The Essentials of Facilitating Design Sprints Remotely

May 28, 2020
DSA Team

Facilitating a design sprint remotely might seem as simple as creating a few digital collaboration boards and setting up a Zoom call. But it’s not.

There are some key differences between in-person sprints and their digital counterparts. If you’re a facilitator, here are 5 important points to consider before taking your sprints remote:

1. You’ll need to adapt your sprint format

Remote Sprint Plan

Design Sprints were purposefully created to put participants under productive pressure. The sprint format of a few intense, action-packed days was designed to keep participants moving forward and focused on the topic at hand. This works in a context where you are able to control the environment and block outside distractions. This is hardly the case in remote scenarios where there’ll be inevitable distractions for your team — think ringing phones, crying babies, barking dogs, technical glitches or simply just noticing how weird their faces look on camera! In this context, your team will need shorter work sessions, more breaks, and a combination of online and offline tasks to maintain their focus.

Another thing to consider is the disruption in your team’s natural conversation flow. In many ways, a design sprint is just one giant brainstorm. This means engaging in a group conversation with lots of back and forth, interjections, utterances, and side chats. Not only is this messy way of communicating entirely natural, but it’s also important for helping us organize our thoughts and collaborate out loud. However, when transferred online, it results in interruptions, confusion, and loss of focus. Which means you’ll have to guide your team in an unintuitive “turn-taking” approach to sharing their thoughts.

All of this means that team tasks will take longer, and your team will be less attentive than usual. This means you’ll need a sprint plan with shorter days, shorter work sessions, longer breaks and clearly defined online and offline work sessions to maintain focus.

Check-out our free webinar 👉 How to run Design Sprints Remotely? Planning and Onboarding where we dive deep into how we started and succeeded with design sprints in a virtual environment.

2. You’ll need a super tight agenda

Remote Design Sprint Agenda

An adapted sprint format is one way of keeping your team focused, engaged, and on track with outcomes. But what about within the sprint itself? While real-world sprints need a clear structure to work effectively, they also allow for a fair deal of flexibility in your daily agenda, meaning that there’s wiggle room for facilitators to “just wing it”. Unfortunately, this “structured flexibility” approach won’t cut it in an online environment.

To keep your team on time and on task, engineer focus and foster productivity, your team (and you) will need a strict minute-by-minute agenda to follow in a paint-by-numbers fashion. Where this might feel restrictive in the real world, it creates a great sense of security and structure in the online space that your team will appreciate. A tight agenda will also help manage your team’s expectations prior to the sprint, and allow them to plan accurately around any other events or appointments they might need to accommodate.

Looking 👀 for a minute-by-minute agenda to guide you and your team through every day of your sprint? Our Remote Sprint Kit has you covered.

3. You’ll need individual onboarding sessions

Design sprints present a series of new challenges that can be quite overwhelming if not addressed upfront — even for seasoned sprint teams.

For instance, each participant comes into the process with different contexts, technical setups, expectations, and degrees of expertise with online tools. Think of the difference between a single parent of a young child working from home with high-speed wifi, vs a team member who might live alone but only have internet access via their phone hotspot.

As a facilitator, you’ll need to be able to troubleshoot as many issues as possible prior to your sprint for it to go smoothly. It’s too late to discover in the prototyping phase that someone’s sketchpad doesn’t work, or that they weren’t sure what they were meant to be doing in the first place. You also don’t want your team members checking out of conversations because they’re too embarrassed to admit they can’t do something that everyone else has the hang of.

A great way to kill all these birds with one stone is via one-on-one onboarding sessions, with specially designed onboarding tests and exercises that bring each participant up to speed with their role, their prep work, and what to expect going forward. These sessions also provide a stress-free opportunity for your team members to ask “silly” questions and help you as the facilitator evaluate who will need more guidance in the sprint itself.

Most importantly, it will help you lay some important ground rules for interaction, for example not having any other devices present or other tabs open.

We’ve created an on-boarding guide that covers everything from the ground rules you should set and how to define your team’s roles clearly, to technical checks, practice exercises for online tools, and specific questions you should ask. It’s part of our Remote Sprint Kit.

4. You’ll need a smart digital workspace

In a normal sprint, you have a physical workspace in the form of a room or conferencing venue. Your space usually consists of whiteboards and walls, where you can stick up your Sprint materials and capture all your data.

In a remote setting, you’ll need to recreate this space digitally, in the form of digital whiteboards, or digital collaboration boards. Your boards should be set up in a way that allows them to double as a presentation that takes your team through each exercise. You’ll need a board for each work session in your sprint (this enables you to keep your sprint plan flexible) as well as additional boards for Housekeeping & Onboarding.

You should also build your boards so that each team member has an individual space on each board where they can jot down whatever might come up — be it thoughts, ideas, links or sketches. Think of it as a virtual “thinking space” that they can refer back to when it’s time to discuss.

5. You’ll need help monitoring and managing emotions

As a facilitator, one of your most important responsibilities is to monitor your team members’ emotional states and make sure they are in the right frame of mind for each task.

In an offline context, you’ll have lots of emotional feedback to observe from your team — be it their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions or just the general energy in the room. Provided you know what to look for, gauging when your team is stressed, fatigued, or in need of some motivation is not that difficult.

When working remotely, however, these cues can be hard to pick up on, meaning you risk losing sight of how your team is feeling. It’s therefore important that you have a strategy in place to monitor your team’s emotional fluctuations and respond to their cues, so they can go into each task with the right mindset and a clear awareness of themselves and others.

Wondering how best to monitor and manage your team’s emotional state? Checkout 👀 our free template — The Emotional Rollercoaster Template available in Mural and MIRO.

6. You’ll need a Playbook

As if it weren’t obvious by now, facilitating a remote sprint is a whole different kettle of fish to the in-person version. To achieve the same outcomes, you’ll need a comprehensive playbook that breaks your remote sprint down into manageable phases, with detailed instructions at each step.

The Remote Sprint Kit

Luckily for you, we created just that in the form of our Remote Sprint Kit, which not only includes a detailed Remote Sprint Playbook but checklists, agendas, presentation & communication templates, and a fully set up digital workspace too.