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Companies deal with a bunch of problems on a daily basis. Depending on where you are in your growth cycle, your problems could range from billing to product features to tech to business. The standard way of dealing with these problems follows a process. It starts with looking at priorities, resources available, creating the documentation, etc. And all of this takes a long time. A large company has the time for to follow these processes. However, these problems are more pressing in a startup and need to have a faster turnaround time.  

The challenges amplify in a startup environment because, of course, time and resources are scarce and most startups are already running on a lean model.

This is where sprints work. Speaking from experience, if you want to get stuff done in a short period of time and a focused manner, try a sprint.

Usually, in tech companies, a sprint is treated like a cousin of hackathons. One night, couch out, eat crap, and work till the stuff is fixed. But the way we devise our sprints is for a slightly longer period of time to fix a specific problem with a small group of people.

How we use sprints at Exotel

Though a Sprint is a common methodology followed in agile environments, we adapted it to suit our own requirements at the time. What we call a sprint is our own hybrid version that has helped us out of many tight spots.

Here’s how we define a sprint:

  1. Sprints are short windows of time dedicated to solving one specific problem.
  2. Tasks that qualify for a sprint are typically the ones that show immediate impact on one or more areas of the business.
  3. Each sprint typically runs for 3-5 days.
  4. Our work hours during sprints are the same as during regular workdays.
  5. No unnecessary breaks or meetings during a sprint.
  6. And every sprint ends with a small celebration – can range from ice creams to beer and pizza.

Benefits of sprints

We have seen many benefits from these sprints. Here are a few.

It gets us started

Sprints are a great way to beat procrastination. Since everyone is focused on the same problem, the cumulative energy is hard to ignore.

Decisions are made easy

Since we let the data do most of the talking, a consensus is easy to arrive at. Once we have decided our next step, it’s just all work. The stop points are also easy to decide because we begin with a clear goal.

It keep us on track

Since we have a predefined window of time to solve the problem, productivity is high and distractions are minimal. Everyone is super-focused on the problem they have on hand, which brings fast-tracked closure.

It gives us a great sense of accomplishment

Finishing a sprint successfully leaves us feeling highly satisfied and accomplished. This feeling is a direct result of having finished or created something that has a very high impact. The sense of camaraderie and togetherness also sees a new high after going through the frenzied but positive energy through a sprint.

Boosted employee satisfaction

At the end of the work day, people want to leave the office feeling like they’ve accomplished something substantial.Sprints are a great way to achieve this. Productivity is a very important factor for employee satisfaction. Of course, it matters for business as a whole, but it is also important for employee happiness on a personal level.

Improved team bonding

Working together on a successful, important and impactful thing leaves a lasting feeling of oneness in the team. Almost like slaying a common enemy.

The 6 Essentials to planning a successful sprint

Like everything else, planning is the make or break of a sprint. Here are some pointers on how you can plan your sprints right.

1.Identify the problem:

The success of a sprint is defined by whether it solved a specific problem. Identify a problem, break it down into tasks you need to tackle.

Example:

Our very first sprint happened due to a dire necessity. By 2012, Exotel was garnering a lot of clients, and we were still bootstrapped. In spite of the growth, we were cash strapped. There were bills that needed to be paid, but the money was not coming in fast enough. Like all bootstrapped companies, our priority was to ensure that cash flow did not become a problem to running our business. After a lot of brainstorming and analysis, we realised that we needed to scrap our postpaid model of payment and move our clients to a prepaid model.  

2. Define a solution:

Once the problem is identified, defining a very specific, measurable solution.

Example:

Continuing from the previous example, the solution to our cash flow problem was to move our clients to a prepaid model of payment. While this sounds simple enough, there were a lot of changes that need to happen to enforce this. Right from product changes to messaging to our customers, we filled up an entire board with a list of tasks that needed to be done to make sure that this shift happened with minimal disruption to our clients.

3. Set specific time-frames:

Sprints aren’t necessarily like the time before a major product release where all-nighters and pizza binges as part of the deal. Sprints fit into regular working day schedules, with the added momentum of tunnel-vision. Sprints typically last for three to five working days, between 9 am and 6 pm every day. It takes nothing away from their family time, exercise time, healthy meals or sleep needs.

Example:

During our sprint to move customers from prepaid to postpaid, we were a small team. We had no more than 15 people at Exotel. But, even a seemingly daunting tasks like migrating to another payment mode got done in 3 days. Tech, product, customer communication – every single part of it.

4. Align your goals with long-term visions:

Although most sprints are carried out to solve a pressing problem, sprints might also be a very effective method bring aspects of the long-term vision of the company to life. Even in the case of problem-solving sprints, it is important that there is a tight correlation with the vision of the company.

Example:

Solving our cash flow problem was an important step in solving a lot of the problems we were facing. Once we were able to predict our revenues more accurately, it helped us move along and create a roadmap for the product, freeze our hiring plans, and even bring on board better talent.

5. Leverage the power of data:

Data should be the starting point of a good sprint. Use data to understand what needs fixing and how you need to fix it. When you bring together a bunch of people during a sprint, use data to get the team’s buy-in.

Example:

Our latest sprint happened as a result of a whacky trend between our ticket closure timelines and customer happiness scores. The relationship between the time taken to resolve tickets and the customer feedback ratings weren’t adding up. Some tickets that had a very high-resolution time had very high CSAT ratings and some quickly resolved ones had low CSAT ratings.

We analysed 22,000 tickets and unearthed anomalies.

Here were a few alarming things our data told us.

  1. Over 30% of the tickets took over a week to resolve. 

    tickets

  2. 5% of the tickets were marked as “waiting on the customer.” And these fell through the cracks.

While the CSAT scores threw the team off, the deeper analysis told us exactly where the problem was and what needed to be fixed.

6. Follow up with action plans:

Once the sprint is complete, there is an opportunity to clean up the process and set up mechanisms to function better in the future.

Example:

When we were looking at the CSAT scores and resolution times, we realised that all of our tickets had the same SLAs. But this was not the right way to look at it. Issues that affected our customer’s businesses and affected productivity have to rank higher than minor glitches or internal requests. At the end of the sprint, here’s how we redefined our SLAs:

  1. SLA for downtime issues – 1 hour
  2. SLA for productivity issues (some calls not going through, some agents are not able to make calls, etc.)- 1 day
  3. SLA for response on queries(pricing, onboarding, account usage,etc) – 2 days
  4. SLA for emails directed to our marketing, hr, facilities, finance teams – 1 week
  5. SLA for SMS template – 1 hour

Since we were able to weed out relevant tickets from the irrelevant ones, the agents worked on 50% lesser queries. Which meant that they had more time to resolve the relevant customer concerns.

Our sprint sessions showed us that challenges that loom large require less time than we think and not more. They also showed us that teams and individuals produce better results while tracking specific goals, add sustainable solutions can be built and tested in less than a week.

Does your company follow a unique practice that has helped you? Why not let us know in the comments?

AUTHOR: Ishwar Shridharan

Ishwar, the COO & co-founder of Exotel, is also the founder of #ThugLife @ Exotel. The ultimate multi-tasker, Ishwar is constantly caught doling out advice, firefighting and just generally being cool.

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