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As a user experience (UX) professional, do you ever get a little too comfortable in your product group bubble? Do you yearn to pursue an idea for a project or process improvement, but lack the time to do so? Are you missing an opportunity to engage with folks on projects outside your day-to-day tasks? 

From time to time, we’ve felt this way here on Red Hat’s User Experience Design (UXD) team for Red Hat Cloud Services. As a team of 22 people spread across various UX disciplines—research, design, content design, and front-end development—we often find ourselves engaging with many of the same people in the same product area every day as we focus on tasks and milestones. 

Recently, our team lead suggested we step away from our usual work and try out some new projects with different people by engaging in a three-week innovation or "breakaway" sprint.  

This wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it—so much so that we want to spread the word to other UX folks like you who might be looking for a way to expose your team members to new experiences, help them build skills, and infuse a bit of variety (and fun!) into their workday. 

What is a breakaway sprint and why should I do one?

A breakaway sprint might mean different things to different people, but we describe it as a few weeks set aside for UX professionals to work on a project of interest not related to their usual product responsibilities (but the project does need to be related to some aspect of tech and/or UX).

You may be asking yourself, "Why should I do a breakaway sprint?" There are numerous reasons to try this technique in your organization. Breakaway sprints have the potential to:

  • Provide an opportunity for your team members to generate new ideas, inspiration, and motivation. They have a designated amount of time to try out new tools and techniques without the usual guardrails that product work requires.  

  • Enable participants to enhance their skills and work on passion projects. Because product work is ongoing and seemingly never-ending, a breakaway sprint can give everyone time to explore and advance new ideas and passions. 

  • Provide your team with intangible benefits in the form of team bonding, getting to know and work with others outside your immediate circle of co-workers, create lightbulb moments and encourage cross-team communication and collaboration. This intangible benefit might last long after the breakaway sprint is finished.

Getting started

To get started, you need to get past the main hurdle: Convincing your team members to take time away from their busy schedules to participate in a breakaway sprint.

The first thing you will want to do is bring your team into conversation about the breakaway sprint. Explain what it is and the benefits of it. Explain how you plan to run the sprint, including how you will work to come up with ideas to pursue, how teams will be formed, and set expectations around a recommended time commitment.

This is an opportunity for you to generate excitement about the idea, so have fun with this part! 

For our breakaway sprint, some of our team had participated in a previous design breakaway sprint, and others, who were either new to Red Hat or new to our team, had not. Our team lead first described some of the projects and outcomes from the previous design breakaway. In addition, feedback we gathered from the team after that experience directed us to: 

  • Increase the participation of group members.

  • Create opportunities to share ideas for those who want to participate.

  • Make outcomes more visible outside of our own team. 

With some slight hesitation around balancing the breakaway work against actual product work, the team was intrigued and ready to give it a try.

How to conduct a breakaway sprint

Let’s walk through the steps you can take to conduct your breakaway sprint. Keep in mind that these are the steps we followed, but you can certainly craft your own approach that is customized to your team’s needs.

Step 1: Brainstorm ideas

Brainstorm ideas so that everyone has a voice in the process and an opportunity to contribute their ideas as potential breakaway projects for further consideration. This could really take any form you like for brainstorming, including any of a variety of brainstorming techniques, but make sure you are having fun and creating an open environment where individuals feel safe and free to share ideas. 

Our team’s brainstorming session started with one minute (yes, ONE minute) to list:

  • One problem you have on your to-do list.

  • One problem you should solve but don’t want to.

  • One problem or idea you would really like to work on but don’t have the time to do it.

Talk about a sprint! The music started and before I could even formulate my thoughts, it seemed it was over. We somehow generated a good number of items as you can see here:Figure 1. The hearts represent the voting step, during which we were each given three hearts and another minute to identify areas of high interest to the team.

Next up, we were given our own boards to work on framing a design question. The board template included three sections:  

  • Pick a topic and write it as a design problem

  • A four-square area labeled "The 4 Cs"

  • Reframe the design problem

Here’s the one I created:

Figure 2.We had a luxurious five minutes for this activity, during which we each framed an initial design problem, considered and documented its Components, Characteristics, Challenges, and Characters, then reframed it in more detail. Finally, we each shared our work so that everyone could hear and consider the ideas of the rest of the group.

As you can see, brainstorming is a great way to generate ideas, rally the team, and create momentum and excitement for the breakaway. It forms the basis for what you will be doing during the sprint.

Step 2: Lead a pitch session & assemble teams

The purpose of the pitch session is to give participants the opportunity to share their ideas with the rest of the team and create interest in the project.

Keeping in mind that each project will include a small set of individuals from your team, this pitch session is a way to generate excitement and influence other team members deciding which project team to join. While the pitch session can take any form, I recommend using an elevator pitch format, giving each participant a short amount of time to present which guides presenters to focus their pitch to its most salient and critical points. 

When it came time for our pitch session, we were given three minutes per pitch. During this call, individuals quickly pitched their great ideas to the whole team, with no time for questions or feedback during the call, given the number of people pitching and the one-hour meeting time frame.  

Once you’ve completed the pitch session, it’s a great idea to create a spreadsheet containing the pitches, along with some other information like the name of the person whose idea is documented, the idea itself in a nutshell, the reason for undertaking the project, and hoped-for outcomes and deliverables. 

Most importantly, identify how many people and what kind of skills you are looking for, including some idea of the level of effort required from potential participants. Finally, include a column where team members can sign up for the project(s) of their choosing. 

Our breakaway sprint included 9 out of 12 pitches; some items were combined since they covered similar concepts, while others did not generate the level of interest or participation required to complete the effort. 

Step 3: Send out a pre-sprint survey

Before the start of the sprint, send out a pre-breakaway survey to collect participants’ thoughts and feelings as they anticipate the sprint. You’ll want to ask some rating-scale questions to gauge attitudes, like "From really nervous to really excited, how do you feel as you anticipate the breakaway sprint?" and some open-ended questions like "What are you hoping to gain as a result of the breakaway sprint?" This is good data to have before you begin, and in preparation for a post-sprint survey so that you will be able to compare the final results to the expectations of the team. 

One of our UXD researchers pitched the idea of pre- and post-sprint surveys to determine how successful this activity was for the team. As part of the pre-sprint survey, the team identified a variety of goals, including engaging in creative work outside of usual tasks, connecting with colleagues we don’t normally work with, and experimenting with new activities and workflows. A word cloud produced from the survey sums up some of these hopes and dreams:Figure 3.

Step 4:  Do the activities!

At this point, the clock starts and your teams have three weeks to meet and work on their ideas. These are self-guided teams, collaborating on discovery, ideation, and execution. While the teams are busy working on their projects, add a meeting for the end of the three weeks to review the ideas, with enough time for each team to share their innovations.

Step 5: Share

Once the three-week sprint period has ended, follow up with a sharing session where each team presents its work. 

Depending on the number of different projects your teams produce, presentations can range from one to two hours long. Create a slide deck template so that each team has a framework it can use to present use cases, approach, team members who contributed, outcomes, and next steps. Be sure to encourage everyone to send kudos to teams and applaud their colleagues' creativity.

Our team held a 90-minute call where the nine teams each had 10 minutes to share the results of their breakaway sprint. The demo was fast-paced and exciting, generating broad interest not only from our own Cloud Services team but also from the rest of the UXD team (120+) at a follow-up demo session. 

Here are just a few highlights from our breakaway sprint.

Kafka infographic 

With a goal of increasing general understanding of Kafka and creating a fun, interactive final product, one of our teams developed a visual infographic to explain Apache Kafka technology in layman’s terms through a fun, metaphorical analogy. 

An infographic is a great way to convey complex concepts using easy-to-understand visual language. The content strives to use simple language in order to lower the barriers to comprehension, and analogy to provide "real-world" concepts for comparison and understanding.Figure 4.The Postal Service provided the perfect analogy for the Kafka infographic. 

It’s clear that the need to communicate complex information in a simple format is needed not only by our UXD team, but can also provide value for visitors to Red Hat web properties.

Sketch lo-fi wireframe library

PatternFly is Red Hat’s open source design system. UX designers use PatternFly Sketch libraries to mock up designs that can be easily implemented by our front-end developers using PatternFly components. 

The Sketch library we use provides the ability to portray design compositions in high fidelity. One of the breakaway teams considered how to create a low fidelity wireframe Sketch library of PatternFly components, with the goal of incorporating that library into the existing high fidelity work to ease the transition from low- to high-fi design deliverables.

At the end of the three-week sprint, the team created a proof of concept Sketch wireframe library that they shared with the team on Sketch Cloud. Sample output from this team that includes both LO and MID fidelity versions:Figure 5.

Figure 6.The team included updated navigation design for accessing these new libraries:Figure 7.After presenting the new wireframe PoC to the entire UXD team, we’ve noticed a good deal of interest from the PatternFly team to build out the library for our designers.

Step 6: Send out a post-sprint survey

Once the sprint is complete and the demos have been shared, follow-up on that pre-sprint survey by conducting a post-sprint survey. You’ll want to find out how well the sprint outcomes matched the teams’ expectations of the activity, whether individuals felt the time was well-spent, and what kinds of improvements might make the process even more meaningful and enjoyable in the future.  

For example, our post-sprint survey revealed that over 90% of the team felt the sprint added a "creative spark" to their work, written responses indicated that many would have liked more creative freedom and a desire to create things unrelated to Red Hat products/services.Figure 8.Be sure to include questions about what the team would like to continue doing in a future breakaway, and what we might start doing next time. For us, that came down to some interesting insights, including continuing:

  • Doing more breakaway sprints!

  • Working with colleagues outside your project work.

  • Providing a creative outlet and break from the usual grind. 

And starting to:

  • Improve coordination.

  • Develop more impactful results (directly correlated with time allowed for the activities).

  • Have even more room for innovation.

Conclusions

We hope you now have the know-how and motivation to try out a breakaway sprint with your team. I’ll leave you here with a few tangible, tactical points and lessons learned from ours that you might consider if you decide to spend some time innovating with your teams: 

  • Be sure to set clear expectations for the sprint, including its importance relative to project work.

  • Poll participants to find the best time of year for doing something like this. Several participants noted that because the breakaway took place during July, we might have had less participation than if we had done it at another time of the year.

  • Encourage smaller scoped projects that can be completed within the sprint timeframe.

  • Promote the value of the sprint to increase participation.

  • Discover avenues within and outside the UXD team to share outcomes.

An innovation or breakaway sprint could possibly give your team a chance to challenge themselves in new ways, provide new ideas, give passion projects a place to shine, and work with others on the team, outside their usual working groups. The intangible team bonding, especially during this pandemic time when we are all working virtually, provided a tremendous boost to our team. 

Ready to kick off innovation time where you work with a breakaway sprint? We invite you to check out the Design Sprint article in  the Open Practices Library to discover more about innovative approaches to problem solving.


About the author

Amy Glass joined Red Hat in 2017 as UX lead for the Application Services portfolio. Glass has over 30 years of experience creating designs, leading and participating in discovery workshops, conducting user research with interviews and usability studies, and leading teams to produce software and services that meet and exceed users' needs. As a UXD manager, she oversees the delivery of highly satisfying experiences for Red Hat's hosted Cloud & Data Services.