Design Sprints in Japan

If you’ve tried making okonomiyaki in Paris (yup!) or croque monsieur in Tokyo (hi!), you’ll know that recipes need to be adapted to local context — to the ingredients you can find, the equipment you have on hand, and the tastes of your dinner guests.

After a slow start, by mid 2017, the design sprint methodology popularized by Google Ventures has begun to gain momentum among our fellow practitioners here in Tokyo, in part thanks to the Japanese releases of Richard Banfield’s Design Sprint in late 2016 and The Sprint Book by Jake Knapp in April 2017.

Based on our experiences running sprints for big corporations and startups alike, here are the considerations to set up a design sprint in Japan for success — from broad cultural implications to nitty gritty logistics.

Understanding context

Implications of a collaborative culture

From an early age, people who grow up in Japan have many opportunities to gather for a common cause, embrace roles and rules, and bring the effort to a conclusion.

This makes it a lot easier for a sprint master to facilitate the room towards an acceptable idea that’s deemed to be worth prototyping. People won’t scoff at the icebreaker, hijack the agenda or walk off in a huff.

The hard part is to push teams past acceptable — to raise the stakes high enough, in a safe way, so that everyone throws their real chips on the table. To agree to prototype, i.e. bring to life, something that could be rejected by their boss or disrupt their work. Or worse, someone else’s. That’s where the good stuff is, and it’s not easy to get there.

Securing participation

Getting everyone in the room and “on the clock” takes patience and careful explanation in a Japanese corporate environment. Depending on how the organization tracks productivity (e.g. “butts in seats”), the huge synchronous time investment required could be seen as “time away from real work”, which may differ from department to department.

When AQ ran a series of sprints for a national medical services business, the head office marketing team was an easy Yes, but we encountered strong resistance when trying to recruit staff from the retail floor. Digging behind the wall of “they’re too busy.”, we discovered that our HQ participants are paid a flat monthly salary — a fixed cost for the business. The retail staff are paid by the time they spend serving customers and are subject to extreme seasonal changes in demand.


Sprint outcomes must be framed to fit within existing categories of “stuff we will spend money on and are comfortable outsourcing”. For most Japanese organizations, this category includes things like UI design, working software, 3rd party evaluation and certifiable training.

While that’s likely the case for many markets, it’s especially important to get right in Japan because workshops are not nearly as prevalent compared to American or European corporate cultures.

Moreover, the most common and powerful outcomes of design sprints — a validated (or not) business idea and a shared understanding among the team — will often be perceived as being too intangible.

A word on proposals Proposals need to speak the language of the org, and just being in Japanese isn’t enough. When we ran sprints with a large financial institution, we scrubbed our proposal of vocabulary they found suspicious (e.g. “hypothesis” and “research”) and replaced it with familiar ones (“challenge” and “validation”). In order to secure budget for something they weren’t used to buying, we tied the outcome of the sprint to an existing business processes. The company was used to starting software projects with business requirements definition, so we pitched the sprint as a precursor that will speed up requirements gathering.

What to bring

Keep it mobile

Meeting room space is a scarce resource. You’re lucky if you can get one uninterrupted day, so don’t assume you can leave all of the stickies and sketches on the wall. Everything we bring into the room is mobile. Everything we make there is mobile. 2 x 1 meter foamcore boards are great for hanging sketches. Butcher paper is better for anything chronological, like service maps and journey maps (always bring more than you need).

To the Sprintmobile! When you absolutely must get your sprint materials in and out without so much as a stray stickie, Japan’s ubiquitous small white trucks deliver every time. You can reserve ahead of time, they know the streets better than most taxi drivers and cost about the same. If you ask nicely they might even let you sit up front. :)

Check there’s enough wall space and white boards

Japan doesn’t do flip charts. We do lots of free standing whiteboards on wheels.

Check how big the white boards are in your room. If it’s not big enough, organize for a few to be rolled in before the sprint, or bring your own.

If you need to buy one, here’s a typical white board on Amazon for $100.

Order bento lunches

Venturing outside for lunch adds uncertainty to what needs to be a highly orchestrated experience. We prefer to order bento boxes, delivered to the building. A good bento has a balance of nutritious food that will give the team energy for the afternoon. And it can be eaten in 20 minutes, leaving plenty of time to break up the intensity of the day with some small talk. These breaks are important to get a sense for the team’s internal dynamics and culture, or who they are outside of work.

Dinner, of course, should be at a restaurant in the neighborhood. An all-hands dinner is a must for multi-day sprints, and it’s especially appreciated when people have traveled to join us.

Get the right pens

When we first started doing workshops many years ago, we bought Sharpies, known and loved by many a creative facilitator for their bold lines, visible from across an American football field sized boardroom table.

The problem with Sharpies is you can only write about three letters of dense, intricate Japanese with them on a stickie. We switched to the thinner Pentel Sign Pen and suddenly all our participants had a lot more to say!

Aaaand sprint!

Be early — Participants expect the show to start on time, and will show up accordingly. They’ll start filtering into the room about 10 minutes before the sprint is slotted to start, and it’s uncool if you’re still wiping down white boards. Business cards — If some participants haven’t met before, leave 10 minutes at the beginning for exchanging cards. You should have yours, too.

Seating — A group of Japanese people will seat themselves in a way that reflects the hierarchy of the group — and sometimes, factions. Since that’s not conducive to a sprint, the sprint master needs to change that up. We usually wave people towards different parts of the room as they walk in.

Icebreakers —Don’t assume that the ice will naturally be broken via sprint activities. There needs to be a dedicated icebreaker (a word that’s been imported to Japanese, by the way — people will know to play along), and the question shouldn’t be too personal or too witty. Choose something in the context of the workshop, and think about your own answer, too.

Sketching — We normally skip the “ideas are better expressed in pictures” and “everyone can sketch” pitches because most people are comfortable picking up a pen to visualize their thoughts. It’s fun to discover talented drawers in the room, and it’s often unrelated to their profession.

Storyboarding — People tend to be very good at breaking down an idea into a sequence to create a storyboard, too. We like to think it’s due to the four step kishōtenketsu pattern that forms the the foundation of a Japanese narrative, taught through ancient Chinese poetry in secondary school. And for those who’ve forgotten those lessons, the staple of four-panel comics that we consume serves as equally powerful training.

Drop ins — People are either invited or not. There’s no need to worry that a senior exec will wander in and take over the room for an hour. Even if people poke their head in, they’re self-aware enough to remove themselves from the situation.

User testing —There’s a whole series that could be written about that… for now, just a comment about recruiting to aid the planning of your sprint: participants need to be recruited beforehand, but if it’s coordinated, it will happen the way you planned it. We only recruit for the number that we need because cancellations and no-shows are so rare. Hoping to catch someone in a Starbucks or on the street is not recommended.

Any questions about design sprints in Japan? What are your experiences with sprints in your country? Let us know on Medium or Twitter @aqworks — we’d love to exchange about this topic!

September 25, 2017