Ditch your standard meeting / brainstorm format and get your projects on track
The Rapid Decision-Making Sprint (RDMs) is probably my favourite tool ever. I’ve been working for over 16 years, and if I were given an option to travel back in time to Day 1 of my career but with the ability to bring one tool that I’d picked up over that trajectory, RDMs would be it!
It’s important to know that I’m a huge fan of Design Sprints more generally. We’ve been teaching and facilitating sprints for a while now, and I’m still surprised every time by how quickly sprint teams move from a broad, undefined challenge to alignment and clarity, tested solution in-hand and strategic next steps laid out. I’ve also seen how quickly participants (and their colleagues) become Design Sprint converts.
As much as I love design sprints, they aren’t always the answer to every problem. Also, regardless of organizational familiarity with design sprints, getting a cross-functional team to secure and participate in four or five uninterrupted days can be extremely challenging, especially in an enterprise environment.
So, what about all the other times when we need to cut through the noise and create actionable steps to overcome the barrage of daily complexity required for quick and informed (collaborative) decision-making?
Enter Rapid Decision-Making Sprints, which is our version of Lightening Decision Jams (LDJs). The concept was originally conceived by the incredibly smart folks at AJ&Smart. As facilitators, the LDJ was a game-changer, helping us bring the essence of design sprints into tightly structured sessions of 1 to 3 hours (depending on the scenario).
After running literally dozens of these with clients, in public workshops and internally at our own company basically every week since, we’ve made some tweaks here and there, but fundamentally our RDM follows the main steps as the LDJ.
We now call them Rapid Decision-Making Sprints because the more we ran them, the more we realized how the process helps teams make decisions within an hour or two.
Here are five transformational benefits of RDMs you’ll notice right away when using them with your team:
1. Structure & Focus
Like its parent (design sprint), a Rapid Decision-Making Sprint is a structured process made up of cumulative activities that take the group through to an outcome: in this case, an action plan. There are six stages, each made up of several time-boxed activities, most of which take participants through the double diamond (diverge-emerge-converge) cadence of design thinking.
The facilitator moves the group from one activity to the next, minimizing the chance for circular conversations or disagreements through previously established and agreed upon norms.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the combination of predetermined, prescribed activities with timeboxing creates a tight structure that forces focus, which in turn breeds creativity – especially as the creativity is spread out across the participants.
Once you use this kind of structured approach to meetings, it’s hard to go back to old ways.
2. Alignment & Clarity
Alignment is a cornerstone of successful collaboration, and collaboration is critical for knowledge work.
However, as important as it is, it’s often difficult to acquire, tough to maintain, and even harder to recapture once lost. It’s inextricably connected to communication (clarity), and continually challenged and undermined by the different thought processes, mental models and various perspectives we all carry with us – biases and all.
Like design sprints, Rapid Decision-Making Sprints use visualization tools and techniques to help bring to light and then clarify ideas, thereby expediting mutual understanding. The ideas and perspectives are presented clearly by the fact that they’re made visual, and opportunities are available to dispel any confusion on certain points.
Importantly, RDMs (and design sprints) aim not necessarily for consensus, but rather for a minimum of consent. That is, the group agrees (ideally again at the outset when developing group norms) that the’ll leverage the cumulative activities and tools to come to a collective agreement on what options to pursue.
Clarity breeds understanding, understanding breeds insight, and insight breeds alignment. And it all happens fast.
3. Democratized Collaboration
Traditional brainstorms and meetings are perfect for extroverts. Anyone who’s ever been part of a standard brainstorm has undoubtedly witnessed that a few individuals usually take up the oxygen in the room. The squeaky wheel tends to get the oil, and what ends up happening is that the ideas go down one or two paths set by those talkative few.
Unfortunately, that means that there are lots of smart people in the room who aren’t saying much and aren’t contributing their amazing ideas as a result. With a shortage of ideas, the group loses out on opportunities to identify important patterns and insights. The group relies instead on single moments of genius from those one or two squeaky wheels. That’s not ideal. When you’re tackling unknowns and uncertainties, you want lots of ideas since you never know where the best ideas are going to come from or evolve out of. If most of the voices are silent, you minimize the ideas thereby minimizing the odds. It’s really a simple math equation.
RDMs use a variety of tools or techniques to make sure everyone’s voice is heard – or at least shared. And usually the more anonymous the better.
The two techniques that most effectively democratize collaboration are “Together Alone” (Note-Stick-Vote-Pick) and dot voting. In-person dot voting can be challenging; there’s still a big risk of groupthink here, especially when you factor in the power dynamics of a given group (there are ways the facilitator can mitigate the extent). Voting tools in remote platforms like Mural and Miro offer some excellent voting anonymity that we’re huge fans of.
Voting creates heat maps in key decision-making activities, which makes prioritization a cinch. Deciders are identified before the RDM, and at various points can use the voting data to make informed decisions.
4. Bias for Action
Arguably our favourite Design Thinking principle is a bias for action, which really just means getting started on something, getting it out to the world, and using a rapid learning loop to course-correct.
This approach is really hard for most, although we come by it honestly. From the time we’re young, we’re taught in school and later incentivized in our organizational cultures to perfect before we share, launch or release something – especially the more complex or complicated that something is. It’s a deeply engrained mental model.
RDMs are excellent small little introductions to what “bias for action” might look and feel like at-scale. Throughout the process, the group unearths a huge number of ideas and solutions and ends up prioritizing only a small number to start.
Nothing must be perfect either; the goal is to agree on and to get going on something, and fast.
The capacity for energizing a group or team shouldn’t be undervalued. When I look back on my career, I think of how many collaborations I’ve been involved in as a participant or even as a leader where it was hard to get everyone energized at the outset and even harder to keep it going. The longer your collaboration goes on, the harder it is to keep any momentum.
The fast, structured nature of RDMs keeps people engaged the whole way through. The activities are perfectly geared towards collaboration and alignment, as already discussed. The (recommended) time commitment is a mere 60 to 180 minutes – anyone can commit to that time frame, and the outcome is an action plan that has very clear next steps and learning goals.
Additionally, RDMs introduce and prove the effectiveness of a whole bunch of new ways of doing things, most of which are totally do-able as individual activities in other contexts. Participants see how they can bring in elements to make their every day easier or more effective, and that’s usually pretty exciting for most of them.
In our experience, the team leaves the RDM feeling good about the work they did, decisions they made, and about what comes next and who’s doing what, when. Even better, they usually leave the RDM feeling good about their team dynamic – that alone is worth it!
When Do You Use an RDM?
So, you may be thinking “this all sounds great, but what type of situation would call for an RDM?”
- Have you ever been in a meeting that goes around and around because no one can agree or get on the same page?
- Have you participated in a meeting or brainstorming where a small handful of folks do 98% of the talking and deciding, and you wonder why it was called a “team” meeting?
- Have you been to a meeting where when you’re done, the next steps are foggy and likely very disconnected from the “why” of a problem your group is trying to solve?
Etcetera – you get the picture.
If any of those are true, and I’m 100% sure anyone reading this has experienced all of those and more, a Rapid Decision-Making Sprint would probably have served as a perfect alternative. RDMs are particularly effective when a group needs to work together to identify problems, discuss challenge(s), make decisions, and prioritize execution steps. They are formidable collaborative decision-making processes that replace unstructured, unfocused discussions, meetings or traditional brainstorms.
One last thing I love about RDMs is how easy they can translate to any team or organization. Once you learn the process, you can test it out and refine it with your team. You can start with as few as two people (although we really suggest three as a minimum if you can) and as many as 10 people. Although, we’ve ran RDMs with 200 participants in our public workshops where we acted as master facilitators to small RDM groups – all working on the same challenge!
And like all processes grounded in design thinking, once you’ve mastered that process and key activities, you easily can begin to play around with different elements and add/remove/alter different activities to suit your meeting’s goals.
How Do I Start Using RDMs?
Ready to get started with Rapid Decision-Making Sprints? We can help!
We offer both facilitation and training on these priceless little gems – both in-person and remotely.