Why Design Sprints Encourage Gender Equality in the Workplace

Design Sprints force everyone to lean in and subtly encourage overly dominant people to step back

Eran Dror
Eran Dror
Aug 7, 2019 · 5 min read
Illustration by author

At Remake Labs, we run many Design Sprints. This brings us into contact with lots of external teams and allows us to observe them as the Sprint process changes the way they’d normally interact. Overall, we’ve found this process to be very conducive to a meritocracy of ideas, and to magnifying often-ignored or silenced voices.

This is a topic I’m very passionate about, and one that I think is an under-appreciated aspect of Jake Knapp and GV’s revolutionary Design Sprint process, especially in cultures like the one I live in where being loud and dominating the conversation can still be mistaken for having the right ideas.

First, an important disclaimer

Before I dive in, let me say I speak as a man who is generally fairly loud and opinionated in conversation. This piece is not meant to point any fingers that I’m not willing to point at myself, too. I’m also making a generalization when I say that men tend to be louder and more domineering in business meetings and women tend to be more shy. This seems to be statistically true and there is a lot of research to back it up. There’s even a (perhaps unfortunate) name for it: the confidence gap. And there are also popular books encouraging women to lean in, speak up, and play a larger role in fields largely dominated by men. That being said, it should be taken as a given that some men are shy and quiet, and some women can easily argue it out with the loudest of us.

In general, I think everyone should be able to be who they really are, so long as they’re respectful of others. What’s missing is a process that makes these differences in temperament irrelevant, and allows our best ideas and expertise to shine through and play a role in our businesses no matter what.

That’s where a Design Sprint can be especially powerful because of a few key features:

1. Sprints push loud and dominant people to listen to other people’s opinions

In the expert interview part of the process, each expert is given a block of time (say, 30 to 45 minutes) to express their view of the challenges, opportunities, and the overall system. No matter how shy or talkative they are, each person still gets the same amount of time. The talkative people have to sit and listen (or ask questions), but they can’t speak out of turn or monopolize the conversation. This may sound obvious but this simple structure at the beginning of the Sprint ensures that everyone gets their say.

2. Sprints require shy and quiet people to form and express their own ideas

Throughout the Sprint—during user interviews, while choosing a long-term goal, while identifying challenges, and while sketching out ideas — shy people have to participate as much as everyone else. Time is blocked out to sit and quietly write down your thoughts or sketch them out, so shyness and politeness play no role in the matter. You just do it.

3. Sprints create a meritocracy of ideas

In virtually every exercise in the Sprint, everyone’s ideas are placed (or rather stuck) next to each other on the wall. Then follows a voting exercise by which everyone gets to vote for the best ideas, most often without knowing whose ideas they are. This creates a meritocracy by which good ideas can win out. This is huge and we’re seeing that the quietest members of the client’s team often come up with the winning ideas. Would they even have been listened to without this process? One would hope so, but I sometimes doubt it.

4. Sprints reward attention, curiosity, and creativity over ego and bravado

The winning ideas in a Sprint generally come from those who’ve been paying attention to the problems, who’ve been listening to customers and stakeholders, who are curious and creative about finding solutions, and who actually care about improving things. Ego, bravado, and stubbornness are not rewarded at all. In fact, there’s very little room for them in the Sprint process.

5. Sprints encourage good enough over perfect

One reason talented people fail to shine is a perfectionistic mindset. If you have to be perfect at all times, you will never ship that idea, plan, or piece of writing. This can give an advantage to the people who don’t care as much because at least they’re willing to put something out there while the perfectionist toils in secret. But all of this goes out the window when everyone’s on the clock. When the 45 minutes of sketching runs out, it really doesn’t matter how perfect or crappy your sketch is; you have to show it. And those valuable, creative ideas you were sitting on will be seen and appreciated.

6. Sprints provide the cover of anonymity where it’s needed

In some rare cases, egos or hierarchies might be so fragile that contesting them openly could stir up negative emotions. Alternatively, people might naturally gravitate toward the most senior person’s ideas because they think this will serve them better than voting for a great but unexpected idea from someone else. That’s why the Sprint offers the cover of anonymity when it’s most important: Idea sketches are often hung up without any credit, and the voting process takes place without reference to whose idea is whose.

7. Sprints can have after-effects that influence post-Sprint work

When enough good ideas come from someone who’s normally shy, it can have powerful after-effects on how they are perceived by their peers and managers. At the very least, people might begin to appreciate them more and wish to include them in more conversations. And if the organization is sufficiently mindful, it might look at the way it runs meetings to make sure everyone gets a protected space to voice their opinions and ideas.

I believe the intentional design of our time together represents one of the best opportunities for business, society, and even spirituality. In a world where we increasingly have to give a space to everyone’s voices, we must make our strengths cumulative and our weaknesses irrelevant. The Design Sprint is the best attempt I’ve seen so far at doing this consistently, respectfully, and productively at work.

Originally published at Remake Labs on August 7, 2019.

Remake Labs

A Design Sprint Laboratory

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