Design Thinking and Google Design Sprints

Google Design Sprints – like Design Thinking on Speed

Bild: Ablauf von Google Design Sprints
After “Design Thinking”, the “Google Design Sprint” is the new golden calf of innovation. But what is the method really suitable for?

Question: “How long will this task take you?”
Answer: “Not for long, but we don’t know exactly how long.”

If you and your team are entering unfamiliar terrain in projects or need to solve a particularly tricky problem, you might have heard it before. The answer is of course unsatisfactory, because processes usually have a deadline. But be careful! Because it may well be that your team is currently in the flow state. And you should definitely promote this condition.


Please do not disturb – we are in the zone!

The team is focused and has worked its way into unknown terrain. The concentration level has increased, and so has the pressure. In the flow state, its members find themselves in a state of shared creativity and are extremely engaged. Therefore, they don’t want to be disturbed.

The flow state

The term “flow” originates from psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The concept describes a state of consciousness, in which an increasing challenge meets an equally increasing sense of growing abilities.

Flow is a state of equilibrium that feels very good for people experiencing it. And it can immensely increase productivity .

It is worth exploring the concept of the flow in more detail (doing so, you will come across famous names such as Kurt Hahn and Maria Montessori…), because the solution to real challenges will most often be found in this state.


Abbildung: Der Flow-Zustand
The Flow Model by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It is about the balance between challenge and ability.


Flow can’t be created on purpose

Getting in a state of flow is a stroke of luck for a project team, but unfortunately the flow state is not stable. If a challenge that the team has to face increases and leads to an overload, the stress level gets too high and the flow state will be destroyed. (And we all know what deadlines might mean in this context.)

Also, it is almost impossible to create a state of flow from the outside. Flow cannot be “made” – you can only create conditions from which it may arise. This applies to individual human performance and even more so to the group. In our project practice, we must therefore take a close look at the conditions that promote or prevent flow. This applies above all to the chosen work processes.

Flow cannot be “made” – you can only create conditions from which it may arise.
Felix Guder

7 favorable conditions for flow:

  • You know what you are doing
  • You know how to do it
  • You can “feel it”
  • You know where your journey is going
  • The challenge is big
  • You abilities suffice to best the challenge
  • Nobody disturbs you and interrupts your work

Schaffer (2013)


Iterative processes promote flow

Basically, a team that is able to determine its own tasks and pace of work will reach the state of flow much more easily than a team that moves in a very rigid corset of time and tasks. SCRUM is so successful because it is an agile method that enables the teams to achieve extreme increases in performance. But unfortunately, SCRUM is an implementation method, not a creative framework.

At first glance, design thinking looks promising: teamwork, a prepared process, a high degree of self-determination. It looks ideal, actually. Practical experience shows, however, that Design Thinking provides different challenges for the individual team members during its various phases. While one part of the group feels doesn’t feel particularly challenged by the ideation process, the other part of the group could experience a moment of overstrain. This effect increases the more heterogeneous the team is, and the less clear the time constraints are and the more unknown the goal is. These three factors are, however, based on the theory of Design Thinking’s success factors.

The absence of flow is therefore a well-known phenomenon of design thinking, which often leads to its rejection.

Abbildung: Google Design Sprints
Google Design Sprints: What do you learn, really? And where is the customer in this process?


Google Design Sprints are Design Thinking on Speed

There is a supposedly simple way to increase the performance of design thinking that is heard of everywhere. Of course we are talking about the sprint! Because “sprints”, that sounds fast. Short development cycles increase the pressure; requirements increase, the team performs. The Design Thinking Sprint is born!

10 days, 5 days, cycle is getting shorter. But what does this mean for the output?

Let us recall what feeling overwhelmed: it causes stress, sometimes even fear. But the short time-frame narrows the designers’ fields of vision. In other words, stress severely restricts the scope for design thinking.


The structure of Google Design Sprints

Even though Google is one of the most innovative companies in the world Google Design Sprints as a method are even more radical than Design Thinking. And a closer look reveals that the term “design” shouldn’t even be part of the process’ name.

Google Design Sprints organize a team process to solve a problem in 5 days. Yes, in only five days! From problem to prototype testing in front of the customer:

Day 1 (Monday)


Customers, market, opportunities. Then define a goal.

Day 2 (Tuesday)


Develop solutions and organize customers for the test on Friday.

Day 3 (Wednesday)


Which solution should be tested on Friday and how?

Day 4 (Thursday)


Development of the prototype for the test scenario.

Day 5 (Friday)


In front of customer, with a convincing prototype.


During this week, Google Design Sprints offer a range of tools to help fill the process with life and make it easier. It all sounds very good at first: A prototype within a week… Wow! But let’s face it – no user research, no context, and no empathy? And only one prototype that the customer can judge, but they can’t compare it to others? Is that user centricity?

And now we imagine a really heterogeneous team: a few creative minds who constantly question the status quo, a few experts in technology, marketing and development. There will be introverted characters that need time until Wednesday to develop enough confidence in the team. Until then, they will give little input – and certainly not on the first day. On the other hand the creative people must deliver on the second day without having explored the topic in its breadth. For the rest of the week, you’ll have to fight your way through building a prototype together. This fills the typical working week and, in fairness, you can then relax on days 6 and 7 in almost heavenly peace. The method developed by Google Ventures sounds like Design Thinking on Speed.


A solution in only 5 days?

The method’s advantage: With the Google Design Sprint, every solution must culminate in a convincing prototype after 5 days… or it will be rejected. This means that one of the most important principles of lean management has already been implemented.

However, the method also limits its effectiveness. In 5 days you can work with a multidisciplinary team a prototype from existing knowledge, but a deeper engagement with the task at hand cannot take place in this short of a time. Without research, the team’s possibility space is not extended, let alone even a teambuilding process started.


Initial experience shows that these sprints are extremely unstable

Nothing really happens in the first attempts. The tested prototypes solve, if at all, only partial problems, and there is no generation of sustainable and unexpected ideas. This means that the methodology falls short of the possibilities offered by SCRUM, because team-building measures such as retrospectives or joint estimation, which have been suggested in the SCRUM process, are completely lacking. Thus, the Google Design Sprint is not suitable for solving the problems of design thinking.


Processes should serve people – not vice versa.

Google Design Sprints also follow a growing trend of promoting processes as a response to the increasing challenges companies have to face. The approaches are becoming increasingly radical. It is possible that Google Design Sprints may be a good method for some start-ups, it may also be possible that they help prototyping with a rapid implementation, but in essence this means: people are subject to the process.

There is a big danger that in this scenario the people will be enslaved by the process instead of the process supporting them. This is a danger that we can increasingly observe in design thinking: the process is meticulously followed, method by method. Innovation on the assembly line – an algorithm determines creative freedom. However, the results will then fall short of expectation. It is these developments that we wanted to address by introducing our strategic design framework. Because we are convinced that people over process is the way to meaningful innovation in the future.