Written by Sara Guo
Founders have been asking us for years, so now we’re spilling our secrets on how we build a winning company culture while creating groundbreaking ideas ALL in one weekend!
Hot pot, board games, Cottage Olympics, and high-impact product solutions! As a remote-first company, we understand that company culture is paramount to our success, and that’s why we host semi-annual cottage retreats to bring our team together in a relaxed, rejuvenating, and innovation-inspiring setting.
If you are looking to find a new way to engage your team and generate innovative solutions to solve your business’s pain points, continue reading as we break down everything you need to know about the nature of cottage sprints, creating an effective sprint schedule, energizing team bonding activities and other smaller logistical information – all in ONE place.
Introduction to Innovation Sprints
What they are and why they are effective
Let's begin by introducing what an innovation sprint is.
Essentially, an innovation sprint is a timeboxed working session, designed to develop, test, and implement solutions.
During our cottage retreats, we've built technology prototypes which we later built into a real product, created a year's worth of marketing strategies, and implemented new ways to improve our internal processes.
Now, imagine an innovation sprint that takes place during a cottage retreat! By incorporating an innovation sprint into a cottage retreat, teams can not only work more effectively together but also recharge and bond in a relaxed and comfortable environment.
Duration: 3-4 days
Number of employees: 1- 20 employees
Number of Outcomes: Flexible
Step 1 - Creating teams
Our employees split into groups based on their existing projects to tackle and build solutions to four challenges. The challenges ranged from improving our operations to developing new products or services.
Fun fact: At our last cottage sprint in 2022, we built a software prototype in just over a day to address an ongoing pain point for our clients. Less than six months later, this prototype had grown into a full-fledged B2B SaaS product which we have since sold to large corporations.
Step 2 - Deciding what to do each day
There is not one way to pull off a cottage retreat, but here’s what works for our company. If you want to plan your cottage retreat over the weekend…
Thursday – Ideation
The first day is about each team defining their prompt and creating goals they hope to accomplish by the end of the cottage sprint. Some examples of outcomes include creating a landing page or a project dashboard.
The second component is to create How Might We statements (HMWs) and test assumptions. HMW statements allow teams to better understand their challenge prompt by framing it into a question that can encourage creative thinking.
At this stage, no idea is a bad idea, and the goal is quantity over quality.
Friday – Execution
The second day is dedicated to generating solutions from the HMW statements developed on the first day. This is when the majority of the deep work happens, with each team understanding their roles and tasks.
The morning is spent determining a solution, while the afternoon is all about storyboarding and prototyping the chosen solution.
Saturday – Showtime!
This is the third day of the sprint, and the teams should be focused on polishing their solutions to present to the rest of the team. PowerPoint and Pitch are excellent resources for sharing your answers with the team.
Often, other teams do not have the same level of context on each team’s challenge, so it's essential to clearly and concisely communicate the problem, criteria, and solution in a minimal number of slides.
During the presentations, the rest of the team should prepare questions at the end. It is encouraged to challenge ideas — this is especially important when thinking about launching new services or products.
Step 3 - How to Build a Strong Team Culture
Energizing the team through games and deep conversations
We’ve talked about the specifics, but isn’t a cottage sprint also meant to be fun? 100%! Each day, after the teams are done working, at around 8 PM, the emphasis is on team bonding.
At Onova, we host a highly competitive Cottage Olympics where teams of two compete in various mini-games such as ping pong, Mario Party, hide and seek, trivia, and TypeRacer to win cool prizes.
We also intentionally set aside time for deep, vulnerable conversations guided by open-ended prompts. Our new hires were able to connect with our current staff to create a space where everyone felt welcome and heard
Step 4 - Managing Logistics
Preparing Meals, Accommodations, and Transportation
Often overlooked, the small details of a cottage retreat can be exhaustive. For startups with smaller teams, it is often beneficial for each member to contribute by bringing supplies or board games. Questions to think about include whether you want everyone to commute to the cottage themselves or coordinate a few cars to transport everyone.
A spreadsheet should be created to document factors including rides, budget, food, packing list, supplies, and cooking supplies. It is also essential to bring extra supplies in case of emergencies.
This past year, the cottage we went to didn't have a kitchen, so we planned our meals to be easy to clean while simultaneously satisfying our taste buds. At Onova, we are obsessed with hotpot, so we ate that for two dinners and other no-cook meals for breakfast.
After the Cottage Sprint
Celebrating wins, learning opportunities and next steps
After the cottage sprint, it is necessary to celebrate the ideas generated, obtain feedback from all the employees on their experience -- what they liked, disliked, and would like to see differently for next time -- and finally, start implementing feasible ideas to guide company operations.
It's okay if solutions are modified post-cottage sprint.
Company culture is not just how you socialize but also how you work together to create high-impact solutions in a short time frame. And with cottage sprints, it's the perfect time to accomplish and build on both!
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