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Thought leadership, insights, and success stories

Life Design Sprints Checklist: How to Leap Common Obstacles


Think about what it is like to introduce a new way of thinking to your team or organization, and the challenges you might face. While facilitating Life Design Sprints at RGAX, I have witnessed a fair amount of resistance to change, but there are ways you can overcome and even prevent it. As a facilitator, part of my role is educating before, and coaching throughout, to create an environment that allows every participant to feel comfortable with this new way of solving problems, accelerating innovation, and transforming ideas into products and services.

A big part of the solution is preparation. There is work that needs to be done before a Life Design Sprint, so that the experience will be as effective as possible.

I put together the design sprint checklist below based on some of the tips and tricks most commonly used by those of us who facilitate Life Design Sprints. With these steps, I find that participants are consistently able to embrace a Life Design Sprint and, more importantly, deliver results that continue to add value to the organization long after the sprint.

Get ready with pre-sprint work

It’s common for people to be uncomfortable when they don’t know what to expect, so it’s important to understand their assumptions and to set expectations. Efficiencies will be created when everyone is on the same page. As the person championing the design sprint, these are things you can do to get your group ready for the sprint.

  • Gather background: Early on, work to understand the problem you hope to solve. This will include, but not be limited to, identifying the impact the problem is having on your customers and/or your business, who it affects, any past attempts at solving it, and what metrics are (or should be) used to measure results. Developing a standard problem statement template for your organization or even leveraging RGAX’s may be helpful.
  • Align around a purpose: Agree on the mission and purpose of the design sprint as soon as possible. Early in the process it should be clear why everyone is getting together to solve this. A pre-sprint survey lets you see where everyone’s heads are at relative to the topic. Getting a high-level understanding and general alignment within the team prior to the sprint helps prevent any significant disagreements or bottlenecks. Share the information with your team members and your facilitator, so everyone has full transparency.
  • Set expectations: By priming participants with what to expect during the sprint, people can start thinking about the objective in advance and won’t be surprised by the process. Whenever possible, it is best for participants to familiarize themselves with the basics of the design sprint methodology in advance. Your sprint facilitator should be able to provide some helpful resources.


Problem audit: When not to sprint

Some types of problems are not right for a design sprint – such as problems that lack a business case, don’t align with the company’s mission, or pet projects that stand apart from the normal flow of the operations.

  • Ask yourself: Is this the right problem? Work with the sprint facilitator in advance to articulate a problem statement. The ultimate goal is to identify a problem that reflects an unmet need in the market, something that multiple customers are experiencing and will pay your company to solve.

Decide who to invite

Identifying and engaging a productively diverse group of seven to eight stakeholders can be daunting, so follow these steps to help you select the right participants.

  • Invite the right people: Once you’ve defined the problem (in the step above), you need to identify job roles that are impacted by it or are knowledgeable about it. The roles should be diverse. Think about who should be involved in implementing the solution across all dimensions, such as underwriting, claims, IT, administration and digital distribution.
  • Select backups: After defining the roles, identify one person (and a backup) for each role. The people you select should have a strong line of sight into their area of the business and be able to articulate how their team functions and how it would be involved in or affected by a solution.
  • Choose a decider: The decider is someone who can break ties in the sprint and often is the ultimate project owner, the sponsor, or the champion who will lead the project.


Manage interpersonal dynamics

In a Life Design Sprint, everyone’s opinions and contributions are equal, the only exception being the few times when the decider must break a tie or synthesize the groups thoughts into a single course of action at a critical time. In a company culture that habitually defers to a senior leader, or has intense personalities, interpersonal dynamics can be an obstacle to be overcome. Here are ways to handle interpersonal dynamics (many of which we as facilitators will help manage during the course of the sprint):

  • Define everyone’s roles in advance: Invite each participant to fill a distinct role and contribute their expertise from that context. Similarly, the senior leader will also need a specific role to fill, such as to provide holistic value chain expertise – without putting their finger on the scale. Since the facilitator plays a neutral role, I find it effective for me to reiterate these roles at the beginning of the sprint, so that everyone understands each participant’s value.
  • Beware of the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion): Having a senior leader in the room can be very valuable: they provide a cross-functional perspective as well as support for a fledgling project moving forward. However, if the room begins to get pulled into the gravity of the HiPPO, then you will often miss out on opportunities to benefit from the collective knowledge of the group. If you are concerned about a HiPPO, you can discuss this in advance with your facilitator to help navigate the best approach. For example, if a senior leader’s dominance won’t be overcome, you may choose to invite the leader to participate in the first part of the sprint when the objective is set, and then depart before the working session. Alternately, sometimes the individual can be assigned the role of a non-participating observer, so they can gain insight from people they don’t hear from often.
  • No naysayers: While it’s important to challenge ideas, it needs to be done in the right way and for the right reasons. Be aware of people’s objections to conducting a design sprint and understand whether the pushback is personal or defensive, rather than rational objections related to the business case. You may choose to run the sprint without inviting individuals who are opposed to any progress being made around a certain topic, if they cannot contribute to productive disagreements and constructive collaborations. Ultimately, it’s best to include diverse viewpoints, provided everyone is interested in solving more problems than they create.
  • Set up a safe environment: Recognize that unlike email, individuals may feel exposed in a design sprint. We set the expectation that it is okay to be hard on ideas but not on people, and we work to create a safe environment in which people can both share their own expertise and ask questions when they are outside of their area of focus. Participants need to come prepared to ask questions and be willing to not have all the answers.

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Find a time on the calendar

Finding a free week on everyone’s calendar can be an obstacle to scheduling a design sprint. Or, participants may sign on and then cancel.

  • Recognize the value of focus: The value of giving people time to come together and dissect an important business problem without having to multitask cannot be overstated. Consider how this time will be better spent than the business-as-usual alternative, often iterative emails. It is important to remember that you can always work with your facilitator ahead of time to shorten the sprint as needed. With sprints, as with many things, it’s about quality over quantity.
  • Commit to a quorum: This way you’ll know if the show can go on in the absence of a participant. My experience is that it doesn’t work to have someone call in remotely; everyone needs to be in the room. (Remember your backups!)


Eliminate distractions during the sprint

People showing up physically but not mentally can be an obstacle. They may work on their computer, step out to take a call, or have side conversations.

  • Agree on norms: It is best if the facilitator sets norms of participation in advance and at the beginning of the sprint: no phones, no computers, no calls, and no side conversations. 
  • Get up and come together: Set expectations that participants will be asked to work in non-traditional ways such as getting up out of their chairs and working in clusters near whiteboards. All of which result in less distraction and greater engagement.

Accept company history

It’s important to understand and respect company history. When a similar project has failed at the company in the past, negative perceptions may be an obstacle to tackling the problem in a design sprint. When reflecting on this, be sure to share your insights with your facilitator, so they can be cautious when navigating too closely to no-fly zones.

  • Know your history: Understand the context and depth of any negative perceptions around a business unit or approach and address them head-on. This will help ensure that anything coming out of a sprint which appears too similar to a verboten concept will be given a chance on its own merits.
  • Don’t repeat the past: There will be times in which it is tempting to try to work on a problem that is simply too charged, risky, or political. If a solution would be dead on arrival or is legitimately too similar to something already done or being worked on elsewhere in the organization, choose a different but equally valuable problem that doesn’t come with the historical or emotional baggage.

Overcome doubts 

It seems like every five years there’s a popular new business methodology or framework (like design sprints!) that promises to solve all your operational problems, cure all diseases and end world hunger. Understandably skeptical stakeholders and executives can be turned around by outlining the underlying purpose of a sprint in plain English without buzzwords or unrealistic expectations. Your facilitator can help you with this.

  • Explain the value of a design sprint: Understand that the biggest benefits of a Life Design Sprint come from the simple act of bringing together a group of motivated individuals, diverse in their talents but aligned in their mission, led by a trained facilitator, and given permission to focus on one problem at a time. When you do this, great progress can be made in a short amount of time. It’s not magic; it’s a marriage of focus and facilitation.
  • Don’t overpromise: A Life Design Sprint reflects best practices from multiple fields including cognitive science, consumer-centric design, and lean methodologies that all emphasize getting the most output from the least amount of effort. The facts do speak for themselves: By using Life Design Sprints our clients consistently begin with a vague problem or goal and get to a clearly articulated strategy with corresponding tactics within just a few days.
  • Understand and overcome inertia: Often we are brought in when a project has languished for weeks or months (sometimes years), because no one knew how to break out of early-stage inertia. A Life Design Sprint can help identify what needs to be done and clarify the expected benefits, so people can know what to do and why they are doing it.

Let RGAX guide you

Whether your company is an established life insurance carrier or tech entrepreneurs ready to apply your skills to a problem in the insurance market, RGAX is here to help you transform the industry.

Contact us about Life Design Sprints and learn how we make it easier for you to deliver insurance innovation.

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Below is your cheat sheet and checklist to make sure you are ready for innovation.

Pre-Sprint Success Checklist

  • Gather background
  • Align around a purpose
  • Set expectations
  • Ask yourself: Is this the right problem?
  • Invite the right people
  • Select backups
  • Choose a decider
  • Define everyone’s roles in advance
  • Beware of the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion)
  • No naysayers
  • Set up a safe environment
  • Recognize the value of focus
  • Commit to a quorum
  • Agree on norms
  • Get up and come together
  • Know your history
  • Don’t repeat the past
  • Explain the value of a design sprint
  • Don’t overpromise
  • Understand and overcome inertia

Written by: Chase Huey

As the Digital Ventures Manager at RGAX, Chase Huey is responsible for developing and validating early-stage business concepts as they progress through the pipeline. Chase has a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree from Carleton College and an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis. During his graduate studies, he completed consulting practicums for start-ups in the U.S. and Israel. After graduating, he worked in technology business development and early-concept validation consulting before joining RGAX as an Entrepreneur in Residence and then becoming a full-time employee in 2016.

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