Whether it's troublesome participants, absent Deciders or an overly-full sprint room, there are plenty of problems that can crop up throughout a Design Sprint. Keep reading to learn about 5 mistakes to avoid across your sprint sessions.

The timer becomes nothing more than a showpiece

What this looks like

⏲  Your sessions run long as you repeatedly ignore or reset the timer.

Amidst all the creativity, exercises and debate during a Design Sprint, it can be hard to keep track of the timer. You may forget to reset it or extend it endlessly.

Slipping up for a couple minutes can be fine. But if you do it repeatedly, it can lead to missed or rushed sessions later, or even an incomplete sprint. And the alternative, extending the sprint for hours or even days, can lead to burnout and kill the group's enthusiasm.

Why it happens

💬  Sprint exercises are designed to make you feel like there's always more to do.

You often feel like you're not done at the end of an exercise. You might feel like you have more that you need to discuss or evaluate or sketch, so why not take a couple extra minutes?

It's normal to feel this way. Sprints are designed to constrain the team — just enough time to allow for creative thinking, but not enough to nitpick every detail. That balance helps keep the sprint moving forward without burning out the team.

Even if something feels incomplete at the end of a session, it's fine. The subsequent exercises will complement and clarify earlier sessions.

How to prevent it

🗓  Stick to the schedule to set the right tone and finish the sprint on time.
⏰  If you need to extend a session, do it carefully and thoughtfully.

One of the key Design Sprint principles is "Timebox everything". This is really important for two reasons.

First, a sprint is a big undertaking that is difficult to complete, even when you stick to the schedule. Ignore the timer and you probably won't finish on time. That's a death blow to the sprint, since momentum disappears after the fifth day. Other priorities will start creeping back in, and it will be difficult for the team to single-mindedly focus on the sprint for another week.

Second, sticking to time helps show the team that they need to be serious about the sprint and its process. If you set a schedule and then ignore it, it undermines both your facilitation and the sprint rules. It sends the message, It's okay, we don't need to follow the process, we don't need to complete every exercise, you can be late...

Set your schedule, stick to it, and follow the timer. If you really need to, you can add some time once or twice, but be conscious about how it will affect your overall schedule.

You are focused more on your contribution than facilitation

What this looks like

🤘  You're more excited to share your ideas than facilitate the sessions.

As a facilitator, it's natural to care about the outcome of each exercise. But it's a problem if you focus more on your contribution to the outcome, rather than on the exercise itself. Your job as a facilitator is to help everyone do their best, not to do your best.

Why it happens

😎  You're an experienced product person who has lots of great ideas.

When we started facilitating Design Sprints, we had all sorts of amazing ideas for the products we were working on. Our first thought was often, this idea needs to be on the table.

This mindset is completely natural. For experienced product designers or people who are used to contributing to product strategy, it's second nature to want to reframe problems, imagine new solutions and create beautiful sketches. However, breaking through this mindset is one of the biggest achievements for a facilitator.

How to prevent it

🙌  Set aside your ego and focus on helping other people do their best.

Why can't you both facilitate and contribute ideas? Let's take the sketching process as an example.

Sketching is the heart of a Design Sprint. If people don't come up with good sketches, there won't be a good storyboard or prototype. The biggest factor that affects the quality of solutions is how well the session is facilitated. If people can get comfortable enough to drop their biases, move beyond their comfort zone and get creative, they will come up with amazing ideas. However, this doesn't come to non-designers naturally — it takes a lot of work from the facilitator.

If a facilitator focuses on making their own sketch great, they'll have less time and attention for actively helping other participants. In the end, you may have one great sketch, but you'll have compromised everyone else's excitement and ideas.

When we stopped focusing on our ideas and refocused our efforts on facilitation, the output for our Design Sprints skyrocketed. Enthusiasm and energy soared, and people started coming up with sketches that put our designers to shame. At the same time, our energy went farther and we could enjoy sprints more.

When you're facilitating a sprint, make sure to stay single-mindedly focused on helping the team feel comfortable and bringing them into a creative zone. Think, how can I help everyone do their best? How can I encourage people to contribute more? How can I show good and bad examples for each session? That's worth far more than any ideas you might bring to the table.

    🤩  Pro Tip:

    If you want to contribute your ideas to a sprint, do it separately. For sessions like the How Might We's or the sprint questions, prepare your ideas in advance. For the sketching session, complete your sketch after you wrap up for the day. This way, you can include your ideas without getting distracted from facilitation.

    The workshops become a monologue with the Decider

    What this looks like

    💬  The Decider talks and talks and talks, while everyone is silent.

    If 90% of the conversation in a sprint is from the Decider, it's no longer a sprint. It's a monologue.

    A Decider is super important, but they can't be the only person talking. Other people will have important perspectives and knowledge. Ignoring them will lead to a bored group who doesn't care about participating or, even worse, a group of newfound troublemakers.

    Why it happens

    😬  It's hard to ignore the most important person in the room.

    As a facilitator, it's natural to pay the most attention to the Decider. Their perspective needs to be heard, they have the most context on the problem, and they are usually assertive about what they want. But it's easy to go too far and neglect the rest of the group, especially when the Decider is long-winded or pushy.

    How to prevent it

    👀  Focus attention on the Decider, but don't neglect other stakeholders.
    📚  Prep for and actively elicit diverse perspectives.

    Involve the Decider in key discussions while also addressing key questions to the right people to surface diverse perspectives and make sure everyone feels heard. This will help create a rich conversation that will help the group confidently make better decisions.

    It's important to remember that a diverse conversation won't necessarily happen on its own. People may worry about giving their opinion if it contradicts the Decider. That's why it's vital for the facilitator to call out people when their perspective is relevant.

    We speak to all key stakeholders before the sprint starts to get a clear view of their points of view and differences. Then, during the sprint, we can guide the discussion so these differences come out. It may seem counterintuitive to bring people in alignment by discussing differences, but that's how Design Sprints work!

    🤔  Example:

    Say the Decider has strong views about marketing. Those are valuable, but if you have a marketing person in the room, it's important to hear their perspective too. And don't necessarily wait for them to offer it up. When it's the right time, ask for it.

    The Decider is making an obviously bad decision

    What this looks like

    😱  The Decider makes a decision, and your first thought is "NOOOOOOOOO".

    As new facilitators, we were inclined to act like product strategists or senior designers — being persuasive and calling the shots on what decisions to take. But after a lot of Design Sprints, we've learned that it's important for a facilitator to stay as neutral as possible.

    But what if the Decider is making a bad decision? How can you keep the sprint on track without losing your neutrality?

    Why it happens

    😳  The Decider isn't an expert in Design Sprints.

    While the Decider is definitely an expert in their company and field, they probably aren't an expert in running a successful Design Sprint. In fact, this is probably their first sprint.

    Their first decision in the sprint won't always be the right one. Your role as the facilitator is to help them fix this.

    How to prevent it

    ⁉️  Targeted questions are the key to staying neutral while keeping the sprint on track.

    Open-ended but pointed questions can help remind the Decider about the sprint's purpose and goals. This will often help them get to an "aha!" moment, realise they're headed in the wrong direction, and make the right decision.

    You don't have to push back on every decision. However, do speak up when the Decider makes a decision that will take the sprint off track — for example, goals that don't make sense or an idea that will be difficult to prototype.

    Sometimes the Decider can be stubborn about their decision, despite your pointed questions. That's when you need to temporarily set aside neutrality and don your consultant hat. Take the Decider aside for a private conversation and explain how their decision will hinder the Design Sprint.

    🤔  Example:

    Say that the goal of a Design Sprint is to improve user retention. When the Decider is picking their focus area on the map, choosing onboarding would be an obviously bad decision, since user retention is all about daily use.

    In this case, you could ask questions like "What is the problem we're addressing in this sprint? Aren't we focused on improving user retention? Which area will help us solve that?"

    The Decider excuses himself from the sprint halfway through a session

    What this looks like

    👋  The Decider steps away and the sprint stalls.

    It's normal for the Decider to stay engaged for the first few sessions of the Design Sprint. But later you may hear them say, "I need to step away, but I'll be back in a couple hours" or "I need to answer some calls and emails, I'll be right back".

    Every exercise in a sprint needs input from the Decider. While they're off taking calls, the rest of the team will be stuck in limbo, unable to move forward without a final decision. This kills a sprint's momentum and keeps it from moving forward on schedule.

    Why it happens

    🗓  The Decider doesn't or can't clear their calendar in advance.

    Usually teams choose the most powerful person in the room as the Decider. This means that person is crucial for every sprint session, from the first expert interview through the final storyboard. However, it's often hardest for this person to completely clear their calendar for three full days.

    How to prevent it

    🙅  Tell the Decider to block their calendar in advance.
    👉 Ask a busy Decider to nominate a secondary Decider.

    Leaving isn't a good idea during a Design Sprint. The process is so intense that once someone leaves, it's very difficult for them to re-enter and catch up smoothly.

    Leaving isn't a good idea during a Design Sprint. The process is so intense that once someone leaves, it's very difficult for them to re-enter and catch up smoothly.

    If you have a good idea who the Decider will be (because you discussed it in advance), make sure to set the right expectations before the sprint starts. Tell them that their role is important, and you need them in every activity on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Ask them to block out their calendar, turn off their phone, and set an out-of-office message or have someone else handle their calls.

    If the Decider is super busy and can't commit to that, it's fine. Just make sure they nominate a secondary Decider. This person will take charge whenever the Decider has to step out. It's important that the secondary Decider has lots of context and can make decisions independently, so it generally should be the product owner or another senior leader.

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