Six People Who Derail Innovation — and how to mitigate them

Dana Publicover
May 4, 2018 · 5 min read
Invite any of these six to your ideation? Don’t worry, there’s help.

Savvy enterprise companies are now realizing that design sprints (most popularly attributed to the Google Ventures team in a process outlined in the 2016 book SPRINT) are the resource-light solution to new product launches, and well worth the time spent away from normal work.

For those not yet hip, the process is a 5-day rapid development cycle pioneered by startups that takes a small multidisciplinary team through ideation to solution finding and even testing. The idea is that with less money and time invested, the solution tested can “fail fast,” lending an opportunity to quickly learn from the failure and iterate a new solution to be tested. Corporate audiences were resistant at first — the ideal timeline is 5 full working days, and the ideal team has no hierarchy, etc. — but the results are beginning to speak for themselves.

But how do you bring together a team resistant to rapid failure, especially in a culture where the word and concept of Failure are not kosher? I’ve learned there are a few archetypes who can potentially derail the process — if not handled properly. Here are the six people who could derail your sprint (and how to keep them on track).


In a sprint, change happens fast. Pivots can occur multiple times an hour (though the goals should never change), and those with experience in a traditional, more long-term ideation process will feel overwhelmed. They will also feel as though the team is floundering, flopping from one solution to another. Even having been briefed on the process, your Sticks to His Guns teammate will keep circling conversation back to a solution that has been long dropped by the team in an effort to gain stable footing, and to do what he feels is simplify the process.

As long as your sprint facilitator is keeping things on track and moderating discussion, the pivots are expected and part of the process. A good facilitator will be able to spot this struggle and can mitigate the frustration as it arises.


Debate and discussion — especially the heated kind — is expected and integral within a sprint. You are bringing 5–7 very different people into a small, enclosed space and forcing them to work outside their normal functions for an entire week. But there’s more to it than that: Friction is actually a good thing. Friction means there is passion, and discussion means there is more than one opportunity. And all of this means the stage is set for innovation.

Because of this, The Naysayer is the perfect addition to a sprint (and is often specifically recruited). However, The Naysayer will frequently reject any ideas outright without discussion, and it is important to make her explain and understand why she is averse to things she is saying no to. You can deal with her and her counterpart, the ONE WHO HAS ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY, similarly.


In design thinking, one of the exercises we do with people (especially the ONE WHO HAS ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY) is the 5 Whys. Think of a small child asking why. Why are we in the car? Because we are going to the store. Why are we going to the store? Because we need food. Why do we need food? Because our bodies need nourishment to function. Why do we need to function? BOOM. What a powerful question. If you ask someone a series of why questions, you tend to dig a lot deeper.

Often, these questions come after someone says “We HAVE to XXXX.” Part of the sprint process is challenging existing conventions and questioning as much as we can. When we get to an imperative statement, “It has to be done this way” or “This is how we do it,” there isn’t much opportunity for innovation. But this is a sprint and the rules are flipped upside down, and so we dig deeper. “Why does it have to be done this way?” and similar lines of questioning typically lead down a path like this: “Because it has always been done that way.” The WHY that follows is usually met with silence or a stuttered “I don’t actually know…”

Challenge the ONE WHO HAS ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY and the ONE WHO SAYS NO. Ask why. And challenge all of those answers until a lightbulb goes off and clears the pathway to innovating a solution unhindered by convention.


Because sprint teams are meant to exclude any leadership, management or executives (by design — and this is a rule most facilitators stand by, though decision-makers are involved later in the process) the dynamic is curated so that there is no real hierarchy. This is to encourage all team members to speak openly and freely, to shout out awful ideas, and to be bold enough to question things. It’s also meant to discourage those trying to showboat for a boss or CEO, trying to look smart, or talking for the sake of talking. Occasionally, the ONE WHO IS IN CHARGE slips in to the mix and throws the dynamic off.

A facilitator is uniquely positioned to be able to put the ONE WHO IS IN CHARGE in her place by resetting the dynamic. As an unbiased party, the facilitator can treat all members equally and can help the sprint move forward by downplaying any authority displayed by the ONE WHO IS IN CHARGE.


People who have been doing their jobs awhile sometimes feel that they no longer need a rough draft, but that every piece of work they churn out is good to go as-is. They’ve forgotten the purpose of the Crappy First Draft. These people tend to latch onto the first solution and fail to see the need for testing, validation or iteration. They will see it as going back to the drawing board when the solution was good enough.

The ONE AND DONE-ers tend to display a lot of eye-rolling, watch-glancing and general frustration with time spent discussing. Reminding them of the importance of testing and the opportunities for development found in discussion is an effective technique to bring them back to the process.


What many companies fail to realize is that a sprint does not guarantee a solution. In fact, many sprints fail fast and the assumptions are invalidated, leading to a pivot in general operating knowledge that may guide solutions down the line, but instead of continuing the development cycle with a second (or third, or fourth) iteration, the sprint is chalked up as a learning experience.

The value in a sprint is in the process, the clarity and the exercise in solution finding. While quite often these things do result in a testable solution, a single sprint is not a guarantee for a solution.

The ONE WHO NEEDS RESULTS needs something to show for his time, either to validate the time invested to himself or to others. They are unwilling to participate in something that may never yield a finished product and will be unsatisfied with any results other than a launch.

Managing expectations from the beginning will ensure that the ONE WHO NEEDS RESULTS knows he may not get any. And reminders of the value in information gained through failing fast can help keep the ONE WHO NEEDS RESULTS inspired and engaged.

Tiny Piñata

Empathy-driven Design.

Dana Publicover

Written by

twin mom 👶🏻👶🏻 • jew(ish) • workshop facilitator • empathetic researcher • founder Tiny Piñata

Tiny Piñata

Empathy-driven Design.

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