How I learned to put the team first when running a Design Sprint

Blog post author
Ross Malpass
January 12, 2018

Tips on becoming a Sprint Master, for people who aren’t already

When working on a new project, I firmly believe Design Sprints are one of the best ways to generate and validate new ideas. I’ve done loads of them now, and I always jump at the chance to run one (even remotely).

  • The process is collaborative and structured,
  • Quick and customer focussed,
  • Inspiring and insightful.


Well… here’s what happened to us recently.

It’s Wednesday. We’re halfway through a Sprint, and things don’t look great: The client is already worried that we wasted too much time on Monday’s unpacking session reviewing insights they already had. Then after presenting them a design update Wednesday afternoon, they become anxious. Not just the direction of our prototypes, but of the Sprint process in general.

We did manage to turn things around and left on Friday with some of the best feedback we’ve ever had (from both user tests and our client).

But why the sticky start? We followed all of our usual processes and methods. Our sprints have always gone smoothly in the past.

Where did we go wrong?

I learned a lot during that Sprint about how important it is not just to be prepared, but to prepare the whole team —  all the individuals participating that week, the people you need to have engaged and focussed — especially when working with them (or Sprinting) for the first time. They’re by far the most valuable asset in a Sprint. Don’t worry about the activities and sessions you organise; that’s the easy part!

What I’m going to write seems obvious now in hindsight, but we’ve run so many Sprints ourselves that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and forget how difficult it can be starting out. It takes trust for a team to embrace this way of working. And you can’t take that for granted.

This isn’t a “HOW TO SPRINT” article. There are plenty of good resources for that already. This is a quick warm-up to do before exercising those creative muscles on a Monday. Because just like sprinting in real life, without warming up correctly, you might not even make it to the finish line!

1_yO4qaV7wcYZsOv1uEc3ZggRemember to warm up, kids!

To assume makes an ass of u and me

And that’s where we went wrong this time. It was nothing to do with the Sprint and everything to do with how we onboarded our clients’ team.

In early meetings, we presented them a short pitch on Design Sprints and how awesome they are. Impressed, they set a date for our first Sprint, and we got to work preparing for the week ahead.

Because of that pitch, the client had a high-level overview of Sprinting, but we assumed too much.

The first day arrived. We had some of the highest ranking people in the company with us in the room. Intelligent, powerful people with huge responsibilities. And so of course, with every session we started, they asked a simple question:


Why am I here? Why are we doing this? Why is that important? Why can’t we just build something now? Why? Why? Why?

Sending over an outline of the week and assembling a fantastic team looked nice on paper, but it wasn’t enough.

This was a great reminder that it’s not the methods or activities we do during the Sprint that takes the most preparation; it’s making sure everyone on the team is happy, educated, and 100% on board at the starting line.

If things aren’t going well or someone “just doesn’t get it”, then as Sprint Masters, that’s our fault.

In the future, Ross, save yourself some headache and stress. Anticipate the why. Don’t just assume the team will buy into the process. Earn their trust before the week begins.

Take care of the team first

Know who’s on the team, what they do, and when you need them

Very important when you need busy people with tight schedules to be involved in the Sprint. Experts who need to give Lightning talks for example. Try to manage other people’s time as best you can to avoid frustration.

Then begin to build trust.

Sprints can be a scary new way of working for companies, teams, or even individuals. You need to earn their trust for them to work. And you, as a Sprint Master, need to trust in the process for the week to be a success. The whole idea of a Sprint is to form new ideas, take a fresh perspective on a problem, give your team a voice, and share ownership of solutions.

But what does that actually mean?

Time to set expectations.

First time Sprinters will have a million questions racing through their head during the week. With such a tight structure it’s easy to leave them confused and frustrated. Try and set expectations beforehand, but leave time in between sessions for some Q&A. For example;

  • What output can we expect to see at the end of each day?
  • How good will the design(s) look?
  • Will the product be ready to launch at the end of the Sprint?
  • What are Job Stories and why are they useful?
  • These are all great ideas! Why can’t we prototype everything?

The more information you can provide on your Sprint schedule the better.

So remember as the week goes on to always explain why.

It’s crucial that everyone on the team believes in the Sprint process for it to work.

Keep explaining why you’re doing exercises and the benefits it has for everyone. Monday can feel like a chore to someone who is already closely involved in customer services, research, or marketing for example. But nobody knows everything. So we share information and collaborate to align on the insights and work that will be done during the week.

There’s another side to that coin; a busy senior team member won’t want to sit through an hour-long presentation they’ve seen a hundred times before. It might be OK to include them later in the day instead.

Which brings us nicely to why it’s important we plan and share the schedule early

Sprints are fast and frantic, but — and we’ve now learned this the hard way — it’s best not to let that influence how you plan one.

Make sure you give everyone plenty of notice what the week will involve. The more detailed, the better. Plan down to the minute if possible!

Once that’s done, time to lay down and follow the rules

A problem that can often occur when you get big personalities together in a room: Everyone wants to be the boss and do things their way. It’s chaos, so make sure everyone knows, understands (and accepts!) that the Sprint Master is in charge this week.

What the Sprint Master says, goes.

And once the Sprint is underway, believe in the process.

Don’t be tempted to pivot after the design team has already worked on something for a day like we almost did. The thing you decided to prototype was a team decision. Follow it through. Otherwise, you’ll just end up with a half-baked design, terrible results in the test, and a wasted week!

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