Recently, I’ve had multiple individuals tell me that Design Sprints didn’t really work for their team. They didn’t “get results” or felt the time spent was wasted. A business or team believing innovation time was wasted is pretty horrible prospect for a lot of reasons. Not least, because I’ve seen first hand the great benefit that can be gained from running a Design Sprint. Its as if the solution is almost there, but not ready to fly.
After some back-and-forth, I discovered that all these “failed” Sprints had one thing in common. The Sprint team didn’t include a dedicated facilitator. In each case, the facilitator was playing dual duty as a designer, product owner, or stakeholder and always from the team already trying to solve the problem. In some ways this makes perfect sense. Anyone can buy Jake Knapp’s “Sprint” book and apply the exercises to a problem. So why not save a few bucks and let someone on the team run the Sprint? It’s not as if the process is that hard.
It’s just Design Thinking compressed into a week. We can find someone internal to do that.
So what’s the role of a Design Sprint Facilitator and what makes a good one?
This is a problem I’ve struggled with ever since becoming a Google Design Sprint Master (Google’s certification for Sprint facilitators). How can I be a good facilitator, and is that even possible when I’m part of the team? Here are the conclusions I’ve reached. I’m sharing this with the hope that others can benefit from my struggles.
I’ve come to understand that every Design Sprint benefits significantly from being led by a Professional Sprint Facilitator. What I mean by professional is not that you must hire an outside consultant, though that might be the easiest way forward. Instead the facilitator MUST not play dual roles in the Sprint. Facilitation is a really hard job and doing it well is at odds with the other roles on the team. Don’t make someone play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a week. Second, the facilitator SHOULD BE from outside the problem space. Get the facilitator from another team, if possible another division in the organization or even an outside consultant. Just make sure the facilitator is an outsider without preconceived ideas around the problem.
Just make sure the facilitator is an outsider without preconceived ideas around the problem.
So what benefit does an external facilitator bring to a Design Sprint?
1. They have no skin in the game
Typically, I would argue everyone should be highly vested in a solution but in the case of a Design Sprint, it’s a bad perspective. In a Design Sprint the facilitator MUST be unbiased. It’s extremely difficult to apply objective design thinking to a problem when your career, reputation or compensation is on the line. Without an ownership stake, a facilitator can guide the team away from their own unconscious bias regarding “common users” and “good solutions”. This outsider view allows solutions to rise that are good on their own merits, instead of catering to pet solutions that people have always wanted to try.
2. She brings a fresh set of eyes
How many innovations throughout history have been the result of a different perspective? An external facilitator doesn’t have the history or hang ups team members share. They aren’t aware of the commonly accepted roadblocks to innovation. Teams often say or imply, “that’s not how things work” or “it’s always been done this way.” Without skin in the game (see point #1), a facilitator is free to ask WHY in situations that could uncover game changing opportunities instead of caving to the status quo.
3. A facilitator has unique social status
The role of a Sprint Facilitator carries authority to direct activities, create time boxes, and generally run the workshop. Group dynamics are strange if the person with authority doesn’t have the same authority during other daily interactions. Does a lowly designer typically get to time box a VP’s response? Not likely. So what happens when they try to do it during a Sprint?
Conversely if the facilitator normally has authority, the group will treat the Sprint much like any other interaction. The participants will be wary of topics or suggestions that have received cool reception from leadership in the past. They’ll also try to offer solutions to curry favor instead of seeking the best available ideas.
Authority gives the facilitator the unique ability to force decisions. As a facilitator, I’ve often said, “we can’t move on from here until the decider chooses a path.” This is extremely effective for teams that suffer from decision paralysis. Yet it’s difficult for a normal team member to remove this roadblock. Finally, social status can be shared with the quite and overlooked personalities. It’s the facilitator’s job to create a very safe and inclusive environment where everyone’s contribution has merit. Again this can be very difficult to accomplish from “inside the team”.
4. He has a toolbox of problem solving techniques and experience
A seasoned facilitator has likely seen this process applied to a multitude of different problems types and industries. Also those who facilitate Sprints (or workshops in general) as a significant part of their job have been trained in multiple different approaches and exercises. This is unlikely to be the case for the lucky team member tasked with “running their first Design Sprint so the leadership can see different results”
This experience and perspective also allows facilitators to tailor Sprint activities to a specific problem. I’ve personally implemented Jobs to Be Done, Thinking Wrong and activities recommended in the Sprint Book at different times to help teams make a breakthrough. Additionally, experienced facilitators know that teams typically struggle at specific points and can recommend breaks. He has seen success in other Sprints and acts as a cheerleader when the Sprint gets tough (It always does).
5. A facilitator recognizes success differently
An external facilitator isn’t tied to the success of a solution, She’s tied to the success of the Sprint. With that in mind, a successful Sprint answers a question. The solution generated may fail in testing, but saving the effort of protracted concepting or the frustration of producing a poor solution means the Sprint a success. It’s often difficult to realize this success as part of the team in the trenches. Additionally, a good facilitator will conduct a “post mortem” review of the Sprint to help teams be mindful of all the learning that did occur throughout the experience.
How about you?
Have you had experiences leading a Sprint from inside your organization? Did it work out? Or like me do struggle with how to be the best facilitator possible? This is based on my own experiences and I’d love to hear what others have to say on the topic.
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