovation work. Students will also get a chance to show in future job interviews that they know how to work in groups on digital innovation work, for a real client under real pressure.

One group might just come up with the next big thing and then, perhaps, be given a chance to work with the client to develop it further!

Will Venters 2017.

  1. Knapp, J., J. Zeratsky, and B. Kowitz, Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. 2016: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Checkland, P., Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. 1981, Chichester: Wiley. 330.
  3. Checkland, P. and J. Poulter, Learning for Action: A short definitive account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students. 2006, Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons.
  4. Checkland, P. and J. Scholes, Soft Systems Methodology in Action. 1990, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.