A Facilitation Brain Dump From the Global Virtual Design Sprint

In December 2019, I wrote about my experience participating in Robert Skrobe’s Global Virtual Design Sprint (GVDS) for the first time. Although I had participated in design sprints before, this was a new experience for me because it was done remotely and it was also the first time I facilitated a sprint. I wrote a recap of the activities, the timeline, and the things my team accomplished during the sprint.

Since the GVDS just occurred again in May, I wanted to write about my experience this time around. Now that I’m more comfortable with the process and don’t have to use as much energy to absorb everything, I’m in a better position to focus on the small details and nuances of facilitation and running a sprint team. I’m changing it up and doing a bit of a brain dump of things I noticed from the facilitation perspective. These include things I noticed in my teams that I need to improve on, as well as things I noticed from watching recordings of other teams’ meetings.

Have a co-facilitator

During a session, moving cards around and being responsible for interacting with the chat seem like small things that shouldn’t break the flow of a session too much. Unfortunately, they can. Have a co-facilitator that can take on these responsibilities for you.

Speak out-loud for a bit before you run a session

If you’re someone who naturally speaks quietly or quickly, this will get you in a better speaking rhythm for a session. I’m the worst version of this, and it’s amplified by a Boston mumble that makes me trip up my words enough as it is. I noticed at times it was like I was a mixture of a sloth and a hedgehog in the worst way. My energy was too relaxed but I was speaking too quickly. It’s something I need to be more aware of going forward.

Don’t afraid to be strict on the exercises

You may think you’re doing your team a favor giving them more time to fill out cards during an ideation session, but it’s a burden when they need to read through all those cards to check for duplicates and vote during an affinity diagramming session.

Keep notecards concise

That will make them easier to scan, read, and vote on.

Remember to always summarize progress for the team

At minimum, do this at the start of each day. Make sure people remember the context for the activity at hand. How does this relate to HMW, long term goal, sprint questions, etc. It’s shocking how easily results of an exercise can veer off from the original intent. If left unchecked, this can be a disaster for the results of your sprint.

Be Flexible with homework if needed

This mostly relates to the size of the team. If you’re going to have a team beyond the typical 7 person design sprint limit, think about requiring less lightning demos/solution sketches. If you still require 2–3 which is typical, going through all of those the next day will eat up a giant chunk of your meeting time.

Keep digital whiteboards simple

Mural boards became a giant pain towards the end of meetings when the boards got too full. It made it hard to interact, and hard to facilitate. Hopefully the technology improves so this isn’t a problem, but keep this in mind when thinking about team size and the amount of notecards you’re willing to use for an activity.

Focus on one primary HMW

The secondary HMW questions don’t really matter, and caused more confusion for the teams I was on.

Be very careful about how you use pretotyping in a design sprint

The idea of pretotyping is excellent, but it’s probably best served as a replacement for prototyping day. Using pretotyping as a replacement for discovery isn’t a good option for teams who are working on a problem they aren’t familiar with. Doing subject matter expert interviews and problem framing is a much better way to get the context you need for discovery. If you’re running an iteration sprint, or a sprint with a group that already knows the problem very well, pretotyping could work as a replacement for discovery.

Be EXTREMELY clear on your target audience from problem framing

Not having a clear target audience can cause confusion for the rest of your sprint and really stress out the team. If you decide to do a mapping exercise, which can be complicated to begin with, know that it’s OK to have multiple actors when mapping, but the experience should revolve around the target audience.

Use a mapping exercise to understand the ‘current’ situation

Using the map to try to come up with a future scenario seems to be too difficult, and causes more trouble than it’s worth. Another thing to note is that using pretotyping as discovery can make mapping much harder since it can cause a lack of understanding on what to map out.

Learn how to take a step back during a sprint

My brain sucks at multi tasking. When I’m so focused on facilitating a session and getting through it, and people feel lost during the sprint. I need to do a better job of processing that in the moment. After the sprint when people give detailed thoughts about what went wrong, I can try to process it and figure out where things went off track, and realize what I may have done to screw things up.

Ask for feedback throughout the sprint

…especially when people feel lost. If team members give you enough details, you can figure out where things got off track and fix it going forward.

Watch others facilitate

It’s is a great way to refine your skills, and you’ll notice small details that you can’t see when facilitating yourself. One quick example is that when someone was facilitating and sharing their screen on zoom, they weren’t zoomed in close enough on the mural board to easily read the notecards. This was something I never would have realized if I was facilitating myself.

When speaking, make sure not to cut someone off as they finish what they are saying

It can happen if you’re nervous and you usually won’t even realize it. Similar to this, avoid saying yes constantly as another person is speaking.

Be self aware of your personality and facilitation style

Know what personality types are complementary to you if you have the choice. I want people to do well and am good at moving people along. However, I struggle to multi task during a sprint, so my ability to do or say anything humorous is almost zero. It’s always great to have another person who can provide a little bit of humor throughout sprints.

Use your facilitator powers when they’re needed

Be more vocal about challenging assumptions. You don’t want to influence too much, but being more vocal can get teams out of a rut. You have multiple opportunities to do this, including 1) coming up with questions that could challenge the problem statement before SME script is made, 2) Making sure the HMW, sprint questions, and long term goal are aligned, and 3) Is the winning solution sketch ambitious enough.

Be very aware of your tone of voice and energy throughout a session

If people have questions, or need things repeated, keep the same tone as you speak. This can be more common if you’re working on a team with people who speak different primary languages. If your tone falls off or you start to sound disinterested in the conversation, that can be evident to other team members, and can be really off-putting. Some people do this without even realizing it, so make sure you watch recordings of yourself facilitating.

The GVDS doesn’t get enough credit for being 3 weeks back to back for a facilitation learning tool

Being able to get feedback/learnings on your performance and being able to turn that around the following week and make adjustments is super valuable. Reminds me of coaching back to back crossfit classes and making adjustments after each class, and seeing the results of those adjustments in the next class.