What product managers need to know about the Decision Sprint framework for faster problem-solving
Today we are talking about faster problem-solving to speed innovation by using a three-part framework including Exploration, Alignment, and Decision-Making.
Our guest is Atif Rafiq. He invented a system for problem-solving based on his 25-year career spanning Silicon Valley and the Fortune 500. His ideas proved so impactful as a competitive advantage that they sped his rise at Amazon and later to C-suite positions he held at companies, including McDonald’s as their first Chief Digital Officer, and at Volvo and MGM Resorts.
He has written DECISION SPRINT: The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action. He joins us to share how it works.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:03] Why do we need Decision Sprint?
We’re in an era of economic austerity, so the bar for innovation has been raised in most organizations. This means we need a way of innovating that is more purposeful. It’s one thing to have a promising idea and another thing to get the buy-in for it. CEOs are talking about sharpening the pencil to be more confident about the ideas they’re supporting. If you’re a product manager and you have promising ideas, the bar has been raised.
Even if the times were a little brighter, we have the problem of getting the organization to agree to a good idea and getting stakeholder alignment. Rather than leaving it to personalities, we need a methodology so that we can objectively take good ideas forward. To solve big problems to innovate, we have to create shared understanding for everybody who is involved in pulling off the big idea.
What are the components of a design sprint?
The first step is to define the problem statement. If people have a different interpretation of that, and you only realize that a month down the line, that’s problematic.
Next, canvass the key unknowns behind the problem statement and create a good question list. I recommend independently sourcing questions from your team. This is powerful because you make it a deliberate step in the process. Having questions come up organically is potentially detrimental because it can cause you to find blind spots too late. By sourcing questions independently, you get a more diverse set of questions that are more relevant with fewer blind spots. If you have a great question list, you have the basis of an exploration.
[8:19] Tell us more about making a question list.
The initial understanding of the problem is usually a little bit murky. For example, if Netflix has a problem with password sharing, that’s not the problem statement. The problem statement is something more like, “How do we do the right thing for customers while minimizing the abuse of sharing passwords?” You’re trying to balance to things. A good problem statement usually includes some trade-offs. The problem statement is nuanced; the answer is not obvious.
Before rushing ahead to opinions and recommendations, teams should spend time building an exploration. This could take just a few days. I independently ask people to make question lists asynchronously over about two days. Then we share the questions with the team and see the patterns and overlap. It’s fun to see the collective intelligence of the team, and this builds a lot of positive team dynamics because you see the power of a team. Team members are glad we did it independently because each person sees ideas they wouldn’t have thought of. We assign people to answer and review questions. I share the question list with sponsors, such as a commercial leader, legal team members, and a product leader. This allows the sponsors to see the progress and have the ability to contribute without micromanaging.
It’s important to have exploration before alignment. In companies I often find alignment before exploration. There’s a lot of judgement preceding the exploration. However, alignment is important after exploration. Meaningful ideas cannot be executed by one corner of a company. It takes contribution from multiple parts of the organization. If we create a shared understanding of the direction we’re going and why we’re doing that, people are more confident taking the idea forward. Alignment is about creating the bridge between the problem that was explored and the conclusions that are being recommended. In order to get those heads nodding around the table, people have to understand how you arrived at those conclusions.
I ask people to draw conclusions from FAQs individually and then aggregate insights and patterns.
Conclusions are often very layered. For example, when I was at Amazon, I led a business unit around self-publishing. There was a raw idea around creating an exclusivity program where authors are rewarded for publishing only with Amazon. The program was a smashing success, but in the beginning we didn’t even know if it was an idea worth pursuing. When we did exploration, we came up with a lot of ideas about how to appeal to authors and how Amazon would enforce exclusivity.
When you draw conclusions, you aren’t making one conclusions like do it or don’t do it. It’s important to bring out all the layers of conclusions.
Decision-making is about specific actions, not just recommendations. At Amazon, a recommendation was rewarding authors for publishing exclusively with us because we would make money in a lot of other ways. Decision-making was about specific actions like building a new team to sell 10,000 books a week or building an automation tool.
Decision-making feeds your execution plan, and you’ve created the red thread between where you started and where you arrived. Decision-making goes much faster when people see what we explored, the conclusions we drew, the necessary actions, and the plan.
The decision point is not really where decision-making happens. It happens much further upstream.
[28:34] How did you create the Decision Sprint methodology?
I was at Amazon, which is a hyper-learning environment. The company is not shy to enter new spaces. There’s a learning culture and no fear of learning new things. Then I transitioned to McDonald’s and companies like Volvo, which has been around a hundred years. Innovation is not in the core DNA of those established organizations, but they badly need it because the core is producing incremental results year over year. I tried to bring Amazon’s way of working into these established companies, but that didn’t work quite right. I had to teach them to get comfortable with unknowns. I came up with the Decision Sprint to do this. Everybody’s input gets channeled into an objective workflow for innovation.
Action Guide: Put the information Atif shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Learn more at the Decision Sprint website
- Check out Decision Sprint book
- Connect with Atif on LinkedIn and check out his newsletter, Re:Wire
“I cannot teach anyone anything. I can only make them think.”– Socrates
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.