How to build your successful Design Sprint Team (and run it)

Top 5 “Make-Or-Break” Steps

Hannah Nürnberg
Dec 3, 2018 · 8 min read

Before you even start your Design Sprint it is important to follow a few simple, but crucial rules to build and nurture a successful Design Sprint Team. Running our first few Design Sprints we learnt a lot about team dynamics in this specific setting. Even if you had run workshops in the past or lead teams throughout an entire process — this is different. Now, with dozens of Sprints on our belt we know that when it comes to your team there are some important steps to take before the actual Design Sprint starts.

This article is about our Top 5 “Make-Or-Break” steps when putting together your team.

Building a Design Sprint team is a little bit like following a cooking recipe. If you have the right ingredients and follow the cooking instructions properly then you are up for a great meal. But if you leave out an essential spice or cook your meal too long or too short, you will end up with a frustrating outcome or even worse: you’ll have to redo the whole thing again.

Here is our five-ingredient-recipe for a great Design Sprint team.

“The most important steps to take before and during a Design Sprint” — based on our own experiences:

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1. Focus on Roles

Start by considering the functional sprint roles. The most important roles are the facilitator and the decider. But never forget the experts!

The facilitator is obviously the one, who is facilitating the entire Sprint. That’s why it should be a person who has no problem standing in front of groups and getting them through rough patches and discussions. S/he needs to make sure that the team gets to a result. It’s important that s/he creates a broad understanding of the Design Sprint challenge and the following steps to reach the final goal.

The decider is the second important person. S/he makes the final decision in the room. Once you realize that a decision is needed, the decider always has the final word. It is very important, that the decider is trusted by the team and that s/he can plausibly explain the decisions made. Make sure that you have the “true” decider, who is mostly the real product owner, rather than someone equipped with proxy. Experience shows that such a person might not be making the “right” decisions. Whoever has the role s/he must understand how important the fulfillment of this task is and, with that, how crucial this role is for the success of the Sprint.

The experts and sprinters are people who understand the customer and their needs very well. To a big extent you rely on their expertise and knowledge to run a successful Sprint.

Choose the experts and the remaining team members in a way allowing you to cover the biggest possible spectrum of the problem. But do not only get the designers, engineers and R&D people involved. Make sure that marketing and sales are represented as well as a customer service representative. Generally you are looking for people, who have a lot of contact with the customer. Even finance and accounting might be interesting due to the level of direct customer contact in daily business. Our recommendation is to include all of these functions when inviting people to join your Sprint as team members (sprinters) or as an expert interview partner.

When starting with the expert interviews Monday morning, make sure you have selected the experts giving you varied insights into the problem space. These experts don’t necessarily have to be people from outside of the team.

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2. Value Each Role

In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen it has proven very effective to align and onboard your experts and team members before the start.

We’ve made the experience that there are two ways to get everybody on board before the Design Sprint starts: You can either have a joint meeting or individual talks with the people to brief them beforehand.

The main objective of such a briefing is to ensure common understanding of…

A) what the Design Sprint is and what challenge it tackles

B) what the crucial roles in a Sprint are.

When running the Sprint it is vital that each participant understands the importance of his/her role.

The facilitator needs to create an environment in which all team members feel that their knowledge is absolutely necessary for the success of the Sprint.

Every team member is there because s/he has true insights on your customer needs or because they are the ones, who empower other people throughout the Sprint, sometimes unknowingly.

3. Set Clear Goals

In our experience what helps to loosen these tensions and get everybody back on track is to always point the team to the overall goal of the Sprint. Which you will have defined and committed to in the first stage of the Sprint on Monday morning together with your team. Ideally, though, you would use the pre-Sprint onboarding session to clarify the Design Sprint challenge with the team before the Sprint. So that you will be able to eventually smoothly (or “smoother”) refine it into the Design Sprint goal.

The good thing about this Design Sprint stage is that you build up your goal stepwise. Everybody has the opportunity to shape it and understand the reasoning for it. By the time the decider picks their choice, everybody will have contributed both in terms of their input and their vote. This is important since you don’t want to end up in endless discussions and a boiled down compromise, that everybody feels kind of ok with at the time being, but will be unhappy with it moments later.

4. Structure the Communication

Before the Design Sprint communication is all about clarity and purpose of the Sprint and the Sprint team. But you are pretty free in choosing your communication framework for that.

In the Design Sprint structure, governed by time-boxed sections, you will have to communicate with the team in an effective and efficient way. Most of the time you will work in tight time windows and a lot of your communication will be silent. Your means of communication will be post-its, pens, whiteboards and dots and techniques like “noting and voting”. These help immensely to speed up the structuring of input and subsequently accelerate the decision-making process.

The facilitator plays a major role in structuring the team communication. It is his task to streamline the input and watch the deadlines and the timeframe. Some team members might find it challenging to communicate in this particular way during the Sprint. A good take on it is to always refocus the team on the goal and Design Sprint questions and with that refer them back to what you are trying to achieve. Encouraging everyone to “trust the method” couldn’t hurt, either.

And as a side note: never bench a conflict. If you do that, it will come back to bite you in your behind. But by then it will have grown and will have become much more emotional and thus much more difficult to handle. Which brings us to the next point.

5. Take Care of Your Team

Good results need a good environment. Positive, empowering and creative Sprint environment will enable the team to thrive and grow and with that reach better results.

In most cases the prerequisite for such an environment is a wisely chosen Sprint location. Asking your team to become creative and produce a lot of outside-of-the-box input is not going to be very effective in a grey meeting room, with grey carpets and grey walls. Think about getting an open, inviting location off site that allows flexible setups with alternative seating, breakout rooms or ideally even an outside option.

Another element — basic, but frequently a bit neglected — food and snacks. Having lasagne for lunch will effectively slow down your creative process in the afternoon and it doesn’t matter how energized you will be as a facilitator in front of your team. Have a light lunch and use healthy brain snacks instead. And make sure that nobody ever gets hungry as it will become a complete buzz kill for the team.

An absolutely crucial point when taking care of your team is to anticipate and dissolve any tensions that might come up. A way to deal with this heads on is to address the emotional curve of a Design Sprint with the team. Make it transparent that along the way there will be moments, when the procedure creates anxiety among people. This will help to deal with it when in actually happens. Tell your team that they most probably will feel uncomfortable at times and that it is absolutely ok to feel this way. And stress that it is ok to address it so that you can resolve it together.

One more essential thing: celebrate the failures and successes together with your team. Once you Design Sprint is finished a retrospective is the way to go to evaluate your team work and learn for the next time.
Your Design Sprint result is a value generated together and it is important to share it with your team and show them your appreciation.

These top 5 “Make-Or-Break” steps do not guarantee a success for your Design Sprint. But they definitely pave the way to becoming successful. Plus your team will thank you if you stick with them. :)

Article by Hannah from NEON Sprints — We Are NEON GmbH, https://neonsprints.com/

LET’S GO NEON

WE FRAME CHAOS. Frameworks and facilitation for better work. Driven by empathy, structure, and a lit

Hannah Nürnberg

Written by

LET’S GO NEON

We frame chaos to help teams get sh*t done. We discovered that problems with budget, timeline and team dysfunction come from a lack of alignment and incomplete data. So we built scalable, repeatable processes to fix both.

Hannah Nürnberg

Written by

LET’S GO NEON

We frame chaos to help teams get sh*t done. We discovered that problems with budget, timeline and team dysfunction come from a lack of alignment and incomplete data. So we built scalable, repeatable processes to fix both.

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