Product Sprints: Critical Tools for the New Practice

Blog Post
May 8, 2023

The New Practice Lab has conducted 15 product sprints since 2021, ranging in topics from paid family leave to the complexity of delivering multiple early care and education programs within a single state. Sprinting on problem areas has a rich history in both the private and public sector as a way of efficiently and effectively gaining a deep understanding of an issue, and charting possible realistic steps to addressing solutions. The Lab is working to shape a government focused on uplifting families, and we’ve evolved and refined our approach to sprints over time to reflect our unique combination of product and policy expertise so we can meet that goal.

At the Lab, a sprint is a short, intense period of problem investigation that we use to develop concrete recommendations and strategies for rapidly addressing specific policy issues. Our sprints typically last six to eight weeks, during which we seek to understand the state of a complex organization, system, or service.

The wider world of sprints

The New Practice Lab is one of many groups that employ sprints to understand a complex problem, most often in the tech world. You may recognize the term from Agile methodologies, where team members who are building a product will work together to make measurable progress on user stories for a constrained period of time, usually anywhere from one to four weeks. The goal of these Agile sprints is to work quickly and iteratively, and in small enough chunks that the team can easily respond to new information.

Many members of the Lab’s team, past and present, come to us from civic technology groups within government. The effort of deeply researching a complex program or problem space is very similar in those groups, often calling these activities technical assessments or discovery sprints, among other terms. For all of these groups, sprints, in a limited scope and timeframe, are aimed at reducing risk ahead of pursuing a possible solution. These activities are in service of an agency or organization partner, giving the partner ownership of the insights, recommendations, and prototypes without requiring them to implement or take action unless it meets their mission and goals.

Sprinting for and with a mix of people

Product sprints at the New Practice Lab always combine data analysis, policy expertise, and user research. Along with our partner organizations, we seek to understand both the limits of the problem at hand and the particular needs of our partners, bringing together a team of technologists and policy experts with experience in the subject at hand. We invite not only the subject matter experts, but also the individuals and families who are affected by the particular programs and policies, into a collaborative process that ultimately shapes effective policy design and delivery that works for them.

Delivering and scaling results

At the end of every sprint, the New Practice Lab’s goal is to develop a process or plan to solve a problem. In practice, we create a report that outlines our findings, but sometimes we’ll also develop products like delivery playbooks, low-fidelity prototypes, plain language updates, policy recommendations, or capacity building plans. What we love most is when we can replicate findings with other agencies and organizations, noticing patterns that can impactfully scale practical successes.

Agile design and policymaking for impact

The New Practice Lab’s sprint work strives to be informed by policy and tethered to the reality of implementation. The power of agile design is that it allows for real time feedback and recalibration based on user needs. By broadening the base of users to include people impacted by policy, we increase the likelihood that what we’re helping to build will improve experiences for families across the country.