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Making Better Decisions – Quickly, Openly, Efficiently

Close collaboration in design sprints – the way to make decisions everyone can agree to

As the rate of change accelerates – not only in society, but also in the economy and in terms of technology – companies and their employees face a constant stream of new challenges. There’s no single way to cope immediately with all challenges when problem-solving, but there is a collaborative tool that can help companies with decision-making issues: the Lightning Decision Jam, a kind of design sprint developed by AJ&Smart. Wolfgang Natzke of the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Business Management and Innovation describes how to apply it to business problems.

The challenges we meet time and time again at companies, in a world of increasing complexity, are often captured by the acronym VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s not surprising that the problems companies find themselves having to solve are changing more and more rapidly, are getting bigger and bigger, and are becoming more and more complex. Against this backdrop, a bulletin released by the World Economic Forum on The Future of Jobs puts complex problem-solving at the top of a list of the most important skills required by employees in 2020. But it’s not only becoming more difficult to solve problems: Distorted opinions and deficiencies in team meetings also have a negative impact on decision-making.

There are a number of methods that can help companies with problem-solving. One such method is a kind of troubleshooting sprint that is also a useful point of entry for improving the problem-solving skills of employees and teams. It can also diminish cognitive distortion and poor communication. Steinbeis expert Wolfgang Natzke has been working with Dr. Marcus Liehr of zagmates and Maren Fischer of Freshworks to create a workshop format that allows the design sprint technique to be applied to business situations.

Design sprints – start with challenges, look for solutions, and make decisions

A design sprint is a structured and moderated workshop based on a clearly defined series of processes. The aim is to quickly identify pertinent challenges relating to a task with other team members in order to come up with solutions and make decisions. The team is taken through four stages during the workshop. Each is subject to clear time constraints, such that depending on the size of the team and the depth of the topic being looked at, a workshop can last between 30 and 90 minutes. In addition, there are a number of rules that must be adhered to during the workshop. One of the most important ones is that workshop participants have to pursue a common goal, even if individuals work by themselves during certain stages. As a result, there are times in the workshop when people won’t talk to each other. Instead, everyone captures their thoughts and ideas on Post-its. The idea of this rule is to prevent the workshop from being dominated by individuals. All input provided by participants should be taken at face value and not judged according to who it came from. Ultimately, this rule is one of the reasons why design sprints are not just good for on-site events, they can also be organized to take place online using digital whiteboards. The following provides an example of how the tool works.

Push sales with the help of a design sprint

The aim during the first stage of a sprint is to pull together all information pertinent to solving the problem. To do this, a “sailboat exercise” is used. In keeping with this analogy, the team starts with things that could move the boat forward, like wind in the sails. In this example, every participant is asked to use Post-its to write down anything that would help the company access new sales channels, so for example they could write “We successfully gained access to another new sales channel two years ago.” All of the Post-its are then stuck on the whiteboard.

The next step is to use Post-its again to capture lots of things that slow the company down, hold it back, or even harm it – the anchor under the sailboat. Depending on how clearly the original issue has been captured, at this point it helps if all of the participants now define the goal more precisely, for example should turnover be raised to a certain value within the next year. Coming back to the sailboat, this is like defining which port should be sailed to. To capture topics in as much detail as possible, it’s important that the participants list plenty of factors during this stage of the workshop and that they’re not impeded by having to get things right – so it’s about quantity of ideas rather than quality.

Because the workshop is about solving a problem, at the next stage the team takes on the biggest problem faced by the company trying to access the new sales channel. Again, there’s no talking during this stage. Instead, participants pick the biggest problems themselves by sticking dots on the Post-its. The remaining stages of the workshop concentrate on the problem with the most dots. So with the example of accessing a new sales channel, the main problem could be something like the company having no previous experience with a new kind of sales channel.

The aim of the third stage of the workshop is to come up with as many ideas as possible for solving the main problem identified at stage two. To finish the workshop, stage four looks at different ways to implement the best ideas. To do this, first the ideas generated at the last stage are prioritized. This is done in the same way as the second stage with sticky dots. Finally, the best solutions are placed on a 2 by 2 matrix according to expected impacts and effort.

To conclude the workshop, implementable measures are worked out for the solutions that should have a major impact for a relatively small effort. Depending on the nature of a problem, it may make sense to express these measures as an experiment within a fixed time frame so it can be checked how effective measures will be without going to too much effort. In the example described above, two weeks could be spent setting up interviews with customers who already buy through the sales channel.

The advantages offered by design sprints

“The main advantage with our workshops is that it doesn’t take much time to come up with tangible and understandable solutions to problems. This is especially the case when you compare results directly with open-end and unstructured discussions in meetings, which often finish without coming to any conclusions, or issues get added to a ‘backlog’ of other topics,” explains Steinbeis Entrepreneur Wolfgang Natzke. As all input generated by a design sprint is captured in writing, you also don’t lose sight of ideas. Instead, they can be followed up later. In addition, the structure and rules used for the workshops mean that many distorted views, which could otherwise have a negative impact on decision-making, are put aside or at least minimized. To improve a company’s or a team’s ability to solve problems, it is of course not enough to arrange the occasional design sprint workshop. Instead, design sprints should be an integral part of collaborative troubleshooting.


Wolfgang Natzke (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Institute Business Management and Innovation (Porta Westfalica)

Dr. Marcus Liehr (author)
zagmates GmbH (Halle/Westfalen)

Maren Fischer (author)
CEO and founder
Freshworks (Paderborn)