Book Review: Jake Knapp – SPRINT. Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Book Review: Jake Knapp – SPRINT. Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

This is where I am coming from: having much time spent with innovation strategy, there must be time for innovation tactics.

Knapp’s book is all about Innovation Tactics: the manuals, checklists, and methods provided in the book will appeal to investors, business owners, corporate department heads, and anyone who has a great innovative concept but doesn’t know where to start.

Many confuse strategy and tactics. While strategy is the action plan that takes you where you want to go, tactics are the individual steps and actions that will get you there. In an innovation context, this means the specific actions that innovators take to implement the initiatives outlined in the innovation strategy. In short words: who must do what, and when, in order to convert an idea into money, within a short time?

My “4×4 Innovation Strategy” book gives you a complete picture of what you need to have completed for a successful innovation project. And you can get a recap about innovation strategy in the form of 4×4 Innovation Strategy, the Serial Innovators Convergence strategy, the Blue Ocean strategy, and the Ansoff strategy if you follow this link (click here).

And now to the innovation tactics in Jake Knapp’s book “SPRINT Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days”. There are 1,000 ways to skin a cat, and there are equally as many ways to convert an idea into money, within a short time. Knapp describes one of those 1,000 innovation tactics, which is: combining several earlier known innovation tactics into a group action plan for 5 workdays, and all that in a very comprehensive way.


This Is How Knapp’s Innovation Tactic Works

In very short words, Knapp’s innovation tactics are that you dedicate one entire workweek to developing one innovation. That means five days of intense, focused immersion in closed-door meetings with no more than seven participants: that is called a “Sprint”. There must be a “Decider” – someone with the authority to make decisions. Sprints have to move fast, experiment, reach conclusions, and test them with real consumers.

This is what is done on these respective five days of that workweek:

  • Monday: Define a Goal and Create a Strategic Framework that frames your steps toward identifying the solution to the problem at hand. The book provides ample guidance for this step because the strategic map is pivotal.
  • Tuesday: Discuss Solutions and Then Work Alone. Knapp suggests examining techniques that other companies are using to address problems like yours and then to sketch out your ideal solutions. Then have each person work alone, in silence, and under time constraints to create a storyboard that shows his or her best idea.
  • Wednesday: Cull Ideas and Create a Final Storyboard. Sort and compare ideas, vote and count the votes. Choose one prototype or a combination, and sketch out the winning ideas as a storyboard showing an outline of your solution, whether it’s a website, a product or an advertising or marketing initiative. In case of doubt, the voting can be replaced by a decision of the Decider.
  • Thursday: Build a Prototype of the Sprint’s Final Selection. That includes assigning each team member to a defined role: “Maker, Stitcher, Writer, Asset Collector” and “Interviewer.” Each person, in their role, contributes to the prototype. The Decider reviews it. Then, the Interviewer writes the script for Friday’s interviews with consumers.
  • Friday: Stage and Watch Customer Interviews. Customers have earlier been lined up. The Sprint team watches client interviews together, live on webcams. Whether the prototype fails, hits big, or is a partial success, the team will learn a lot for its next iteration to come.

Here come the questions that I asked myself when reading Knapp’s book, together with the answers that I have found.


How is Knapp’s book different from others in the field?

The first thing that jumped at me was that the editor and the author have put a lot of work and attention into this book. It comes with a very clear structure in the first place and the eight chapters of the book are visibly separated from each other by a blue separation page each. A lot of work has visibly been put into the index of the book: eight narrow-lined pages of index, in two columns per page, for a book that is only 272 pages long, in total.

Knapp is a visibly smart, enthusiastic, and passionate author and he has put much work into the book for providing his knowledge in very simple language that can be easily understood by a 14-years old. If you are a creative person yourself, you will be bursting with new ideas of ways to apply their approach to your familiar problems or emerging projects.

I compare Knapp’s book with other innovation tactics books, such as “Inspired” by Marty Cagan, “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug, “Hooked” by Nir Eyal, and “The Startup Owner’s Guide” by Steve Blank. What I can say is that Jake Knapp’s “SPRINT Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” is very to the practical point of getting started and completing the mission.

You can take the book as a script for managing a small team that does a small incremental innovation within five days only. Knapp’s book provides checklists for the innovation team manager and gives specific hints on how to prepare and execute collective decisions within that team. Specific tools are provided that I have not seen being put together by other books. What comes closest to Knapp’s book is “The Startup Owner’s Guide” by Steve Blank, but that one is more holistic, it is twice as long, and it does not take care of specific timelines when it comes to innovative projects.


How can someone implement this information productively?

I can imagine at least three ways of implementing Knapp’s book productively. The first way would be certainly for the Google company. Knapp has written his book while he was working for the Google company, organizing innovation workshops for Google engineers and also with startups that Google has invested in. It is very handy to have a full-fledged book about the structure of how to innovate when a new engineer or startup joins the family. That book helps tremendously to cut the learning curve.

Another way to implement the information from Knapp’s book is to use it as a blueprint for your own company’s innovation culture. Most companies that I am aware of do not have such an innovation culture in an explicitly codified form, and Knapp’s book – taken with a pinch of salt – can be a simple basis for that.

A third way to implement the information from Knapp’s book is to use it if you are an innovator and you want to improve your own innovation efficiency. If you follow the steps that are outlined in Knapp’s book then you have a much higher chance to succeed with your new ideas.

And the best is that Knapp’s book shows you how to achieve all that within a very short time, in only a few days. Today, as the pace of change accelerates, even the best ideas have little time to gestate. In such a hurried atmosphere, companies must learn how to identify, polish, map, and test new ideas quickly and thoroughly. Nobody has six months anymore to find out if something works. Knapp’s book provides an immediate remedy for that problem.


Significant Bugs in Knapp’s Book

If seen from the perspective of providing a book that supports a proprietary culture within the Google company, this might not be a bug but a feature: Knapp has renamed technical terms that are commonly used in innovation after borrowing the corresponding underlying concepts from other sources. That is done to a degree that it even becomes difficult to enhance Knapp’s innovation tactics by bringing in new ideas from other sources in the area of innovation.Example: a “prototype” in Knapp’s book is what people that work in innovation call “proof-of-concept” or “conceptual model”. That is a fundamental hurdle because clear Technology Readiness Level values are required if innovators are to synchronize with other departments in the same company or with external suppliers. Elites and those who want to be elites often create their own language, and they proudly use their slang in order to distinguish themselves from outsiders. Again, if this book is what the Google company uses for defining its own company culture in innovation, then this is perfectly ok.

Knapp renames almost the entire Agile/Scrum toolbox. The “product owner” is now the “decider”, the “Scrum master” became the “facilitator”, the “sprint goal” is called “target”, and so on and so on. I started to create a concordance list while I was reading the book so that I could better understand and compare it with what I know from other authors in the field. But I gave up after some time because that was very time-consuming. From what I can see, Knapp’s book – if re-written in the correct language – could be a perfect hands-on introduction to the Agile/Scrum innovation management method and explain how to blend this method with Design Thinking tools in order to provide better and faster innovation.

Just as a piece of background information, blending the strict Agile/Scrum methods with the blur Design Thinking methods is not a straightforward task at all. While Agile focuses on the implementation and conversion of ideas into tangible results in a very structured way, the Design Thinking mindset is focusing on generating a large multitude of ideas, that can even seem to be unrealistic. Design Thinking is wanted to be anarchical and it lacks structure, and it even wants to be fuzzy. Design Thinking is meant to provide a thousand ideas that are fed into an innovation funnel where these thousand ideas are first boiled down to one hundred ideas that make sense and finally finding ten ideas that are worth to be tried out. While Agile/Scrum needs structured thinkers and disciplined workers, Design Thinking needs a multitude of people from different backgrounds, and even a weirdo oddball is seen as being useful because the initial one thousand ideas have to be as broad as possible.

As a result, Knapp has generated an undemocratic step-by-step method for first generating a multitude of ideas on Tuesday that are then culled down on Wednesday, before they are put to practice on Thursday, and tested on Friday. Certainly, no proud Serial Innovator is willing to take such a subjugative position under any management, but if you are stuck with people that have no creativity at all and if only incremental innovation is required, this is a sure-fire way to make them achieve some random success within a very short time.


Significant Gaps in Knapp’s Book

There is one big systematic gap in Kapp’s book. He never talks about any systematic approach toward innovation strategy. All his methods and recipes are strictly tactical. But that is kind of normal in the area of business literature, and that is why Knapp leaves out essential components of innovation, such as “freedom-to-operate” (“FTO”) and “intellectual property protection”. Whenever I have the chance to ask authors why they do that, the standard answer is “because I am not an attorney”. What to say about such a statement? I see the same authors giving legal advice to their customers, based on hearsay. Together with what these customers bring to the table, that becomes a dangerous mixture: very smart technical engineering people have picked up fundamental misconceptions during their careers about how and when and why and if a thing is patentable. And they never realize that innovation is to a large degree about providing FTO. If anything can kill successful innovation then it is a lack of FTO, and this is right after the lack of marketing and sales the second most important reason for failed innovation.

Knapp does not mention other creativity tools, such as TRIZ, that could be of benefit for the Tuesday session when it is all about providing “solution sketches”. Knapp suggests that the team should look at what other companies are using to address problems like yours and from there sketch out your ideal solutions. That suggestion, together with explicitly ignoring FTO issues, can later lead to a massive patent infringement problem. A big company such as Google may not care about that, but for smaller companies that can be a serious issue.

And Knapp does also not discuss the personality traits of typical innovators, and probably the same as above applies, here with respect to using creativity tools. This might be because the problems that Knapp’s book is discussing are all about incremental innovation, and not about breakthrough innovation. It is true that incremental innovation does not need a high degree of creativity, so this matter can be left away when discussing Knapp’s preferred innovation tactics.

I do not know what Knapp was aiming at when he wrote his book. I may find out soon because I have invited him to one of my Clubhouse radio shows.

What are the three most important ideas to remember?

The most important key idea #1 to remember is that a team can be useful for innovation, if only the right people are there and if the team is managed in the right way. Knapp suggests that the people present at a productive Sprint include the person who originated the idea, five experts – in finance, marketing, customer concerns, design, and technology/logistics – and one rebel, someone who can buck the status quo that emerges over the five-day Sprint, but who is not a jerk. And there should be a facilitator who can be objective about the process and who has a high degree of empathy.

The most important key idea #2 is to remember that participants leave all their electronic devices – phones, tablets, and laptops – behind. You have two big whiteboards and a supply of snacks. Participants have to eat small portions of the snacks to keep their energy from flagging.

The most important key idea #3 is that when you hammer out the prototype on Thursday, you have to solve the surface first. This is where your product or service meets customers. Human beings are complex and fickle, so it is impossible to predict how they will react to a brand-new product. You have to get that surface right, and only then can you work backward to figure out the underlying systems or technology. Focusing on the surface allows you to move fast and answer big questions before you commit to execution. This is why and challenge, no matter how large, can benefit from a Sprint. And this is why Knapp recommends adopting the “prototype mindset” that is made up of four principles: 1) You Can Prototype Anything, 2) Prototypes Are Disposable, 3) Build Just Enough to Learn, but not more, and 4) The Prototype Must Appear Real.


What are three key facts to remember?

The most important key fact #1 to remember is that brainstorming meetings don’t work. They seldom produce the best ideas or most efficient solutions. Brainstorming is fun but unfocused:

Individual generated ideas were better. When the excitement of the workshop was over, the brainstorm ideas just couldn’t compete.

Knapp recognized that someone who is working obsessively at his or her desk or thinking during a bike ride usually comes up with concepts that the participants of brainstorming sessions cannot invent. That discovery got him thinking about a workable combination of the two realms – brainstorming meetings and solo thinking. After recognizing that, Knapp teamed up with John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz, and they figured out their step-by-step Sprint strategy that is described in Knapp’s book. That is a commonly known insight in innovation: committees are never innovative.

The most important key fact #2 to remember is that “Five is the Magic Number” when it comes to user research by doing customer interviews. 85 percent of the problems were observed after interviewing just five people. By the time when observing the fifth customer, you find yourself confirming patterns that showed up in the first four interviews. Testing with more customers just is not worth it.

The most important key fact #3 to remember is that when it comes to decisions that have to be made during innovation, committees are not the right instance:

When people work together in groups, they start to worry about consensus and try to make decisions that everybody will approve – mostly out of good nature and a desire for group cohesion, and perhaps in part because democracy feels good.

That is why democracy has no place in Knapp’s Sprint projects. The Decider is provided for decisions, and Knapp admits that being a Decider is not easy. Many Deciders feel the pressure of having to make the right decisions for their companies and teams.


I like Knapp’s innovation tactics because it is a very straightforward way of putting abstract ideas together so that they can be tested with real customers.

The danger here is that once you master one innovation tactic you may find that because you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. This is not the case in general, and especially not for innovation. There are many innovation tactics out there, and you need to learn how to apply many of them before you can say to yourself that you are a seasoned innovator. Start today, by reading Knapp’s book that I have reviewed above.

And never apply any innovation tactics without having an innovation strategy in place. You can start here:

You will like it, promised.


Martin “Innovation Tactics” Schweiger


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