I led a design sprint to see if it was worth all the hype.


It was the day of the big design sprint on patient flow, a quarter after 8 and hardly anyone had showed up - was our sprint over before it began?

Let’s back up a bit. I’d first heard about design sprints in early 2017. One of the Executive Education Action Learning Project (ALP) teams had written a guide on how to use prints in Alberta Health Services (AHS) and I was intrigued – they were getting results in days rather than the months that it usually takes to change things around here.

A few months later I noticed a tweet from the AHS Design Lab about something called #SprintSchool. I managed to get myself a spot at short notice, as I wanted to see if this sprint stuff was worth the hype. (Spoiler alert: it was totally worth the hype).

Going to Sprint School let me and 40 new friends peek at the potential power of a design sprint and see some of the techniques in action – like empathy mapping, user journeys and crazy 8s! So when the AHS Executive Education Program assigned me to a team dedicated to improving patient flow in the North Sector, I thought it might a problem ready to be sprinted! My ALP team was amazing, and they picked up the idea of doing a sprint and ran with it.

Our project was focused on improving patient transfers between facilities in the North Zone and Edmonton. Luckily, everyone who attended Sprint School was offered free assistance with their first sprint, and I was assigned the amazing Ali Abid from The Design Lab who helped us organize and facilitate. Let me tell you – when The Design Lab offers help and support, just say YES!

We started off by interviewing over 40 people who were interested in solving our patient flow problem, and then invited them to come and sprint with us. We had family doctors, emergency docs, specialists, and nurses and leaders from the RAAPID team. They all seemed a little reluctant at first (“you’re going to fix this big problem in two days?”), but a bunch of them said they would show up.

Which brings us back to quarter after 8. I was a wreck. Hardly anyone had showed and I thought that our sprint might be a flop.

I shouldn’t have worried. It turned out people were just running a little late.

Before long, we had everyone in the room and they represented all sides of the problem. Senior leaders Deb Gordon and Dave Zygun were our Deciders; Deb came up to me at coffee and asked how we had managed to get just the right people to come together like this – little did she know how random the process had been behind the scenes!

Having the right people is crucial for any sprint and there we were – the right people in the right place working on the right problem with – fingers crossed – the right process!

A lot happens during the first day of a sprint. You dive deeply into the problem, the players, and the possibilities. You’re almost always either diverging to take in as much as possible or converging on a specific opportunity to learn, improve and be impactful. The activities are inclusive of everyone in the room and the pace is breakneck. It’s called a sprint for a reason!

There was a moment of dissent when we had to decide on which of the ideas we wanted to prototype. The team didn’t want to do a little thing which wouldn’t have much of an impact, and neither did they want to take on a massive project that we couldn’t complete. We were in a stalemate. It really highlighted the necessity of the right Decider to make the ultimate call about what we would prototype – and Deb didn’t disappoint. She said: “You should work on something with a high-impact, even though it’s high-difficulty. Go for it!” We had our decision – now it was time to get to work designing and prototyping a solution!

If Day One is all about deep dives, then Day Two is all about show and tell. I was anxious about the prototypes because it’s easy to talk about issues and complain and then give each other a pat on the back and go home… but in a sprint you have to actually BUILD SOMETHING.

I had to push people to get out of the theoretical and turn that idea into something we could see and feel and touch. There was also a tangible fear that no-one would like what we’d made. Ali was invaluable to the process from start to finish, and kept us going over bumps like this – the sprint would never have been a success without him!

The brilliant thing is – it’s everyone’s idea. It didn’t just come from my head, or Ali’s, but was sparked and built upon by everyone in the room until finally you have this THING, this real thing that everyone has worked on and dissected and built and it’s the best of every idea. At the end of Day Two, we were all absolutely amazed at all the work we had accomplished in only two days – and how much fun it was to do it!

Our sprint delivered two prototypes: a targeted media campaign and a service prototype we called Mission Control.

It really was astonishing what we got done in such a limited amount of time. We split up into two teams and tested both prototypes on real doctors in the hospital and on the phone, and on live calls coming into the RAAPID headquarters.

This testing quickly gave us the feedback we needed to take the next steps with this project, leading to a further pilot program which is running right now at Peace River. Read more details about this sprint here.

Sprints have changed my concept of how quickly change can happen in healthcare. I’ve been using some of the techniques I learned back in my regular job, and I’m encouraging my team members to attend Sprint School too so that we can apply sprint methodology to some of our big problems in surgery.

As for me, I’m a sprint convert. I have seen how a design sprint can take a group of people from a broad concept to targeted outcomes and in such little time that even if your prototype is a huge fail it is STILL A WIN because now you know. For anyone who’s thinking of doing a design sprint I say, just do it. Go to Sprint School, trust the process and don’t worry about feeling anxious because it’s normal – “if you sprint it, they will come!

Dr. White is Senior Medical Director for the Surgery Strategic Clinical Network at Alberta Health Services.


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