Lessons From 4 Years of High Alpha Sprint Weeks

by Eric Tobias - Partner

We just wrapped up our 16th Sprint Week at High Alpha. We shut down our office, split into cross-functional teams, and work throughout the week to produce a business (or four). At the end of the week, it’s incredible to look back on how much work has been done. Sprint Week is our forcing function for creating new businesses, but the lessons we learn during Sprint Week are applicable to every business.

After going through this process 16 times, there are three big takeaways I want to share: the power of unstructured time, the importance of speaking with customers to break internal log jams, and the amazing forcing function of a deadline.

The Power of Unstructured Time

We all suffer from being over-scheduled. How many times do you find yourself going through a meeting, getting to the end, and saying something like “we’ll pick this back up tomorrow”? Or next week? We’re always kicking the can because we often have other commitments. During Sprint Week, this excuse is removed from the ideation and collaboration process because we’ve cleared our calendars! There’s no ‘next thing’ to get to.

For me, this has reinforced my need to block hours on my calendar to work on the most important things of the day. That could be whiteboarding a new solution, meeting with my team, or simply heads down time to get work done. As our companies grow and we add more and more people to the team, unstructured time seems to vanish. I’d encourage you to fight this trend as I’ve found it to be critical to the ideation process.

Customer Feedback Is Currency

Most of us in product roles would like to think we understand exactly why we are building something. But do we? Do we really understand the problems our customers face and how acute the pain of that problem may be? As part of the Sprint Week process, we debate a fair amount about what the product should do, what price to charge for it, and who the ideal customer is. These challenges are especially big when creating a new company because we don’t have an existing data set to pull from.

We’ve learned that when we get stuck or we can’t reach a clear vision, the best thing to do is reach out to five prospects and interview them. And guess what? It works every time. They either validate our path or challenge us to think about the problem in different ways. Regardless, it always moves us forward. I think this is an important lesson that can and should be applied to our daily work. When is the last time you spoke to a customer? My former boss at Salesforce and now the CEO of MetaCX, Scott McCorkle, made a habit of talking to a customer every day. He could have easily said he was too busy but he literally wouldn’t go home for the day until he had talked to a customer. Understanding the problems of our customers makes us better designers, engineers, product managers, etc.

Deadlines Force Action

It might sound elementary, but one of the most effective ways to get something done is to put a deadline on it. One of the magic parts of Sprint Week is we start on Monday and we present to one another on Thursday. We have just four days to make hundreds of decisions. The time constraint creates an incredible urgency around the work product and the decision-making to support that work product.

As I’ve reflected on how this methodology can and should be applied to daily life, I believe one of the most important jobs of a designer, engineer, or product manager is to create appropriate constraints for themselves and/or their team. In most cases, the constraint is a deadline. Too often, we say “this can’t be done in that timeline,” but that’s just our way of protecting ourselves from the pain, risk, or vulnerability that comes with having to face an aggressive deadline.

At High Alpha, we have three core values and they are often in conflict with each other: Dream Big, Move Fast, Expect More. How can I push myself to Expect More from a deliverable when I am also trying to Move Fast? This is highlighted for me every Sprint Week when I think to myself, “There is no way we are going to make it” — but every Sprint Week, we do. The work product always ends up blowing us all away.

As humans, when we have the option to do it now or do it later, we often will choose later. A deadline helps us remove this natural default in our brains. The deadlines of Sprint Week have helped me to experience incredible personal growth, forming tight connections with my colleagues who are also realizing that we can do more than we think we can! I challenge you to think about how you can apply this thinking in your role. The product function of a software company faces incredible pressure to deliver, so it’s natural that we push back on timelines. But next time you find yourself defaulting to “that’s too aggressive” — stop and challenge yourself and your team to try. You might just be amazed at what happens.