How to solve big problems as fast as Google does

AUTHOR Q&A: Google Ventures' Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky come up with ideas fast in their new book Sprint.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020
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Food for thought

In a nutshell, what is a sprint?

A sprint's where a team identifies a major problem on a Monday, comes up with solutions on a Tuesday, decides which is the best on a Wednesday, prototypes it on a Thursday and tests it with potential users on a Friday. It's human nature to want to get everything right before you release a product, but it's really dangerous because you could be on the wrong track. A sprint's not a long-term risk like that - if your idea doesn't work out, you've only sacrificed five days.

Where did the idea come from?

After a couple of years at Google, I noticed that when we did our best work, it wasn’t a normal, everyday thing, it was in these strange little bursts of work that happen sometimes. A sprint’s about trying to reproduce those bright spots. We experimented, refined it and made it something universally applicable. It’s not just for software developers. 

What's wrong with brainstorming?

A lot of people really like brainstorming because it's fun and it feels productive, but it still doesn't produce good ideas. We looked back at all the brainstorms we'd done, and no idea that was thought up in them went anywhere. They came about by individuals on their own. The sprint is meant to let those ideas flourish.

That must have gone down well at Google.

Within Google, there's a belief in the meritocracy of ideas. The best ideas come to the top, not because they're from the boss or the most creative person, but because they're the best.

Which is the hardest day in a sprint?

Wednesdays can be challenging because you've got to make lots of decisions. Arguing over the right thing to do can get very tiring in a hurry. We've tried to compress that down so you make as few decisions as possible. It's the distillation of a decision.

What have been your most memorable sprints?

There’s a couple. Flatiron Health was one, trying to organise all its data around cancer treatment. There’s so much going on that it makes our heads hurt, but they’re making progress. It’s exciting to see it working on such hard problems. We also did a sprint with a company called Savioke where we got to prototype a personality for a robot, which was fun. 

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, Braden Kowitz is published by Bantam Press, £13.99

Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky are partners at Google Ventures 

Picture credit: brionv/Wikipedia

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