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Conducting the Discovery Sprint

Part of having a successful sprint is your team’s attitude from the start. Approach the work and the team’s relationships within the organization constructively and positively. You’ll be talking to many people and gathering as much information about the current state of the organization as possible. The meat of the sprint is two weeks of intensive work. It’s crucial to stick to the two-week time commitment to keep everyone focused and the sense of urgency high.

On rare occasions, depending on team size and resource availability, it may be appropriate to extend the length of the sprint a few days (for intensive usability testing or complicated travel, for instance), but it’s important to look back to the goals of the sprint and avoid scope creep. You are not here to do a full project or to create solutions.

It is also important to figure out the sprint’s north star and check in on this often. Otherwise, sprints happen so quickly that it’s easy a team can lose sight of this. North stars are often a combination of organizational goals, team goals, and USDS values. Good “north star” targets are flexible enough to accommodate new information but fixed enough to serve as guidelines for if a particular interview or investigation path is worth the team’s time. Ultimately, your north star should tell you what you are trying to accomplish with the sprint.

The discovery sprint is the start of a conversation with an organization to help them determine where to go. You are there help an organization look at something with fresh eyes and should be realistic about what you can accomplish in two weeks. Make sure to loop in your sprint stakeholders to get their input on this as well. Lastly, as the sprint team uncovers more information, you should constantly refocus and reprioritize to respond accordingly.

It is the sprint team’s role to uncover what the organization’s needs are, understand the big picture, and provide recommendations that are realistic to achieve, taking into account what is actually possible for the organization to implement.

Sprint expectations

As a sprint team participant, be proactive and self-organize. The sprint team lead is there to help direct the team, but team members should take initiative and have the freedom to chase things down. The time on the sprint will move quickly and tasks can change daily – or even hourly. Schedules and meetings should be fluid to make sure you are using the time wisely for everyone involved. Patience, flexibility, and communication are key.

Here are some tips to keep in mind and revisit often while you are doing your research:

  • Work from a learning mindset: you are there to learn from and enable your partners
  • The organization has tremendous expertise and will have expended significant effort in this problem space already
  • You are very likely not the first team that has shown up to help them on these issues
  • They are also setting time aside for you on top of their other responsibilities
  • Lastly, a reminder that the point of discovery is to look for the root causes and opportunities

It can be easy to fall back to a mode of just identifying all the problems and why they are harmful. It’s easy for anyone to see the problems. There are often reams of paper and a big backlog that detail these shortcomings. This is only part of the work. The goal of the discovery sprint is not to add to that pile of paper. It’s important to identify practical, pragmatic steps the organization can take to drive improvements and change.

Typical day

The bulk of each day will be spent meeting with agency stakeholders and users so begin and end each day with a team stand-up. Set goals and expectations and review the day’s schedule in the morning. Recap accomplishments, discuss any findings, and plan for the next day in the evening. When you are moving and learning this quickly, staying grounded with your team is key.

Oftentimes, stakeholders want to know why they are talking to sprint team members so being clear with your quick pitch will be helpful. During the day, build in breaks to keep the team in sync and for periodic sharing and reflections. Start a document where team members can add high-level notes and keep track of potential items to explore. The sooner you can get a rough framing of your findings, the easier the report writing phase will go.

Sample schedule

On Day One of the discovery sprint, the sprint team lead should have already pre-scheduled interviews with the organization’s relevant stakeholders and users so that the team can get started right away. See the interview guide for in-depth details on how to conduct interviews.

The team is there to learn as much about the organization as possible. It’s good to start talking with managers and leads, but also important to talk with individual contributors who are as close to the work as possible (engineers, contractors, analysts, call center operators, etc). You are there to respectfully surface areas for improvement, and, even more importantly, to look for ways to offer practical, tactical recommendations for how to achieve these improvements.

Beginning of Week One

  • Start the day with a quick team stand-up, going over:
    • The schedule for the day
    • Who is doing what
    • Any blockers the sprint team lead should know
  • Conduct individual interviews (leadership, stakeholders, staff, and users)
  • At lunch, do a quick debrief and identify any changes going into the afternoon
  • Conduct individual interviews, chasing down leads from the morning interviews
  • End the day with another team debrief and setup for the next day

Middle of Week One

  • Continue team check-ins throughout the day as above
  • Continue interviews, requesting more, if needed, depending on findings
  • Talk to and observe end users if possible
  • Have the team brain dump everything you’ve learned in a structured way
  • Start to formulate a hypothesis and surface areas where you still have questions
  • Figure out who else you need to talk to and devise a plan to talk to them

End of Week One

  • Continue team check-ins throughout the day as above
  • Hold interviews with SMEs to answer any outstanding questions
  • Continue talking to and observing people and processes
  • Check in with key stakeholders to review findings to date; iterate as necessary based on their feedback
  • Schedule interviews with additional people identified for the next week
  • Brainstorm with the team on potential recommendations, using methods like affinity mapping
  • Begin to structure findings and recommendations into an outline

Remember that, while in some instances there’s a clear path to a solution, the answer is not limited to technology. The team’s job during the research phase is to review, not only the technology, but also the roles, mindsets, processes and policy.

Take time every day to share out what you’ve learned and discuss possible next steps. This will prevent the sprint from going down specific paths too quickly and is useful for re-focusing the team and providing concrete next steps. As you collect notes and interviews, themes will emerge that will help target your activities.

Ideally, by the end of the first week, you should have some concrete directions to chase down and should spend the second week more focused on those areas. Focus on getting as complete a picture as possible of the current state of the organization and the history that led up to it. Spend time understanding organizational dynamics and relationships, and identify decision points, pain points, and aspirations.

Beginning of Week Two

  • Get together as a team to pull threads identified in week one
  • Define the team’s deliverables for the conclusion of the sprint
  • Narrow in on a handful of findings that would make sense for the report
  • Converge on areas to focus on for week two
  • Continue interviews, following up on the key outstanding questions
  • Begin to draft the report and presentation based on an outline from week one

Middle of Week Two

  • Continue team check-ins to debrief and share findings and insights
  • Update the team’s affinity map of findings throughout the week
  • Continue talking to and observing people and processes
  • Start to figure out how to deliver your recommendations

End of Week Two

  • Wrap up any outstanding interviews
  • Determine the deadlines and outputs for the week three
  • Check in with key stakeholders to review findings to date
  • Iterate as necessary based on stakeholders’ feedback
  • Continue to refine the draft report and presentation

Once you have a good understanding of the organization and its challenges, you should tailor your approach to what makes sense for the organization. A project or initiative that is just starting is going to be in a different place than one that has a large backlog that needs to be resolved.

Regular reporting to your stakeholders

Part of the responsibilities of the sprint team lead is to maintain good communication with the team’s stakeholders throughout the duration of the sprint. This can be done using whatever methods make sense for the people involved (phone calls, emails, etc). Daily and or weekly check-ins help keep everyone on the same page.

Remember that your senior stakeholders are the ones who will bear the responsibility of anything you discover as well as all the recommendations in your report. It’s better not to surprise them. Interacting with them as true partners will help you set them up for success. Allowing a key stakeholder or two to see an early draft of your findings will give them the chance to weigh in on how to message some of your reporting in ways that their organization can hear, and that they themselves can prepare for. They may not always agree with you, but they shouldn’t feel caught off guard either.