The Illusion of Design Sprints During a Global Pandemic

Confessions of a design leader on how to trick product teams (while they shelter in place!)

Kevin Smith
Aug 12 · 8 min read
Geometric illustration of optical illusions using pencils.
Geometric illustration of optical illusions using pencils.
Illustrations by the author.

Since 2015, I’ve run over 30 design sprints. I’ve run design sprints at an agency for clients. I’ve run design sprints with a small team at a lean startup. I’ve run design sprints in well-funded and large-scale ventures. And recently, I have been running remote design sprints at Facebook as a product design manager.

And I have a secret. Every time I run a design sprint, especially these days, I am playing head games with the participants.

Now, if you don’t know, a design sprint is an intensive, highly structured five-day innovation cycle developed by Google Ventures. Product teams come together to tackle a specific problem and come out the other side with a solution and, hopefully, a prototype to validate it. It’s an insanely fabulous and powerful way to jump-start ideas and get them into the market.

So how am I tricking people? Because when I gather designers, product managers, researchers, and engineers together for a sprint while they work remotely from home, they attend under the guises of a) following the typical Google Sprint workshop methodology and b) purporting to “make a product.” So, if we’re not gathering for a design sprint and we’re not getting together to prototype a product, what are we doing?

We’re connecting with each other at a time when everything is forcing us to disconnect.

Having meaningful social interactions is essential for our basic sanity, health, and happiness. In her book, “Daring Greatly,” published in 2012, social work researcher Dr. Brené Brown says it nicely: “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it, there is suffering.” Improving and deepening our relationships with our coworkers is just one way to improve our overall situation right now.

Building Trust During the New Normal

In the United States, our relationships with every single person we know radically changed in March. I won’t attempt to summarize what you’re probably living right now. Still, I know that our typical daily lives are entirely limited. We’re afraid to touch. We’re scared to have coffee together. Maintaining friendships and family connections is more challenging than ever before. And meeting new people comfortably or in a way that fosters any intimacy feels impossible. We can’t get to know someone by how they walk, how they smell, or how the sound wave of their laughter breaks on our skin. Video meeting technology is fantastic but extremely limiting. The natural cadence of passionate conversations and witty banter is almost impossible when only one person can talk at a time. We are all missing something fundamental right now.

When I think about what’s meaningful to me right now, I think about how I can bring about meaningful connections through my job.

So yes, in our work at Facebook, the prototype and the output of a design sprint are critical. But I believe the more crucial deliverable, especially right now, is the shared experience.

This Is How We Do It

Others have written on video conference etiquette and tech tips — this isn’t that article. My hope is to widen our understanding of what remote collaborative work can mean during this time and share ideas on how to think about and structure team engagements so that we can … be happy.

Now, a quick overview: the design sprint method allows my team to start prototyping quickly, receive instant user feedback, and make mistakes early. We conduct multiple design sprints in quick cycles — folding in learnings from week to week — and we always discover a lot in the process.

Sprints are all about solving problems in groups. That means encountering and reconciling all sorts of conflicts to arrive at new solutions and new levels of connection with teammates. There are some tricks to getting this right: we need to pre-empt the kinds of conflicts that inhibit relationships and lean into the types of battles that build relationships.

In their article “The Dynamic Nature of Conflict: A Longitudinal Study of Intragroup Conflict and Group Performance,” published in The Academy of Management Journal in 2001, organizational behavior researchers Dr. Karen Jehn and Dr. Elizabeth Mannix identify three types of conflict within workgroups: relationship conflict, in which interpersonal incompatibilities create friction; task conflict, in which members hold different opinions about a group task; and process conflict, in which members disagree about how to proceed in accomplishing tasks, especially regarding who should do what and how much responsibility different people should get.

Jehn and Mannix identify engaging in task conflict as the sweet spot for team growth. In my own work, I’ve found that it works to preemptively create the conditions for healthy task conflicts. I’ve also found that hindering the other kinds of conflicts (relationship and process conflict) creates better outcomes. So here are a few ways I do all that.

Break Down Walls

Trust and healthy communication are the recipe for any successful team. Trying to create the right conditions for it at the beginning can lower the risk of team members succumbing to relationship conflict. In my experience, starting a sprint with fun and engaging ice-breakers is always a win. It creates an environment in which the people involved can loosen up and let down their guards. When people feel safe in their work environment and can truly bring themselves to work, it allows them to trust each other. When teams have trust, they are more willing to put down their guards, share their ideas, and not worry if they will be judged or their ideas shot down.

Recognize Roles and Expertise

We’re lucky at Facebook to have already implemented structures that hinder some process conflict. We’ve had the time to hammer out roles at a foundational level and create a culture in which people value and respect domain expertise. This has come with a lot of trial and error over the past 16 years. When my team members come to a sprint, a product designer doesn’t go in assuming they’ll be writing copy; that’s not in their job description. They may weigh in on copy here and there, but it isn’t their responsibility to write or make final decisions on copy. Likewise, everyone will defer to the UX researcher to provide intelligence on our users — the content strategist won’t argue that “the product won’t work because Uncle Jim in Nebraska won’t like it” because she knows it’s the UX researcher’s role to have already figured out what Uncle Jim likes. While roles aren’t black and white and skills do overlap, going into a sprint with roles clearly defined can help prevent process conflict and allow relationships — and the project — to flourish. The basic structure of the design sprint helps avoid process conflict, too.

Embrace Networking

Maybe you are like me: when you hear the word “networking” it conjures up awkward conversations on terrible carpeting patterns in windowless rooms in some colossal hotel conference room. But when you work in a large company as I do, it’s impossible to know everyone. Any multi-office or cross-discipline meeting is an opportunity to network and broaden your perspective. To take away the stigma of “networking,” I talk about it. I use the word without shame, not just at the beginning of a sprint, but with coworkers in general. If people become more open to networking and exposing themselves to different points of view — casually and often — we can lower the risk of relationship conflict.

Right-size Your Team

Jake Knapp’s Sprint book recommends 5–7 people per sprint, and I agree with this entirely. Besides the ninth level of hell being 20 people on a video conference, including too many people on a team lowers individual accountability: people aren’t as engaged because they know others can do most of the contributing, which is a passive process conflict. With a lean team, everyone gets a significant share of the work to do and feels invested in its success. Conversation flows more freely, and it’s easier to collaborate. If there are other folks you’d like to include, but they can’t dedicate the time or are outside of the core team, have them join on the first day to drop some knowledge or later on to review concepts. When you right-size your team, you’re more apt to see members encountering task conflict (good) over process conflict (bad).

Pick the Right Mix of People

Again, we’re going to have conflict no matter what, and it’s the right kind of conflict — task conflict — which creates better outcomes and is more likely to result in deeper relationships. To make that task conflict fruitful in a small team, the right balance of roles in the group is vital. Before going into the sprint, think about your goals and what the prototype might look like. Choose subject matter experts based on the intention of the sprint. If you have a team of mostly designers working on the sprint, you’re missing valuable, real-time insight from other sides of the organization, and issues will undoubtedly crop up after the sprint is finished. The team makeup should look something like this: someone who represents the customers; someone who represents the shareholders; marketing; design; tech, and any other relevant function.

Diversifying your team is critical. Consider the many dimensions of diversity — like race, gender, age, socioeconomic background, physical ability, work experience, geographic location, and more — that can all contribute to better and more inclusive ideas. Substantial research shows that diversity brings many advantages to a company’s business performance with an increased impact on creativity and better problem-solving skills. A Boston Consulting Group study found that firms with more diverse teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Teams with diverse backgrounds bring fresh perspectives, ideas, and experiences, helping to create products that outperform against companies that do not invest in diversity.

Deception Foiled

So maybe my deception during these harrowing times is not the most devious of acts. While I think that making and deepening relationships right now is crucial, I don’t hold “team-building exercises” because no one likes the idea of spending five days doing virtual trust falls or singing kumbaya with Jen from the data science team (sorry, Jen!). Again, it’s all about building new relationships and strengthening old ones. And doing what we’re all here to do: enjoy our lives — especially now.

🙏 I would like to sincerely thank Shannon O’Malley, Amy Cooper, and Wynn Smith for their help with this article.

Facebook Design

Designing for the global diversity of human needs.

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