*This post was originally published on The Growth Network, a private community designed to give Georgian companies the insight, information and collaborative opportunities they need to accelerate business success.
Early-stage companies need to make data-informed decisions about ideas they intend to build as quickly as possible, often with limited resources. To do that, they’ve got to “sprint.”
Most people in the tech space are familiar with software release sprints. Release sprints put new features in the hands of customers on a regular cadence.
We’re not talking about those here. We’re talking about validation sprints.
Validation sprints come before release sprints because validation sprints help you understand whether or not the market will love your idea before you ever build and release it.
Here’s the proper definition: validation sprints are a (1) problem solving method that (2) empirically test the degree to which a market reaches for your idea so you can (3) reduce the risks associated building wrong solutions or for the wrong markets.
Keep in mind that validation sprints can reduce go-to-market risks across a wide range of business scenarios. The chart below illustrates this.
Figure 1. Validation sprints reduce go-to-market risks for any business scenario: create new ventures, serve new markets, launch new products, launch new features, enhance existing features.
Scratch the surface
This article isn’t a “how to” so much as an introduction to validation sprint concepts and examples and my intention is for you to want to learn more.
If you haven’t run this kind of sprint before, my hope is you’ll be inspired to so you can reduce go-to-market risks by validating business assumptions for your organization.
Imagine you run a technology company that’s in the early scale-up phase. You’re getting a steady stream of new customers but from dissimilar markets. You haven’t reached product/market fit and your churn rate isn’t acceptable. In addition, you have some customer success issues that may or may not be related to misalignment between teams. On the bright side, you have patented technologies that could be adapted in a number of ways across a large total addressable market. How can you answer the key questions that will drive your business forward?
- Which use-case and market should you focus on?
- As an early-stage venture, should you continue to serve many markets?
- You see three strategic directions, but which single direction should get your bet?
Naturally, your leadership team and board of directors have opinions about which ideas to pursue. Some opinions are based on loosely connected data and others are based on biases from past experience which may not be applicable to your situation and team.
Place your bets
The number of unknowns makes it risky to place a single strategic bet.
Doing nothing is also risky because your firm is spread too thin across too many markets to make them all raving fans.
You have another option — test your ideas in a series of validation sprints, which will help you in four ways:
- Fill data gaps. Validate your inferences with empirical data.
- Increase speed. Get data in a few weeks or months (not quarters or years).
- Find latent needs. Discover additional market needs that inform your roadmap.
- Align. Align your business stakeholders.
Don’t underestimate the need for speed in this scenario. It might not seem important in the long run whether it takes six months or two years for you to align your product and marketing strategy, as long as you get there. But those 18 months could determine whether your company becomes the market leader — or a struggling also-ran that with cash unpredictable flow.
Use five sensibilities
Validation sprints have five areas. While it’s tempting to see them as sequential steps, in practice, they’re both steps and sensibilities. IDEO defines them as: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.
Figure 2. Photo of the five sensibilities — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test — on the walls of product consulting firm, 29th Drive’s entrance.
Throughout the 2010’s, my product and design thinking consultancy had these sensibilities written on the walls, literally. Every day we used them as sensibilities and many times a year, we practiced them as validation sprints with our clients.
Here’s how they work:
To take an idea to market successfully, you need to intimately understand your customer’s needs and context. This can’t be done through second or third-party research. You need to build empathy and you need to do this by observing them in their context. This can happen in many ways. Some include:
- One-on-one interviews
- Diary studies
- Contextual inquiry
- Ethnographic research
- Experience mapping
For example, many years ago, my firm redesigned 911 call center software. Before the project started, we had strong ideas (so we thought) for changes we wanted to make to the product. But our ideas were inferences and weren’t based on empirical data gathered through direct observation.
We knew how to apply tried-and-true user experience heuristics and best practices to solve usability issues with the product experience. Yet, we also knew we didn’t know enough about the end users who are elite-level software operators.
So, we scheduled three days of contextual inquiry in three different 911 call centers around the western United States. We learned volumes about these elite-level software operators that we wouldn’t have learned any other way. For example, we observed that 911 call center agents prefer to use foot pedals at their feet more than the mouse at their hand! Later, we found out why.
This observational empathy led to dozens of subtle nuances about their context.
By only using this first sensibility of empathy — and in just a few days — we validated many product and market assumptions, thus reducing the business risks of taking this updated product to market.
Don’t rush to find solutions until your cross-disciplinary team has collaborated to define the problem you’re trying to solve for the customer.
This may sound obvious, but it’s often done in reverse — someone creates a novel technology idea — and then, every corner of the company scrambles to find a problem it can solve.
Instead, I often cite the quote “a problem well defined is a problem half solved,” which is attributed to various people, including inventor Charles Kettering and philosopher John Dewey. This quote so eloquently captures the value of rigorous problem definition.
There are many methods and frameworks to define problems well. I’ll give you one; a short form brief format that’s inspired by Jared Spool. I’ve used variations of this brief for over ten years, and we use it daily at Trusona.
The audience for this work is …
[ Insert here ]
The audience’s needs include …
[ Insert a list here ]
[My firm’s] business objective for the work is …
[ Insert here. Can be more than one objective ]
We know we’re successful if …
[ Insert quantifiable metrics here ]
Thus, the single most important takeaway for our audience is …
[ Insert quote from the audience here ]
The following examples are inspiring because they …
[ Insert a few links here ]
We’ll have the work ready for the Currency review …
[ Insert here ]
We need the work to go live …
[ Insert here ]
We know this will be difficult because …
[ Insert here ]
… and we’ll do it anyway to [your mission here].
Instead of completing this brief in isolation, assemble a cross-disciplinary team to arrive at the details together.
When you create this with the right cross-disciplinary team, you’ll have nuanced and productive debates that in-and-of-themselves will reduce risks associated with taking your idea to market.
Further, as a leader responsible for your organization’s culture, the act of working through this brief is one of the simplest and most effective ways to align your teams and maintain alignment throughout execution of the work.
Legend says Thomas Edison created a thousand light bulbs before he actually got one to work. The Edison example is apropos, but extreme.
- You don’t need to create 1,000 ideas in order to significantly reduce go-to-market risks.
- Your team doesn’t need Edison-level genius (or Steve Jobs-level creativity) in order to significantly reduce go-to-market risks.
The people on your validation sprint team do not need to be “genius’” or “highly creative” because you didn’t start the process by jumping right into ideation.
Instead, you started with Empathy for your audience, and you’ve defined the problem well. When these two key ingredients are digested by the team, you’ve set them up to create successful ideas because they have the right frame of reference and confidence that comes from understanding the audience’s needs and the problem you need to solve.
The engineers on the team may have many technological-leaning ideas, while the marketers may have lead-generation ideas and so on for the other disciplines on your validation sprint team. Because they’re ideating together, their ideas cross-pollinate naturally through the diversity of domain expertise in the room.
Here’s another example. I led a multi-day ideation session with a large west coast health care provider as part of a validation sprint to solve a data analytics, HR and compliance problem. The ideation involved a dozen people including the CMO (Chief Medical Officer), ICU nurses, lawyers, data analysts, software engineers, hospital staff and user experience designers.
The output of the cross-disciplinary ideation not only helped us meet the needs of the end users in better ways, but the process empowered and aligned all the right people.
Later in the sprint, because she was involved directly in the early parts of the process, the Chief Medical Officer fully understood why we chose the direction we did. The process aligned her extended teams below her and her leadership peers, which led to more autonomy, authority and trust to build a solution tailored to the market’s needs. In short, the ideation reduced the risks associated with taking this new product to market.
With your well-informed ideations in-hand, the sprint team now make sense of them, rank them and decide which ideas to prototype.
The prototype itself can be a software experience, a service experience (imagine a hotel check-in experience), a market positioning narrative or any number of product / market hypothesis you intend to validate.
Those prototypes can be high-fidelity (such as a piece of working software or built-out environments with actors) or low-fidelity (such as paper mock-ups, flow diagrams or photos of mock billboards).
“Paper prototypes.” You read that correctly. I’ve used paper prototypes for validation testing for nearly 20 years, and I’m still amazed how well paper mockups facilitate the validation of ideas.
In other contexts — depending on what you need to validate — more elaborate prototypes may need to be built to further reduce your go-to-market risks.
With your prototypes in hand, you need to allow the market (the test participants) to experience with them while you observe their behaviors. This happens in six phases:
- Recruit the right test participants. The right test participants are ones who match the market you intend to serve. For example, if your current solution serves university students and you’re seeking to test the same solution in a new market — say, continuing education for working professionals — then you need to take the time to recruit working professionals. Be intentional with recruiting. High quality recruiting further increases your likelihood of reducing go-to-market risks.
- Prepare the test protocol. Test protocols are typically written by in-house or contract cognitive psychologists and user experience researchers. Over time, other members of your in-house team may be able to properly craft test protocols. The protocols usually contain instructions for the participants of the test, a preamble, tasks for participants, follow up questions and notes the test facilitator uses to be fully prepared for the test. All the while, test protocols go to lengths to ensure that participants are not being led by the test. Well-written protocols produce non-leading tests. Oftentimes, the protocol may “mask” the intent of the test (a little like the old Pepsi versus Coke “blind” tests). Well-written protocols also increase your likelihood of reducing go-to-market risks.
- Run the tests. Similar to preparing the protocol, in-house or contract cognitive psychologists or user experience researchers typically conduct the tests, for many of the same reasons as mentioned above.
- Observe and document what happens. As the tests run, there’s a tremendous amount of qualitative, quantitative, structured and unstructured data that’s being captured. Structured data may be the number of times a test participant answered a question in a certain way. Unstructured data may be the non-verbal communication, facial expressions, long pauses and body language of the test participants during various parts of the test. Data is captured in real-time and is documented shortly after the sessions, by memory and by watching videos of the test sessions (including screen recordings, full-body cameras, facial expression cameras, or eye tracking cameras, etc.).
- Make sense of the findings. The sprint team then makes sense of the data. You can think of this as putting all the data into a literal (or figurative) pivot table so the team can slice and dice the data in different ways to understand patterns and signs that the market reaches for all or parts of your solution. Beware because the data may reveal things you may not want to accept.
Get clarity and alignment
Using any one of the five sensibilities in isolation will help you reduce go-to-market risks.
And when combined into a five-step process, you’ll further reduce go-to-market risks because you’ll have validated your business assumptions with empirical data. You’ll have done it in weeks or months (not quarters or years). You’ll experience the welcomed side effects of discovering latent unmet needs in the market and building internal alignment and trust amongst stakeholders. Most importantly, you’ll have clarity on which strategic bets are most likely to accelerate business growth.
Ready, set, validate
If your team hasn’t facilitated cross-disciplinary work like this, you could hire an agency with the expertise you need. Start with a small validation sprint and measure the benefits. Better yet, hire two different firms who inevitably have two different approaches and see which you prefer and if they arrive at similar recommendations — thus, further reducing risks. These firms and resources are terrific:
- IDEO (Iconic design thinking consulting firm)
- Blink UX (Evidence-driven product and go-to-market research firm)
- Idea Farm (A small and brilliant boutique firm that delivers)
- MIT’s “Mastering Design Thinking” (Learn to fish with 3-month executive training)
Validation sprints existed long before the internet. The concept originated with the great mid-century industrial designers. If you’d like to learn more about sprints and how they evolved, here’s some recommended reading:
- Horst Rittel’s, Wicked Problems
Rittel is often referred to as the originator of Design Thinking in the 1960’s.
- Change By Design, by Tim Brown
Brown, CEO at IDEO, popularized design thinking over the last 15 years.
- The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries
This takes some of the sprint concepts and combines them with the lean manufacturing philosophy to help startups “penetrate that fog of uncertainty to discover a successful path to a sustainable business.”
- Sprint, by Google Ventures
Google’s book which outlines a five-day sprint that can start on Monday and be finished by Friday.
If you have questions and/or would like to discuss how you approach go-to-market challenges, send us a note at experience[at]trusona.com or email Kevin directly at “k” at this domain.