What Happens When You Bring Discovery Sprints to Public Interest Organizations

Blog Post
April 25, 2018

Conventional wisdom favors marathons over sprints when trying to achieve big goals. Yet, when thinking about kickstarting organizational growth and innovation, a sprint—a discovery sprint specifically—might be exactly what is needed.  

My recent experience with a technology discovery sprint that helped the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) evolve their strategies for supporting rural America made me a believer.

But first, what is a discovery sprint?

As a student of human-centered design methodologies and other tools for innovation, this is an important question. In a nutshell, a discovery sprint is a quick, time-bound way of understanding, assessing, ideating, and testing solutions for specific organizational problems. Any organization can benefit from this approach. The method, which can be adapted according to the unique needs of a situation, was originally popularized by Google Ventures’ ninjas through their book, Sprint: Solve New Problems and Test Big Ideas in Just Five Days, but is now used outside the tech world to help solve challenging problems in different sectors.

What our sprint looked like

In our case, a team of four was brought together by New America’s Public Interest Technology (PIT) program for a sprint to support the Rural Community Assistance Partnership’s (RCAP) expansion efforts. PIT connects technologists to public interest organizations, and has organized sprints in the past to apply a design thinking framework to public sector problems. RCAP is a national network of nonprofits across the country who provide technical assistance, financial resources, and training to set-up and improve local capacity, and access to safe drinking water and solid waste systems in small rural communities.  RCAP was looking to assess and understand their own current technological needs in order to better serve rural communities and tell the stories of their impact. They had also recognized that water issues are often an entry point to a larger set of development challenges facing rural areas that RCAP can support. The insights and discoveries that came from our sprint could also help inform strategic thinking around the future priorities and direction of the organization.

Our team of four (Kate Chapman, Chase Kimball, Emily Wright-Moore, and myself) consisted of expertise in: data analytics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), design, and digital communications. The team spent four weeks in a non-linear, sometimes messy, post-it and whiteboard supported process that involved:

  • Understanding current technology and communications systems that were being used by RCAP;

  • Interviewing national staff, regional staff, technology-related contractors, technical assistance providers that work with communities, and the communities themselves to understand RCAP’s work and impact, their use of technology, and their experiences with the technology;

  • A continuous synthesis of the information we were gathering; and

  • Tapping into our respective skill sets and areas of expertise to begin considering ideas and solutions to the challenges we were hearing.

We spent time with the national office in Washington, D.C. and made field visits to regional offices in California and Missouri, where we were able to visit rural communities nearby. Lots of phone calls and emails were also exchanged to reach out to those teams we were not able to visit in-person.

By the end, we had a valuable snapshot of RCAP as an organization, understood its use of technology, and determined where there might be common pain points— as well as opportunities to address them. Our final deliverable was a comprehensive list of findings and recommendations that RCAP can take action on. Our recommendations focused on technological improvements, but also touched on branding and digital communications strategies to further amplify the RCAP story. We offered a mix of suggestions - things that could be done now and items that would require more strategic consideration.

For RCAP, this discovery sprint provides a launchpad from which to undertake more strategic plans and activities to improve efficiency and advance their work.”The discovery sprint process was incredibly valuable to RCAP,” said Nathan Ohle, Executive Director. “The team came in with no preconceived notions and was able to quickly dive into our work and look for solutions to some of our more complex problems. The game plan they laid out will be instrumental for our organization moving forward.”

When done right, discovery sprints are powerful tools

With the right team, structure, and support from the host organization, a discovery sprint is an efficient way for organizations to tackle specific problems and surface new ideas. In particular, as public interest organizations, nonprofits, and governments attempt to adapt and evolve to the challenges of our times, there will be a growing need for sprints like these to better harness the power of technology as a tool to generate greater impact.

More specifically and based on this experience, a discovery sprint can:

  • Identify challenges and opportunities quickly and more cost-effectively than traditional management consulting models;

  • Help all parts of an organization feel heard and included in a strategic process;

  • Spark greater cross-pollination and collaboration between teams, departments, and regions across a common issue; and

  • Offer helpful, unbiased feedback and recommendations around what in the current systems works, doesn’t work, and what might benefit from change. In the case of technical improvements, a team like this has less vested interest in a particular tool than a sales team of a technology company, for example.

As a member of a sprint team that straddled the worlds of technology, innovation, and storytelling, I found it refreshing to be part of nimble, kind, self-driven team that respected the superpowers of one another. Technology and innovation can often serve as a neutral space to start essential organizational conversations that include technology, but are often about much more. Executing a new vision can still be a marathon to work towards, but quick sprints like this are key to laying out clear steps to start the long process. The leadership at RCAP seems ahead of the curve with this understanding.

The best part about this work to me is that we offered tangible recommendations that were informed by our expertise, but more importantly, elevated and heard from key stakeholders across this network who truly care about their mission and the work they are doing. We wouldn’t have been able to offer what we did without RCAP’s leadership, its regions, and its communities opening their doors and sharing their experiences with us. That learning was not only invaluable in supporting RCAP’s evolution and their service to communities, but also in the understanding that we each take back about the spirit, resilience, and importance of rural communities across the country.