Decision Sprint: A book review by Bob Morris

Decision Sprint: The New Way to Innovate into the Unknown and Move from Strategy to Action
Atif Rafiq
McGraw Hill (April 2023)

“If you have always done it that way, it’s probably wrong.” Charles Kettering

To what does the title of this book refer? As Atif Rafiq explains, “Problem-solving needs to be reinvented for the modern area, and solving for unknowns is the key. Let me explain why the future of your company depends on it…That is my yey, perhaps counterintuitive message. To experience speed and quality in decision-making, organizations must start further upstream [from the given situation]. Too often, companies are cavalier or circular about how they handle unknowns. Then when it’s time to make a decision [with regard to solving a problem], they’re paralyzed if they blunder into a poor decision.”

As you may already know, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham introduced a concept in 1955 that they aptly characterized as “the unknown unknowns.” That is, ignorance of one’s ignorance. This is probably what Mark Twain had in mind when observing, ” It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Yes, it is very important to recognize what our specific knowledge needs are, relevant to the given situation. It is even more important to recognize that we may think we know — but in fact do not know — especially what needs to be known when a serious question must be answered or a serious problem must be solved.

The best best business books have dozens of key points and that is certainly true of Decision Sprint. I call them “business nuggets.” For example,  Rafiq includes excerpts from each of several interviews with Hakan Samuelson, former president and CEO of Volvo cars, on designing success (Pages 31-34); David Long, CEO and co-founder of OrangeTheory Fitness, on Growing from a Garage into a Major Consumer Brand  (95-97); José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, on Decision-Making: Balancing Execution and Innovation at Scale (124-126); Julia Vander Ploeg,  former chief digital officer, Hyatt, on InfluencingLeader toLerader (129-130); Zaki Fasihuddin, former VP of Innovation and Partnerships at McDonald’s, on Apple Pay and Innovating in the Unknown at McDonald’s (136-139); and Jeff Jones, President & CEO, H&R Block on Information as a Strategic Tool (264-266).

Here are other passages that are also of special interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Rafiq’s coverage:

o Be a Systems Builder (Pages 38-39)
o Upstream and Downstream (43-47)
o The Why Behind Decision Sprint (49-52)
o Key Steps of Building Explorations (78-84)
o Developing Alignment 158-163)

o Tap Workflows to Express Culture (169-175)
o Eecutive Reviews(189-193)
o Starting with Roles (196-201)
o Starting a Sprint, Step by Step (214-216)
o Adoption Spreading Strategies (218-221)

I agree with Rafiq about the importance of upstream work: “It’s the part of an initiative or problem space with more questions than answers. Questions always stream in much faster than answers at the start of a promising idea oir important problem space. We only get to quality execution if the answers begin to outweigh the questions, no matter how promising the opportunity or urgent it is to take action on a problem. Upstream work is how we connect [begin italics] exploration [end italics] to alignment [begin italics] to decision-making [end italics]. Only after connecting these three phases can an initiative move downstream, where execution lives.”

I commend Atif Rafiq on the abundance of valuable information, insights, and counsel that he provides while explaining how leaders in almost any organization — whatever its size and nature may be — can improve or replace the process by which to solve problems, especially those that involve multiple unknown unknowns.  In this context, I am again reminded of Marshall Goldsmith’s observation, “what got you here won’t get you there.” In fact, I think that what got you here won’t even allow you to remain here, however and wherever “here” and “there” are defined.  Also, keep in mind this observation by Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Here are two concluding suggestions while reading Decision Sprint: Highlight key passages, and, keep a lined notebook near at hand  in which you record your comments, questions, action steps (preferably with deadlines), and page references as well as your responses to the most challenging of Atif Rafiq’s questions. These two simple tactics will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key material later.

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