A Sprint Story

Design Sprints are a highly structured week-long approach to solving problems. There’s a strict schedule. There’s an outlined series of exercises to follow. There’s even a timer to ensure things are on task. The structure of a Design Sprint is what makes it so successful and productive, but within that format there are moments of uncertainty and ambiguity.

And it’s during those times when the unexpected happens. That lack of clarity can lead to further confusion, but when managed with care those moments can manifest themselves as the most inspiring and insightful in all of the five days spent together.

There are plenty of resources out there on how to run a Design Sprint. There are books and blog posts. There are tools for facilitating them.

This blog series is none of those things. This is A Sprint Story.

An extremely honest and in-depth look into what it’s like to run a Design Sprint first-hand. You’ll get a peek into the process, but more importantly you’ll understand what it feels like to facilitate one. How to manage the strong minds of eight different people. How to get decisions made.

And how to break the rules.

. . .


We just completed a Design Sprint that included all the great ingredients of a movie plot. The hero, the villain, the journey into the unknown, the twists, the turns, and the surprise ending. So we decided to get a little cheeky with it and tell this story in classic serial style.

But this is real life. And while the scenario was contained within a week, the implications of this Design Sprint were not trivial.

It’s always fun to take the edge off of designing by saying “it’s not like we’re saving lives.” Enter Roche, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Each day, their massive team of researchers, scientists, doctors, and technologists are mission-driven to use biotechnology and engineering to solve diseases that threaten the human condition. At Roche, they are literally saving lives. At Digital Telepathy, this Design Sprint meant something extra special to us.

Our task was two-fold.

Our first goal was to go through the Design Sprint process from beginning to end, providing hands-on training to their Global Market Insights team so they could return to their organization of nearly 80,000 people with design-thinking methodologies that could transform the way their teams solve problems.

In the words of Jim Collins, this goal was big, hairy, and audacious.

Our second goal was one that mattered deeply: how might Roche use digital technology to improve nutritional education for newly diagnosed type 2 diabetic patients. Diabetes, our villain of the story, is one of the fastest growing diseases in the United States, and one of the leading causes of death. But in many cases, proper diet and lifestyle changes can render type 2 diabetes a non-issue. If we could impact the lives of those suffering with this illness through design, we could truly save lives. #nopressure

Everyone has a unique story to tell, including you. Before we begin, it’s important to communicate why we wrote this story:

  1. We’re proud of the work we accomplished with our friends at Roche and want to tell the world.
  2. We’re big believers in sharing what we learn. We believe in Design Sprints and the impact that they bring to organizations like yours.  
  3. We want to inspire you. As you read this, let this story spark one of your own. Design methodologies like these are tactical ways to solve real-world problems. So think about what you might tackle with an approach like this.

Chapter One:
Mapping Monday & the Meaning of Empathy

The Plan

On Monday, we kick off the week in our Sprint Studio by reviewing the structure and guidelines for running a Design Sprint. We confirm the roles being played by each participant in the room and align on a long-term goal. Once we’ve found our challenge, we create a quick journey map, which helps the team identify the specific problem to be solved. In the afternoon, we interview experts in the company to learn more about the problem and gain insights on how to solve it by reframing problems as opportunities.

The Plot

Our story begins on a Monday, and we had already broken the rules. A Design Sprint proper starts at 10AM and ends at 5PM, with lunch at 1:00PM. At DT, our catered team lunches are scheduled for 12:30PM and we didn’t want to disrupt the entire company for a small group of Sprinters, so we moved the daily schedule back a half hour, starting at 9:30AM. This allowed the Roche team to spend time with the entire office and soak in the culture. Another benefit to this time shift: we ended each day at 4:30PM with enough daylight to enjoy the San Diego surf and sun.



Two members of the Design Sprint team from Roche had delayed flights (they were coming from Indianapolis and Germany), but we had to push forward to make the week work. So we began promptly, starting with roundtable introductions. One of the recommended icebreakers is as follows: State your name and two words about what you do. We broke some more rules, tweaking this to include two additional words. So our intros were as follows: State your name. Two words about what you do professionally. And two words about who you are as a human being. My favorite: “Alan. Designer. Strategist. Die-hard Dad.” (he took some liberties with that hyphen :).



While devices are not used during a Design Sprint, we made one exception. The facilitator could refer back to our newly released and free Design Sprint Playbook. This would serve as our guide through the week, and as a place to hold all artifacts created.



It was time to set goals. We shaped the next hour and fifteen minutes with a productive and highly structured exercise called the 666 Roadmap. I know, it sounds dark. We’ve considered changing it to 777 for good luck. But for the time being, 666 it remained. If you work in the startup world, this is a fairly common approach to aligning product vision. For Roche, a company founded in Switzerland in 1896, this was a new concept.

Rather than projecting what a roadmap might look like for Roche at large, we roadmapped how this design sprint and the methodologies within it might impact the company from an innovation perspective.

It became clear that introducing Design Sprints and getting stakeholder buy-in was a 6 week priority. Parallel to that, if the prototype we create during the sprint is validated, at 6 weeks the concept could be put into a full design cycle. At 6 months, an MVP of the concept could be near completion, and by then the organization would be adopting lean methodologies and letting go of antiquated systems. At 6 years, Roche would be people-focused, not product focused. Impacting patient’s lives and partnering with health organizations to solve human problems for high and low tech economies. #nopressure



Mapping time. Identifying the key players involved in the diagnosis and treatment of a diabetic patient, we were ready to learn more about the process to understand where we could make the most impact.



Shot with our favorite whiteboard capturing tool, Microsoft Lens.

Asking the Experts. This was the first “aha!” moment of the week. In addition to speaking with stakeholders, we also reached out to patients living with type 2 diabetes. And it moved the entire room. The insights we gained were great, but the empathy gained was even greater. We observed that some patients have accepted their disease and are working hard to fight it. But others knew they were in trouble yet didn’t even know where to start getting well. One of the greatest learnings was about nutrition. A man spoke about his upbringing in a family where many are diabetic. He spoke of how he “never really learned how to eat well”. So when he goes to the doctor and is told to change his diet, he’s overwhelmed, lost, and doesn’t even know where to start.

Of everyone we spoke to, it became crystal clear that we needed to target nutritional education. If we could impact that area of people’s lives, we could not only help those with the disease, we could potentially prevent others from getting it.



Day one done, and it went really well. Energy was high, optimism was in the air, and we had found our north star for the Design Sprint. At the end of the day, we reminded everyone that we’d start Tuesday by sharing inspiration in a session called Lightning Demos. This gave people something to sleep on. So off to an early dinner and bed we went, saving our energy for the next day of ideation.


What will Tuesday look like? Will we come up with any good ideas worth pursuing? Will the team feel comfortable in this unfamiliar setting of rapid ideation? Subscribe to our blog and see what happens next on A Sprint Story.