Design Sprint Facilitation: Not Just for Designers Anymore

April 22, 2019
Dana Vetan

Design Sprints started 10 years ago at Google. Design teams used this framework to solve critical business problems and build better digital products. Because it was designers who were the early advocates and facilitated design sprints, there is this common misconception that one needs strong product expertise and/or design skills to facilitate design sprints.

After training hundreds of professionals within the Design Sprint Academy and running dozens of service, product, and vision design sprints, we believe that being a designer is, in fact, the least important criteria for defining a great Design Sprint Facilitator.

But before explaining what makes a good Design Sprint Facilitator, we must look at what this role is all about.

Who is the Design Sprint Facilitator?

The Design Sprint Facilitator is responsible for steering a team through the five stages of a Design Sprint, ensuring smooth teamwork and effective results. They must be knowledgeable about the process and skilled in communicating this knowledge to others. Additionally, they need to adeptly handle team discussions, manage group dynamics, and make strategic decisions for each unique Design Sprint scenario.

Usually, professionals like Product Managers, Project Managers, Strategists, Consultants, UX Designers, Innovation Managers, UX Leads, Agile Coaches, Design Thinkers, and Workshop Facilitators are more interested or had the opportunity to gain experience with design sprints.

What are the activities of a Design Sprint Facilitator?

There are four main activities a design sprint facilitator should do:

  • Prepare and organize the design sprint
  • Leading and facilitating design sprints: This includes planning and organizing the design sprint, setting the agenda, and guiding the team through each process step.
  • Helping the team define and frame the problem: This includes conducting user research and gathering insights to inform the design sprint, and helping the team identify the most critical problems to solve.
  • Generating and evaluating ideas: This includes facilitating brainstorming sessions and other ideation techniques and helping the team narrow down and select the most promising ideas to prototype.
  • Creating and testing prototypes: This includes working with the team to create prototypes and facilitating user testing sessions to gather feedback and insights.
  • Making fast, informed decisions: This includes guiding the team through the decision-making process, and helping them make informed, data-driven decisions based on user feedback and other information.
  • Manage the time and facilitate the process
  • Manage the group dynamics and the conversations. This includes encouraging open and honest communication, fostering a culture of trust and respect, and helping team members work effectively together.
  • Document the progress and outcomes

But, what makes a great Design Sprint Facilitator?

While there could be a lot of criteria that make a good Design Sprint Facilitator, we boiled it down to three traits that we believe are essential:

  1. The ability to create synergy within the team while guiding them to an effective outcome.
  2. The capacity to iterate and adapt.
  3. The intrinsic motivation to unleash creativity in others.

In what follows, we will go through all three.

1. Synergy
Synergy - their ability to create synergy within the team while guiding them to an effective outcome.

We all know that a design sprint is a collaborative problem-solving process, where synergy needs to occur in order to get to effective solutions.

Synergy = when the team’s collaborative efforts produce a greater outcome than the sum or average of their individual efforts.

Experience taught us that synergy doesn’t happen by itself, by merely putting different personalities and expertise in one room, playing with Post-its, and following the process by the book. What happens between people is extremely important, and a Design Sprint Facilitator should manage the team interactions by:

  • actively listening to their opinions and concerns;
  • supporting their efforts to do well;
  • allowing for debates and managing different views constructively;
  • providing equal time for participation and involvement in discussions.

We define all this as managing the Interpersonal Process.

Equally important in making the synergy happen is the Rational Process, where the quality of the ideas or decision is essential. Managing the Rational Process means guiding the teams from problem to solution by using methods like:

  • understanding the context;
  • analyzing the root causes;
  • identifying clear objectives & goals;
  • considering possible solutions and collateral benefits;
  • visualizing adverse implications;
  • reaching consensus and alignment on the final decision.

We know synergy has occurred when we have an effective solution that is both endorsed by the team and of higher quality than their individual solutions (based on Norman R. F. Maier’s classic work).

We have once entered a design sprint where there was a lot of tension in the room, caused by some recent organizational restructuring measures that led to more than 30 people leaving the company. Together with some other key roles from Product and Marketing, the CEO and CTO of the company joined the sprint team. On Monday morning, we could immediately sense that people were not talking to each other; they were not smiling or engaging in group discussions; they were even avoiding direct eye contact with the management. Our main priority became taking care of the people, so we iterated the workshop agenda on the fly, and we used the entire morning to get to know our team members as individuals and find similarities and shared traits between them in order to re-establish trust. We created a safe space for both the management to be vulnerable and for the team to express their hopes and fears. Only after the energy level in the room raised, people started talking to each other, made jokes about the current situation, shared their mistrust and concerns, we reverted to the sprint exercises. During the entire sprint, we focused on keeping the team honest and engaged by providing constructive feedback, managing discussions, and endorsing equality.

As external facilitators, the sprint week felt like working on a minefield, making sure that no bomb goes off. Hence, at the end of the sprint, seeing the team working in unison, creating a unique concept that also got many good reactions from the end-users was a great success.

A success that would not have been possible if we only followed the book's sprint process without taking care of the humans first.

2. Critical Thinking.
Critical thinking - their capacity to iterate and adapt.

Facilitators don’t have the luxury to follow the rules blindly because there are no two identical design sprints, and they will start to encounter situations where the rules don’t apply, or where it’s unclear which rules they should use. A great Design Sprint facilitator should have lots of tools and methods in their toolbox and know which one to use or not, depending on their situation.

To give an example, a design sprint rule is that “the Decider decides”. But, sometimes this rule may need to be broken, or even more, the Decider needs to remove himself from the sprint. A while ago, we facilitated a design sprint for a 500 people product company. In our sprint team, we had two committed Deciders (present in the room for the entire week) and one sponsor making cameo appearances). During the sprint week, despite our pre-sprint agreement, some team members got shifted by the client to other priorities, and new people joined the workshop. Even more, during the storyboarding day, a third Decider joined the sprint, and he had his personal agenda. Although we tried our best to put him up to speed with the sprint methodology and mindset, as well as with the team’s progress until that point, it was a little bit too late into the game, and we realized that when we heard him open the conversation with: ‘We will start the development of the sprint prototype in two weeks from now. This prototype needs to be feasible, so our engineering team can start working on it, and it should be a valid one. We don’t have the time to experiment.’ It is easy to imagine that after this statement, everyone panicked and shifted their mindset from experimenting with bold ideas to building feasible features. Everything was now about: “What we can build quickly?”.

At that point, we had to stop everything and revert to where we started. We had a talk with the Decider and explained to him the possible consequences and damage created by the development deadline pressure and asked him to remove himself from the sprint. We then needed an entire hour to reset the team, reminding them about: What mindset should we have in a design sprint? Why do we test? How do we prototype? Why thinking in features will not work? Why may only one design sprint not be enough? Why is the design sprint prototype not a product roadmap? And so on.

To reach this proficient stage, facilitators need lots of experience and knowledge. No hacks or tips can replace the years of deliberate practice (workshops, team meetings, client meetings, public speaking, coaching sessions, leadership training, communication training, design thinking workshops, design sprints, actively managing a team, etc.) necessary to reach this point. Only a vast repertoire of facilitation experiences will allow a Design Sprint Facilitator to decide the right tool to use, course of action to take to achieve a specific goal. This quote by Pablo Picasso sums it up quite well: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

3. Passion.
Passion - their intrinsic motivation to unleash creativity in others.

All the skills and abilities mentioned above are indeed crucial in differentiating an expert facilitator from a novice, but beyond skills and knowledge, we need to also look at the intrinsic motivation that drives a person towards mastery, towards getting quality outputs.

If we were to quote Kai Hailey, Lead of Google Design Relations and Sprint Masters Academy, who trained over 1000 googlers as Design Sprint Masters, she wouldn’t recommend for this role only UX designers, despite their fantastic design skills and vision. She would recommend the ones passionate about unleashing the creativity in others, the ones getting energized by seeing others work together, the ones focused both on soft skills as well as on getting quality outcomes.

Now if we zoom out, we can see how all the three abilities mentioned above revolve around one single trait: empathy. By merely being empathetic a Design Sprint Master can set up the right stage for a sprint, can sense what the team is going through during the process and adapt accordingly, and recommend the correct course of action after the sprint.

Of course, understanding the process and knowing “what to do” and “how to do it” is essential, and we consider this a prerequisite for any facilitator.

And now, to answer the question: “Is Design Sprint Facilitation reserved for Designers?”. The short answer: Absolutely not.

“Can designers be great facilitators?” Absolutely yes, but so do other professionals in different roles, that have a strong understanding of the process and score high for the three traits I explained in this article.

If you are already a design sprint facilitator and are looking to demonstrate your skills and join an elite community of experts, simply pass the online ✍️ exam here.

If you are not there yet, maybe consider taking part in an interactive design sprint workshop first, to practice both the role of the sprint team member as well as the one of the Facilitator. Our 👩 2-day course caters for both.