Photo Credit Jan Garrison
And failure is a viable option
October 5, 2017

“Watch the elbow.”

Author and entrepreneur Jake Knapp said to successfully execute a high five, watch the elbow and not the hand. Because the elbow stays relatively fixed, indicating where the hand will be.

The same is true in developing new ideas or businesses. So many businesses and people focus on the end result – the hand – they miss the mark. Knapp, who co-authored the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, said it is important to focus on the starting point – the elbow.

Knapp’s appearance at Culver Academies was sponsored by The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur. He spoke at a special all-school meeting on Sept. 27 and conducted a special question-and-answer session in the evening. The Sprint program Knapp outlines in his book was used by Rubin School teams during their work on the Cummins Challenge last spring.

Kapp told the audience about his experience working at Microsoft in 2001 to show how not to attack a problem. The project involved Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, which was sold as a CD. The engineers and programmers spent months in developing a newer version of Encarta.  And they simply ignored an upstart free service called Wikipedia that was available online.

By 2003, they had designed Encarta to be easier and faster to navigate. Since it would be sold in stores, they called in the marketing people to design the box that would sit on store shelves. That happened at the end of the process and since the marketing people weren’t aware of the breakthroughs, they reduced the most significant changes to just a single line on the box.

Meanwhile, Google Search was making finding information online easier – especially Wikipedia entries. Sales of Encarta dropped. And, as the years went by, that profit from Encarta dwindled. Some people in Microsoft suggested making Encarta free online, he said, but others did not want to give up that revenue stream.

Eventually, Encarta died out. Now, when someone searches for Encarta on Google, the first reference listed is Wikipedia’s entry. “It’s so sad,” Knapp said.

The Sprint design method was developed after Knapp moved to Google. Assigned to work on Google Meeting, a video service, he was sent to Stockholm, Sweden, to work with two other team members. Stockholm during the dead of winter meant they had a lot time to devote to the project. They cleared their calendars for the week and went to work. And everything just clicked. That success made Knapp wonder if the process could be replicated.

Concentrating on the starting point and the diversity of skill sets among those working on the project turned out to be the key elements. The process involves going from an idea or concept through the challenges to a “prototype” in just five days. Even if the team fails, Knapp said, it “fails fast” so it can get on the right track sooner.

Over the past five years, Knapp has been involved in 150 project sprints. The biggest challenge is making sure you have a diverse set of skills on the team. Next, everyone clears their calendars for one week. Then the team “runs the script.”

Monday is mapping what needs to be done. Tuesday is working on detailed solutions (working alone but in the same room). Wednesday is decision day, choosing which solution to follow. Knapp said this must be done in a fast and decisive manner. Thursday is building a prototype, usually a “fake” model in a presentation program. And Friday is test day, showing the results to a test group of your target customers or audience.

The sprint design process requires taking risks, Knapp said, and you have to be willing to fail. But when the team does fail, it will “fail sooner and on a smaller scale,” he explained. So, even after failing multiple times, the team will still find a solution faster.

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