Starting a meaningful company takes superhuman effort. Founders often find themselves with far too much work to do and not enough time to do it. This will always be the case.
However, many founders make things much harder on themselves and dramatically increase their risk of failure by not effectively prioritizing work. For example, because they believe so much work needs to be done at the same time, they hire more people to get it all done at once, which forces them to burn through their runway faster, leaving less time, money, and energy to complete the initiatives needed to get to their next funding round or achieve their growth target.
According to CB Insights’ 253 Startup Failure Post-Mortems, around 70% of funded startups fail, usually around 20 months after raising an average of $1.3M in total funding. Twenty-nine percent of these founders reported running out of cash as a significant reason for their failure. While some of these companies probably would have failed under any circumstance (e.g. weak value proposition, wrong timing, etc.), how many could have avoided failure had they focused their energy, time, and capital on achieving clearly defined goals that were aligned with their business and product strategy and delayed a lot of work that might have been important but didn’t warrant attention until later?
The goal of a Strategy Sprint is to rapidly define where you are going, what you need to do to get there, and how you’ll measure your progress. Equally important is to provide a framework to help you decide what you can safely ignore, at least for now. By following this approach, you will not just define your strategy, but you will build a shared understanding of it, get buy-in from your core team, and establish a habit of continuously measuring your progress and refining your plan.
The Strategy Sprint borrows heavily from several proven practices. Start by framing your business vision using elements of Brand Sprints, from Google Ventures. Then map out your business model, either with a simple flow chart or a more comprehensive business model canvas. Finally, define an initial set of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
Your agenda will look like this:
Vision (90 minutes)
Break (15 minutes - longer if you want to break for a meal)
Business Model Risks (90 minutes)
Break (15 minutes - longer if you want to break for a meal)
Objectives & Key Results (90 minutes)
Initiatives (90 minutes)
Covering this much territory in just five hours requires a lot of individual preparation, careful time management, and skilled meeting facilitation.
Even with the most thorough preparation and meeting execution, your Strategy Sprint is likely to surface new questions that require follow-up. Further, there’s a good chance that you won’t have all of the information that you need to define targets for all of your key results; and some of your initial target metrics might need to be refined. Make sure to tie up all of these loose ends as quickly as possible, after completing your sprint.
Finally, all of the hard work that you just went through to articulate your strategy will be meaningless if you don’t actually use it to guide your daily work; so enter your OKRs into tracking system (e.g. spreadsheet, Trello, etc.). Identify initiatives to help you achieve your objectives. Review progress against OKRs each week, refining your tactics as needed. Each quarter, review progress against OKRs, refining and re-defining them for the next quarter in another Strategy Sprint. This time, since you won’t need to revisit the Vision exercises very often, plan on reallocating this time to reviewing the last quarter and understanding how your business model risks have changed.
Make sure that you have the right people in the room for the entire session. This usually includes all founders, with one designated “decider,” usually the CEO. Depending on how far along you are, you might have more stakeholders. Consider including other employees, as well as advisors whose expertise would help. Ideally, you want up to six participants, most of whom will have a significant role in executing your strategy.
To make the most of the Strategy Sprint, each of your participants should try to prepare independently. Don’t worry: this is mostly reading and thinking time, with some light sketching, just to help you form your point of view. If you write anything down, you won’t be expected to share it with anyone. During the sprint, you’ll share your individual ideas and make decisions as a team.
You’re probably already at full capacity with important and urgent things to do (i.e. tactical), so prepare for your Strategy Sprint as best you can, with the understanding that the Strategy Sprint is designed to provide a framework to help you more effectively prioritize work, which will make it easier moving forward to focus on what's important without being concerned about what isn't getting attention. It's important but not urgent (i.e. strategic).
To get started, review the Resources listed at the end of this article.
Think about your business vision, which is nicely covered by the first four exercises from the Brand Sprint:
Once you’ve thought about where you’re heading, make sure that you can articulate how you envision your business working. This should be your current, working hypothesis, at whatever level of validation you have achieved.
Formulate some ideas about what your company will need to look like in 3 months and in a year. Now imagine what you need to do to make that happen and how you’ll know that you were successful.
Finally, take a moment to consider the impossible: what could cause your business to fail? Think about the fundamental assumptions upon which your business model is based. What evidence do you have that those assumptions are true? Think about most likely things that could go wrong and what you could do today to prevent that from happening.
Ok, now that you’ve all prepared, who’s ready to spend most of the day in a meeting? If we were in the same room, I probably wouldn’t see many hands go up.
"Meetings want to suck... But meetings don’t have to be that way."
-- Jake Knapp, Google Ventures
To help ensure that your Strategy Sprint doesn’t suck, keep your team focused, engaged, and energized.
Start by making sure that you have a comfortable room and that you don’t have to struggle with distractions like loud noise, interruptions, uncomfortable seating, and out-of-control HVAC.
Manage your team’s energy. Encourage all of your participants to start the sprint rested and in a position to focus on investing their full attention in your strategy sprint, instead of feeling like they have to respond to tactical issues throughout the day.
Limit use of computers and mobile devices to break times and to capture output (you’ll want to take pictures with your phone instead of typing complete notes).
Schedule breaks and actually take them. This gives everyone a chance to quickly deal with urgent situations, or to just relax and clear their mind.
Provide light, healthy refreshments. Encourage your team to avoid heavy or high-sugar foods before and during the sprint.
Most importantly, try to ensure that your team sees that they’re making progress and getting value from their participation. One key to making progress is to timebox everything and don’t let yourselves get stuck on conversations that aren’t productive. Be strict but fun. Use techniques like Note & Vote to quickly make difficult decisions without groupthink but with buy-in from the team.
To keep your Strategy Sprint on track, make sure to designate a facilitator. Ideally, the facilitator should not also be a participant; each role requires one’s full attention. If you do not have another team member to facilitate your Strategy Sprint, ask one of your advisors or hire a consultant to facilitate.
At Growth Science, I help you realize the full value of your innovations by optimizing how you work to make the most of your runway, to accelerate learning cycle time, and to reach your milestones. Having a clearly articulated business strategy, objectives, and a set of metrics to measure your progress towards meeting your objectives is critical to prioritizing work, which will allow you to maximize your focus on meeting those objectives.