Creating a culture of innovation

Wednesday, July 1, 2015 - 16:16

Guest post by Miles Burke

As the Managing Director of a mature 13 year old company, it is easy to continue focus on what we’ve found has worked over the last decade. The end result, though, can become complacency and a resistance to exploring innovative new approaches.

When you have an organisation that’s fairly rigid in your approach to processes and procedures, how do you break the tradition you’ve developed, and try something different?

The start-up sprint concept.

I was pondering this last year, when I came up with a way to shake the team from their usual roles and try something new. I’ve named it the ‘start-up sprint’.

The start-up sprint concept is simple; set aside a day, gather the team, give them a short brief on creating a web-based software-as-a-service product, and then all the employees work as a collective to see how close we could get a minimal viable product by the end of the day.

As the afternoon winds up, we then took time to review what worked, and what didn’t, eat company supplied wood-fired pizza and have a few drinks.

Here is how it works in more detail.

Start by choosing a day in the near future where you are able to schedule all of your employees to stop their regular work for an entire day (easier said than done), and focus on a team building day. Block out all of their calendars, and let them know a little about the concept of a start-up sprint (however don’t give them the actual concept they’ll be working on; I’ll explain). You could even send the link to this article as a background pre-cursor.

If required, allocate one person to answer your office phones. You will want as many employees as possible to take part, unless you have a very large team, and in this instance perhaps break the organisation into ‘chunks’, not involving the regular department structure.

Irrespective of their usual roles within the organisation. It’s important that everyone feels involved; part of the attraction to this model is to get people working outside their normal comfortable roles.

Next, choose a ‘sprint leader’. This role is to create the sprint brief, and keep it secret until the day. In most cases, they will be one of the leadership team within your organisation, but they don’t necessarily have to be.

If you feel concerned that the product or service you’ll be creating is not something you should concentrate on, consider setting some very basic ‘ground rules’ for the sprint leader to adopt. For us, these were;

  • Utilise technologies we don’t normally use
  • Build a SAAS product that we’ll find benefit using ourselves
  • Create something truly useful

Once these rules are defined, the sprint leader needs to formulate the idea, and then put it all on one or two pages. It’s important to utilise the tech start-up mantra of the Minimum Viable Product method; depending on your sprint team size and skill sets, it is unlikely they’ll be able to build a fully featured product or new service in just one day, so it is important to set high expectations that are still achievable.

The sprint brief

On the chosen day, print out and hand around a single page brief; we used one that contained a brief outline of what we wanted to create, which was a weekly employee survey, to measure team sentiment.

The overview paragraph is most telling in our approach, which was;

Sprint brief overview

The purpose of this start-up sprint is to try our hands at innovation and creative thinking. Our roles and teams are all up in the air. You may decide to join a team in which you normally don’t participate. We encourage you to try new processes, workflows and technologies; let’s work hard to build something, but equally as hard at learning and having fun!

Benefits of using the start-up sprint model

We had a number of fantastic outcomes besides the actual resulting product, which included;

  • Pushing creative thinking on team members unused to the concept
  • Trialling new processes and workflow
  • Validating what works, and what didn’t, in a compressed time frame
  • Creating a sense of adventure and excitement
  • Encouraging individuals to work in areas they weren’t usually in

The sprint day was exciting to observe; employees created natural teams, and everyone delegated the tasks up well. The team communicated by walking around the office, and a number of new brainstorming and workflow ideas were tried, all in one afternoon. There was a buzz of excitement in the air, which lasted for days after the event.

In a sense, creating this product was much like many of the projects we regularly work on for our clients, except some key areas;

  • A focus on agile, fast brainstorming
  • We built something for ourselves, not for a third party
  • We executed a project in under seven hours, not the usual 2-3 months’ timeframe
  • No clearly defined roles; people chose what they wanted to do

What we found was that internal teams can encourage innovation and learn more about each other and our existing systems in one day by doing a start-up sprint, than reading or hearing about innovation from third parties. We literally rolled our sleeves up and learnt through trial and error in one afternoon something that would take a long time using traditional learning techniques.

The end result: a new product (and company)

So, what was the result? We ended the day with a working prototype of a software-as-a-service product called 6Q.

Since then, we’ve continued to build and improve upon our original product over the last 9 months, and in March of this year, we launched 6Q to the public as a SaaS product.

As a result, we’ve found a new revenue stream, worked on various iterative techniques and built an entirely new company from within.

You can see the resulting 6Q website at


No matter what size organisation; large or small, I believe the start-up sprint model can provide you with some fantastic benefits, and is a much more enjoyable exercise than just being in a workshop or at a staff lunch for half the day.

I encourage you to utilise this sprint model out in your own team; you’ll find some great benefits, such as;

  • An invigorated focus on innovation
  • Different methods to manage teams and schedules
  • Different methods of internal communication
  • Employee personalities may even shine, showing you potential team leader material
  • and plenty more.

Here’s wishing you the best of luck!

Miles Burke is an accomplished entrepreneur and has been involved in digital marketing since 1995. Miles is the Founder of 6Q, an employee feedback system focussed on building positive company culture and increasing employee engagement.