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When two worlds collide: Using a design sprint in policy-land

I told someone I coached a team to draft a fully-fleshed public policy in two weeks.

They scoffed.

And then they were aghast.

And then they wondered… how?

I used design sprint methodology. A design sprint helps teams take a problem to product, and a policy is just another product.

It benefits (more than other topics, arguably) from a clear definition of the problem. The policy makers define problems by compiling wide assortments of data and information, hoping the issue will become self-evident and objectively verifiable.

However, complex problems are rarely self-evident or objectively verifiable. Their truth is often buried in underlying motivations and the needs of players in a system and the ways those players react to one another.

Policy makers need to put multiple perspectives in frame to even know what’s worth analyzing. Sprints allow teams to weave together their perspectives quickly and converge on a common understanding of complex issues. The resulting consensus guides policy makers and business analysists to analyze wisely, saving months of time and precious decision-making capacity.

Policy option development may seem a strange fit for a sprint’s agile mindset. Options are too highly detailed to be constructed quickly, or policy is meant to tell people to stop doing some things or do others – no need for creative approaches.

On the contrary - good policy does the least to accomplish the most; it is careful not to create unneeded burden nor create unintended consequences. Policy makers need to look at all their plausible options (and even some whacky ones) to find the most desirable, feasible and viable. Sprint’s prototyping mindset and tools helps policy makers break out of boxes.

Some might say policy is hard to visualize and test – after all, it’s just words on a page. The policy canvas I developed for use in public policy is based off the business model canvas used in the startup world – both help teams imagine possibilities and see whether the pieces of their plan fit together well.

Given policy effects real people and processes in real places, it’s often possible to model the outcome of a particular policy like you’d model any service or experience. In a recent sprint, I set up a policy gaming session that pitted policy makers against a team representing stakeholders to test how policy might unfold in a living system. We were able to anticipate reactions and put ourselves a few steps ahead.

Policy makers need to be able to act quickly, be more iterative and reduce failure risk in today’s fast-changing organizations and society. Whether it’s internal business policy affecting multiple internal stakeholders, or big social/economic systems tended by government, sprint methodology is a fast fit.


Richard is on a mission to make person-centred mean something in government. Now with Alberta Education after a stint at Alberta Health, he uses facilitation, use/system research and agile methodology to help teams create new policies and programs that deliver citizen value. He's spun off a couple of new tools so far, including the policy canvas and scenario gaming for policy development.

Richard has more than 10 years' experience in facilitation, communications, journalism and strategic planning for private, public and non-profit organizations. He is also a proud Fellow of The AHS Design Lab.

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