A conversation with Jake Knapp, creator of The Design Sprint
“People have been aware of racism for a long time, but I think we have all had our awareness radically heightened and our eyes open in these last few weeks.” – Jake Knapp
I’m Douglas Ferguson, and I’m on a mission to help people everywhere have better meetings. There’s clear evidence that poorly run meetings not only waste time, but they also squander a lot of money. A recent report by Doodle found that $541 billion is lost globally every year on common meeting mistakes–and that’s just the report from the County for Direct Labor Costs. This staggering amount translates into opportunity costs we incur from ineffective meetings.
I’m excited to have Jake Knapp with me today! He is the creator of The Design Sprint, author of Make Time and author of the New York Times bestseller Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. Jake also happens to be one of the world’s tallest designers.
We talk about Sprint, spending time with the family, and how Jake’s book is more relevant now in light of the COVID pandemic. Amid the pandemic and riots, we are challenged by outside events that we can’t control but are forced to deal with at the moment. “We also can’t ignore the fact that these things offer great opportunities for us.” Jake talks about embracing the right parts of staying at home, such as spending more time with family.
Listen in to our dialogue about learning how to remove shame when talking about racial barriers, how we are both feeling the change, and how we can have a positive impact. Find out why Jake hates meetings, the pros and cons of online meetings, and design elements involving movement of the human body during the workday.
[01:54] Jake’s book, Sprint, and its relevance within the pandemic.
[04:47] (Attempting to) minimize the pandemic fallout working at home with kids.
[06:25] Working from home reinvents the workplace.
[07:54] Remove compartmentalism in the workplace.
[11:01] Do the right thing when it’s hard.
[12:18] Long term changes, including our view of racism, instigated by the pandemic.
[15:03] Apply Design Sprints to racism.
[20:38] Having your own children reconnects you to your childhood.
[25:20] The one thing Jake would change about meetings.
[30:25] The potential for VR in future business meetings.
[33:11] 3D Audio and its impact on the future of online chat.
[35:35] The negative effect of sitting in one spot all day during online meetings.
[38:18] Explore the human brain and its need for movement and stimulation.
[40:23] Webinar and live video replays are hard to watch.
[45:06] Benefits of working with a team over video.
Links and Resources
About the Guest
Jake spent 10 years at Google and Google Ventures, where he created the Design Sprint process. He’s written two books, Sprint and Make Time, coached teams at places like Slack, LEGO, IDEO, and NASA on design strategy and time management, and has been a guest instructor at MIT and the Harvard Business School. Previously, Jake co-founded Google Meet and helped build products like Gmail and Microsoft Encarta.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.
Douglas: Today I’m with Jake Knapp, creator of The Design Sprint, author of Make Time, and author of the New York Times’ best seller Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. Jake also happens to be one of the world’s tallest designers. Welcome to the show, Jake.
Jake: Hey, man. Thank you for having me on. I am eager to have the chance to chat with you, because you are my buddy, and we have been hanging around a lot together. And then, there’s this pandemic came along, kind of scrambled things for us. So, it’s good to get to chat.
Douglas: Yeah, no doubt. I’m really looking forward to it. And speaking of the pandemic, we were just talking about how—
Jake: Should we assume people have heard of it, or should we tell them what it is?
Douglas: Yeah, I think it’s kind of gone around at this point.
Jake: They probably know. They probably know.
Douglas: You were just telling me about how it was this—you even used the word opportunity—to spend some more time with the family, and I immediately thought about how the interruption-free iPhone and even elements of the Sprint and certainly Make Time were highly influenced by this desire to spend more time with the family. So I’m must curious to hear your thoughts on how this has created opportunity and what folks can learn from it.
Jake: Yeah. I mean, we have no choice about being in a pandemic right now or not. We also find ourselves at the same time now confronted by this new awareness. I mean, I would say people have been aware of racism for a long time, but I think we all have had our awareness radically heightened, our eyes opened, in these last few weeks. And then in the months of the pandemic, there are things going on that are hard, painful, and they cannot help but take a toll on you emotionally, and they create stress and hardship, but here we are. And we can’t also ignore the fact that these things represent great opportunities for us, and the pandemic represents opportunities now, and they represent opportunities over time, and we’ll look back and see it as a big changing point, just as we’ll see these murders as also an opportunity and a changing point. And the fact that the two things are overlaid on top of each other represents a changing point, where when you have pain, you have learning, and you have the opportunity for change and for dynamic things to happen.
So, just to talk about the pandemic and be less philosophical and more specific, I mean, my kids are home from school. School’s cancelled, so they’re home from school doing school over video or whatever. And that’s tough if you’re a parent and you have kids at home, and everybody knows how tough that is if you planned on doing your work at home or whatever. Like, new ballgame. But it also represents an opportunity. And I know that I will look back because my kids are old enough to—that I know the old saying, the days are long, but the years are short. It’s very, very true. And so I know I’ll look back and say it’s really kind of special. We were all in it together. It was like Little House on the Prairie. We’re all kind of on the same team, and it’s just us. And we can’t socialize with anybody, and we can’t see anybody outside of the house and hang out. So can’t go anywhere, really, so we’re just figuring out how to be together, and that’s good. That’s actually kind of sweet. And if I don’t put my arms around that and embrace it, then it’ll happen anyway, but I might not appreciate the good parts of it.
So to the degree that I look at my work, and I think about how much control I have over the things I can do right now, I know that there’s a huge hit that any work or projects I had underway will take. Thinking a lot of the things that you and I do are normally in person, and we’re both struggling, I’m sure, with figuring out, how do you deliver these things online, and how do you make them work well online? And there’re writing projects and things that take focused work that are very difficult to do when kids are home and when you’re sort of troubleshooting things all day. But I try to minimize the frustration I feel of the gap between the non-pandemic version of events, which I can’t access that timeline of a multiverse, and just sort of say, “In this one, hey, I’ll let go of that stuff that’s not going well, and notice what’s cool about what is happening and maybe try to look for the opportunities to grow out of it.”
Douglas: As you were just kind of relating that story, it reflected back on another point that you raised in the pre-chat we had, and it was around the writing that you’re doing. And you’re currently in this six-week time away that’s allowing you to kind of forget a little bit and come back and see it with fresh eyes.
Jake: Yeah, yeah.
Douglas: And it just dawned on me that this opportunity we’re in right now is allowing us to forget a few things about what it was like to be together. And so when we come back together, we’re going to see it with fresh eyes, and I think that potential I hadn’t really thought about, not at least at that level. It seems a little more profound now as I’m thinking about it through that lens.
Jake: I think it is powerful, and I’m sure it’s been discussed at great length how this will affect the way we work in offices. An obvious thing for people who work in offices and are now working over video is “Oh, hey, how much do we need to be in person? What are the things we really are missing that are hard to do when we’re not together in person, and what are the things that actually, maybe, we could reinvent or improve?” And I think it’s going to be super interesting to see what that looks like.
You and I have unconventional jobs that we’ve created for ourselves, and our work has not required office work, unless it was in the form that we’re doing this event, we’re doing this workshop, we’re doing this design sprint, whatever. But I feel like for a lot of companies, some of the things that you and I are trying to help folks with is to see the default settings that are going on in the way they work, and then say, “Hey, they didn’t have to be that way. If we change it and redesign it, it could be a whole lot better. These default settings of the way offices work are messed up.” And I don’t think that the pandemic is going to magically fix all those, but it does give us the opportunity to come back and see it with fresh eyes, and I hope that some of those things at least will improve.
And the same goes for the way we treat each other with respect and the way we try to see past our biases about the people that we work with and whether we’re aware of those biases or not, or whether they’re on the surface or not. I hope that that awareness that comes out of the pain that’s going on in this country, even around the world right now, can come into our work life when we come back. We have this chance to really—it’s like that old joke about…where you got to turn it off and turn it on again; that’s the way you fix everything. And maybe that’s the way we’re going to fix some of the things about our society.
Douglas: You know, I use this moment that we’re in to have some time with my team in a way that was, I think, genuine and authentic. And I think in the past, I’ve been a little bit afraid to do some of those things because we’ve been taught—at least, I’ve been conditioned my entire career—that there’s professional stuff and there’s personal stuff and you don’t kind of mix those things, and you kind of compartmentalize, and you keep politics out of work and whatnot. And once I did that with the team, there was this level of transparency and honesty that just was—I mean, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. The levity was insane. And I’ve started to reflect on that more, and it’s impacted decisions I’ve been making about the company and about some of the things we do publicly. And I’ve had some people request to unsubscribe from the newsletter, and that actually felt nice.
And I was talking to someone about this recently, and they pointed out to me, for whatever reason this notion of professionalism took on this air of sort of inhumane. Like, we weren’t allowed to bring our human selves to work, because we had to have these filters and things. And I was always impressed with you when we were talking about just the values that you had when we were selecting venues or companies we might partner with, and really shown through in those decisions. It always made me happy to work with you when those moments arose. And so just kind of feeling some similar kind of vibes as this negativity’s around us, and I’m just feeling empowered to take a stand, and it’s changing the dynamics of the workplace for me.
Jake: Right on. Thank you for the kind words. I feel like in this moment we all can’t help but feel like we haven’t done enough. If we were aware of the things that we could do, just for myself, of all the times I was aware of something I could do, but to be specific, like when I spoke at that event, could I have pushed the organizers to have more people of color in their speaker lineup? Did I do that enough? Did I try hard enough? Was I careful about that? Did I work hard enough to include different perspectives in seeking out stories for the book and looking for examples to say, “Hey, here’s somebody doing good work”? I certainly feel like a lot of guilt and shame about not having done it well enough.
But the flipside, the opportunity that’s there, is that you say, okay, well, the past is the past. But now it feels like one of the barriers to being a good ally, to being a person who’s open and honest about their concerns and talks about—one of the big barriers has always been feeling shame or embarrassment of talking about it, feeling like it wasn’t your place to—maybe it wasn’t my place to say that, and nobody asked me to be a representative of anybody, whatever. Like, and now it feels like that dialog has changed.
And so I can judge past Jake as much as I want, but the reality is it doesn’t matter. The future Jake has a whole new opportunity to do better. And as much as in this moment we might feel bad about the things that we could have done more of in the past, what’s cool is that there are opportunities to do things. And doing the right thing when it’s hard almost always feels good in some way. It usually is a good feeling. It evokes good feelings, I think, all around. And that’s why—I mean, as much pain as we’re in right now, I see this as an opportunity for really good things in the future and a way for all of us to be able to act in ways that’s more, hopefully, more in accordance with what we believed all along but what’s been hard to do. I think it might become easier to act now.
Douglas: Absolutely. I’m feeling the change, and I’m hopeful that it has lasting impact. I’m kind of bracing for the long haul, and what are the things that we can do to really to have a continued impact? And so I’m curious if anything’s top of mind for facilitators, people that are thinking about tweaking their defaults and the ways that they meet and the ways that they guide others. Anything that’s been top of mind for you?
Jake: Yeah, well, two things. I mean, there are two threads here, and they overlap. One of them is pandemic, and the other one is racism. And the pandemic thread started sooner, and I’ve had more time to think about it, I guess. Although, I should have been thinking about racism for 42 years because that’s how old I am. But the pandemic thread, talking about things over video, and that’s going to be around now forever. We will still do things in person, and I hope that a lot of my work will be in person because I love seeing people in person. But the reality of the future will be things over video, and we have to adapt to how we handle the conversations over video, and it’s different.
I found with a lot of conversations, I’m preferring to do it over the phone because I get so tired over video. Right now you and I are talking. We have a good connection. I mean, you and I, for one thing, we know each other, so we have that kind of connection. We also literally have a high-quality video connection, so that helps. There’s not—the audio’s coming in clear and all that stuff. But that’s like a small percentage of the conversations I have over video. And all the stuff, all the trying to read the other person’s expression, and build rapport with them if I don’t have it already, and my brain trying to fill in the gaps between the garbled audio, it wears me out. And it makes the subtilties, all the tough things you’re trying to do when you’re reading a room and facilitating that much more difficult. So I think there’s this whole new toolset that we’ll all need to do things over video.
And I’m new to the party there, but a lot of people have been thinking about this. And when John Zeratsky and I worked on this sort of remote Sprint guide and asked folks about how they were doing it, we got some good tips there, but I definitely haven’t learned it all, haven’t internalized it all yet.
And then there’s this—yeah, there’s this other track about, okay, we can easily name now, and I think comfortably name—you look at the difference in public opinion about racism in America. We can pretty confidently publicly name the fact that black folks, folks of color, they’re not getting treated as they should be. There’s definitely things going on. And when we’re in the workplace, things we can do to make sure that we’re, whatever degree possible, not letting the same voices dominate the room that always dominate the room. And when we structure what’s going on, that becomes possible. And that’s always been a part of the Design Sprint, and I know that’s always been a part of the work that you do, to be respectful of everybody on the team and to look at how we can hear from everybody on the team.
Some of that stuff, it doesn’t really—they’ve worked in the past maybe without thinking as much about race. But one thing that’s top of mind for me is to do some of the recommended reading on racism and basically to drop the assumption that I get it already, that I know the problem, and I’m already a good guy and say, like, let’s assume I’m not a good guy. Let’s assume I don’t know the problem. Let’s reboot and try to figure out how to make it better. And it’s rebuilding a system and looking at what are ways in a design sprint where I can apply whatever I’ll learn on that path. I think there’s probably, there probably are good opportunities there. It’s one small, little part of the world, but it’s maybe part of the world where we can make things different.
Douglas: Absolutely. Also, you talked about it being—just for me to paraphrase—safe to talk about, and I think once you talk about it, it becomes a conversation. Even if we are perpetrating microaggressions or whatever it is that we don’t realize, I think others can see it, and we can kind of all support each other and can point it out. And that’s my hope because defeating inherent biases, that’s trying to unravel some deep psychology, right?
Jake: Right. And I’m not going to be the one, honestly, I’m not going to be able to figure that out. I’ll need people to help me figure it out for the work I’m doing, and I’m sure that’s true of everyone. We’re going to need to do our best to get educated, and then we’re going to need to do our best to have open conversations with people, that are tough conversations to have and say, “Hey, help me figure out how to make this better.”
I think that part of the stress of this moment is knowing that that work is coming and thinking about how it needs to happen, but also knowing that can’t be done in a day, in a week. And a lot of the people’s, the experiences, the events, things that’ll need to happen, some of these need to happen over time. But we have a new future ahead of us now that we didn’t have.
And I think it’s interesting how the pandemic actually becomes an asset to this change and this movement. The pandemic created so much background tension and stress and revealed such fissures in the systems that we’ve come to stop looking at and take them for granted that we can all see now. We can all see the problems.
And most of the insights and learning moments in my life have come from really painful things. And just in the world of work, it’s like wasted time, disappointments, things like that, and then you look back and you think, that sucked, but something good came of it. And I think that’s kind of what’s going on here.
There’s this scene in one of the Narnia books. I think it’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but I’m not sure. I don’t know if—did you read the Narnia books as a kid?
Douglas: I did, but, man, you’re showing me up with remembering all the titles, because that kind of evaporated a while ago.
Jake: I’ve read them to my kids. But there’s a scene where—there’s this character named Eustace, and he’s kind of a jerk. There’s a scene where he gets turned into a dragon, and he ends up not liking being the dragon. He’s kind of stuck, and they found this island or something. I can’t remember exactly, but I know there’s a part where this lion—and there’s some Christian imagery in here, but that doesn’t really matter. The thing that happens is the lion comes, and basically, the lion tears off the scales of the dragon, and it hurts. And as he tears off the scales, it hurts, and it hurts, and it hurts. But finally, when the scales come off and he’s free, he’s himself again. But he came through the pain, and he stops being a jerk. And it’s like a powerful image maybe for what’s happening to our country and, hopefully, things happening to us as individuals. The scales are going to take a while to come off. It’s going to be painful for a while, but in the end, I think we’ll look back and say it was good.
I should probably stop rambling. I don’t know that I know what I’m talking about right now.
Douglas: No. That’s beautiful.
Jake: Those are things on my mind.
Douglas: Yeah. I had this question I had scribbled down. I’m always curious to hear what people are kind of stumbling into and new things they’ve discovered that are giving them a lot of hope or new-found focus. And as I was thinking about that question before we got on the call, for you I was curious, with all this time that you spent with your kids, what new stuff are you learning from them? I’m jealous of people who have kids, because I feel like they bring a whole new lens into the world. For instance, I’ve never even opened TikTok or whatever it is. And so what kind of things are they bringing to you that you’re like, whoa, I never would have seen this without them. And maybe it’s Narnia; I don’t know.
Jake: Yeah. I have a high-school-age son—a 16-year-old son—and a nine-year-old son. And for my 16-year-old, I think, honestly, quarantine sucks. It’s not fun to do high school over video. It’s not fun to—I remember for me, high school was—the fun part’s being around people, being with your friends, and the school stuff’s kind of an afterthought. But you take the people away, and it’s tough.
My younger son is like, “This is great.” The way he’s where he’s at, I don’t think that’s true for every kid who’s in elementary school, but for him he’s like, “Yeah. Just give me the time and space to do some creative projects. I’m going to come up with something.” And for him it’s fun to see how you strip away the structures, and there’s this kind of joy behind it. And then for my older son, and he’s been doing a great job and powering through it, too, but, yeah, he also reminds me how much I miss people.
So they both kind of remind me of different sides of what’s going on. And they both also—also, it’s fun because when you spend a long time with kids doing their day-to-day life, for me it reconnects me with my own childhood, and it brings me closer into Jake as a 16-year-old or Jake as a nine-year-old. Because I remember, and I see the contrast—they’re not just like me—but I get to live in their world enough. And one of the things that happens when kids go to school is you stop seeing a lot of what happens to them. A lot of what happens to them is in this school world, and it’s impenetrable. But now the veil is gone. We all know what’s going on all the time. And so I get to, in a strange way, reexperience a ghost of youth, and it’s good. And the book I’m working on is kind of about, in some ways, about childhood, and so that’s been helpful for me, too.
Douglas: And do you have a title yet?
Jake: I have a working title—
Jake: —which is The Minus World. But we’ll see. We’ll see if the—you have to be careful, I think, in writing anything, and any ideas that anybody has, you got to be careful to not attach yourself to a piece of the idea or even the idea itself.
Douglas: Right. Was that Stephen King said you had to kill your darlings?
Jake: I don’t know, maybe. That’s certainly a well-known saying. I don’t know where it comes from. And I think that’s right. That’s true. You can’t get too attached.
And so I have to be careful that there’s this idea behind The Minus World, and I’ll give it away. Hopefully, none of your listeners will write a book called The Minus World and steal this idea. But I won’t give away how it’s connected to my book, but the minus world is what is commonly called—in Super Mario Bros., in Nintendo, in the ’80s, there’s a glitch. And on World 1-2—so World 1-1 is the first world. You’re playing, and you’re squishing the Goombas, the walking-mushroom guys. You’re playing, and then you go down, at the end of that level, you go down a pipe, and you end up underground, and that’s World 1-2. So almost at the end of that world, there’s a spot where Mario, if you jump in just the right spot, you would kind of slide through the bricks and end up in this sort of warp zone.
And if you went down the tunnel, you would end up in what looked like—so every world in Super Mario Bros., it’s a number, dash, a number. It goes 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4. It goes all the way up to 8-4 is the last level.
Anyway, when you’re trying to go through the wall, you’ll get through this glitch. Then, you end up in a world where it just says -1. There’s no number. It just says -1. And it’s an underwater world, and there’s no end to it. You could just go as long as you want, and you’ll just run out of time and die. You can’t get to the end.
And I don’t know why I got kind of like—if you’re writing and procrastinating, you go down these rabbit holes on the Internet. And I remembered that thing, and I went down this rabbit hole, reading about it, and it was some kind of a glitch. There’s extra code, and, basically, there’s something that doesn’t reset in the code. When you get in that glitch and go through the wall, it doesn’t reset something, so you end up in this kind of garbage-code state. And it’s just weird.
I just find that idea interesting of the minus world, where you slide into this weird world, and then you’re stuck there. It kind of feels like that now with the pandemic. Like, we just fell through the glitch, and now we’re stuck there.
But, anyway, that’s kind of the working title, but I don’t know if that’ll stick.
Douglas: Wow, cool. I remember things like that from playing Mario Bros. as a child, or just Nintendo in general, that there are weird little things, sometimes intentionally programmed in. But I didn’t remember it was called the Minus World. That’s really cool.
Jake: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know that it’s—like, that’s sort of—
Douglas: Or it was -1, and that’s those details, yeah.
Jake: —what people call it, yeah, because it’s not really even the minus world. That’s just what people named it from looking at it. But, yeah, there’s also that spot on, I want to say it’s World 4-2, where you could jump—actually, it’s in a couple places—but you could jump on one of the little turtle guys, on his shell, and if you got it in the right spot, you would just keep getting extra lives until you got so many that it went past 99, and it started being little sprites and things for the numbers because it couldn’t count past it.
Anyway, there’s all kind of fun stuff like that. Now I think the glitches in games are not so much fun, but those games were so simple that the glitches are—you could kind of see them and experience them. It’s kind of cool.
Douglas: Yeah, it’s awesome.
So, I want to talk a little bit about facilitation. One of my favorite questions is, if you could change one thing about most meetings, what would it be? And now we’re in this world of virtual. So as you’ve been watching, I’m sure you’ve attended all sorts of virtual meetings, from PTA meetings to watching your children take their classes online, what are you noticing as a thread that just really needs attention? Because I think we’re in this zone of, it’s similar to in the early 2000s. Remember, e-commerce first coming online, and it kind of feels like we’re in that same zone, where it’s like the tech’s there, but are we using it right, and is it quite polished enough?
Jake: Well, the first thing I would do if I could change one thing about all meetings is I’d cancel almost all of them. And that is actually the behavior—that’s the world that I live in is that I just don’t—yeah, they have PTA meetings, I guess, online. I’m just like, nope, I’m just not doing it. I’m just not going to anything. And that’s not cool, I know. I’m just kind of—and you can see me, and people are just listening—but I’m sitting here, wearing my sweatshirt, and I shaved my head. I look like somebody who doesn’t care to go to meetings right now. But it’s true.
But it’s kind of like, actually, that’s a big part—it’s weird, but that’s a big part of the design sprint is that I hate meetings. They’re a massive waste of time. They’re full of politics and just stress and contact switches that take away from the high-quality individual work that needs to happen. Meetings are awful. And yet, I think the right way to do it is to double-down on meetings, that to cancel almost all of them and then double-down on the ones you do have. So if wish one is cancel all meetings, wish two is to facilitate the meetings that you bring back to replace them, have a plan and a facilitator.
And, yeah, you’re right. With the tools we have today, you have to cobble things together to do that well. You have to get another app to—like right now you and I are talking on Zoom, because the other thing we were on crashed. And so Zoom’s killing it because it’s really robust on video, and they do that well.
There’s no collaboration space here that’s great, right? We don’t have—and then there’s MURAL and Miro and tools of that nature that provide a collaborative space. I’m not 100 percent satisfied with those. I feel like those have evolved out of design tools, which makes sense, but design tools aren’t a mental framework that everyone has, and I’m not sure everyone should have to learn that framework of Infinite Canvas and the drawing-tools thing. It could be the right one, but if feels like there’s an opportunity for something really good like that that’s integrated right in with video chat.
And that’s from working on Google Meet in the old days, I always dreamed that that was just a participant in the meeting was a whiteboard, and we could just pull that up, and we could all collaborate on it. And that seems obvious, seems like something that needs to happen. And it also feels like an agenda with recipes in it maybe is something that ought to be a participant in the conversation, and we ought to be able to bring that up.
And so I think that one future frontier of the technology-assisted meeting is something that happens over video but just does a better job with whiteboarding. Most meetings don’t happen with a good whiteboard. I mean, it’s amazing. You know the difference between a meeting with a good whiteboard and a meeting with no whiteboard or a crappy whiteboard could be profound if somebody just knows how to use it and uses it. It’s huge how much better you can do.
Likewise, a meeting with a good agenda and a clock and timeboxing, profoundly better than one without. And one of those things, you can imagine the tools that you and I use, it’s not rocket science to imagine integrating those into a video call. But it’s not there yet. You got to cobble any of that stuff together.
I found in a workshop that I ran recently with John Zeratsky, I put an iPad on my desk and dialed that into Zoom as well and just focused it on the time timer. And I would just set the physical time timer on my desk just so we could see a timer as one of the heads. It was like head, head, head, head, head, head, time timer. Because that stuff should just be baked right in.
And then I think there’s this interesting x years down the road, AR and VR, the one thing that seems obviously promising to me about those—I’m sure there are cool things that’ll happen that I can’t fathom because I’m not creative enough—but I do think that the potential for workspace and for not needing to travel as much and still have an authentic, real-life, in-person experiences is profound. And you can kind of see an inkling of that when you—this is my first day with an outside camera plugged into my laptop, instead of just using the webcam. Do you have that as well, Douglas? Because you have a really nice camera, it appears there.
Douglas: For sure, yeah. I’m running a Sony a6400 in through a capture card.
Jake: Yeah. Okay, so I’m doing the same, although my camera’s not as nice. But it’s something going through a capture card. And it’s a total mess to set that up. You probably got the same: tripod and then this cable, and you’ve got to order all these different things, cobble together. There’s a dummy battery that goes—it’s just a mess.
But the difference between having this conversation where we’re both—the video quality is just like a big step better, it’s amazing how much more personal the conversation feels. And I think that as VR—there’s a potential for more huge steps towards in person, and even I think better and beyond what you can do in person, and that’s exciting. I think it’s cool to imagine what that would be like.
Douglas: Man, I’ve been going very deep on this stuff, as have you. We were just kind of talking about the tech related to facilitation now. It used to be having to get on planes and order supplies and all these kind of logistical things. And now it’s all about the technology and dialing in your frame rate, and are you using OBS or external cameras and all these things.
And the thing that has really blown my mind and opened me up to a whole new sea of opportunity is 3-D audio.
Jake: Oh, really. Say more about that.
Douglas: I got a demo from these guys that are doing some virtual reality, and they essentially make their money from building—you know, in architecture, they build scale models. Well, then, now you do all this stuff through kind of virtual CAD. So you kind of sketch everything up in these three-dimensional experiences, and people can walk through it.
So for instance, one of their clients was Silicon Valley startup executives were building a house. Those insane, and they had it fully rendered to every inch. And you could walk through it with these 3-D goggles on. But the thing that became very apparent to them was, “Well, can we do 3-D meetings? Can we do virtual-reality meetings?”
I think the first thing that comes to mind is well, there’s this problem with access to the tech, to the hardware. And then that’s solved with the first-player shooter-game interface. So you can experience these things through that kind of software and without having the goggles. So I was like, okay, this is interesting. But I’m still, like, I don’t know if this is killer enough, you know? Like, is the experience that much better that we want to ditch the other things that we’re doing? And the 3-D audio was the thing that just kind of blew my mind.
Basically, it’s as simple as this. When you’re playing a game, and there’s another character in the game or there’s something that’s emitting sound, it’s going to get louder the closer you get to it.
Jake: Okay, okay. That makes sense.
Douglas: Now, imagine that this is not just an object placed in the three-dimensional space, or in our case, it could just be two-dimensional. We’re not necessarily needing to have full, the 3-D nature, the skeuomorphism, all that’s kind of beside the point. But if the sound source is just an inanimate object placed in the space, that’s cool. But imagine if that was another person placed in the space. So the closer you get to that person, the louder they get.
Jake: That’s interesting.
Douglas: Yeah. So if you’re both in the same meeting, and I’m facilitating and I say, “Group number one’s over here. Group number two’s over here,” the software does not have to know about breakout rooms. I just created one by how I facilitated the group, and they just have to be far-enough away where they don’t hear each other.
Jake: Well, it’s funny how a lot of the difficulty, at least for me, and what’s fatiguing about a video meeting is the work that my brain is doing to fill in the gaps, because our brains are tuned for in-person stuff. And there are all these things that we’re trying to figure out, trying to—you and I just had a tech problem where our audio and video got out of sync. And then when that happens, you can no longer read the other person, and all the cues that you’re expecting, everything kind of breaks down. And it’s funny to think about things like the sound of their voice come from the place where I geographically expect it to be in the room, and I bet when it does, I bet when I have a spatial sense of where people are that that makes my brain happier and a bit more comfortable. And all of a sudden, I probably have more energy to deal with a meeting and more brain space available to think and not just try to patch together all those gaps.
Douglas: That’s right. And I talk about Zoom fatigue, and unfortunately, it’s not really Zoom fatigue as much as it is virtual-meeting fatigue and how the software’s not, I would say, optimized for what we need as far as input and support through the day.
This is something I’ve been talking a lot about since this all first started happening, this how we support the facilitation community and how we lean into this experience and how we design better workshops now that we’re dealing with this phenomenon. And just understanding that not only you as a facilitator but everyone in your meeting is now kind of sitting in this one spot. So it’s even worse than just sitting all day or half day, but now you’re sitting in this frame of a camera. If you’re sitting in a workshop in an office building, then you might lean over, you might get up and walk to the trash can, you might kind of crouch a little bit, you might move around in ways that you never even considered. But now that you’re sitting there in this Hollywood Squares or The Brady Bunch, and you’re seeing yourself, and just you’re conscious of the fact, even if it’s your subconscious kicked in, you move way less. I would say that you’re still confined within this little two-foot area, and I think that has a toll on your energy as well.
Jake: Totally does. And I have taken to—I can’t remember if I said this when we were recording or just before we started, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll repeat myself—I’ve taken to doing, as much as possible when I have a conversation with somebody, now there’s like this default is “Oh, we’ll have a video call because everybody’s doing it now. And I’m like, “No, no, no. Please, can we do a phone call because I need to move around. I need to not try to keep eye contact the whole time. I need to be able to think.”
And actually, it makes me wonder about the opportunities for improving what happens. So right now, as you’re saying, we’re stuck in these little—we’re not moving much. We’re kind of locked in. We’re not moving as much as we could, even if we were together in a conference room. But even a conference room is not ideal because even though we might be able to move around a little bit more or have got the feel not just staring at a screen right in front of our face, we’re still kind of trapped, and you still got to kind of think about, am I giving people a good signal that I’m listening?
Well, imagine that you were in some great virtual meeting space, and it’s got 3-D audio, and it’s got high-res video and everything. Well, imagine one person’s giving their expert interview, whatever their demoing. Everybody else doesn’t need to be necessarily locked in, watching the thing. What if I can go on a run while somebody’s giving a talk, and I can listen to it like I’d listen to a podcast? I might actually be a better listener if I was moving, if I was taking a walk outside, and I just had my headphones in. And maybe for that person’s comfort, there’s a stock video of me paying attention, just like you see people who have made their Zoom background like them looking attentive, a video of them looking attentive.
But what if you did that? Like, on purpose. Everybody knew. Everybody was in on it. We said, “Look, we’re just going to kind of hack our brains. You’re going to be looking at an attentive audience. The people are there listening. They’re just on walks, they’re around their house, they’re eating a snack, with the audio off, so that the human-body needs, the human-brain needs for movement and food and all these things could actually happen, and we could still give people the apparent attention that they need to feel comfortable talking.”
I think that’s sort of futuristic, but I think there’s a lot of potential for things to actually get better if they’re mediated by technology. However, what we know from the past is that some things get better when mediated by technology, and usually a lot of things get worse, so I don’t imagine that we’re going to get to utopia, but it’s probably possible.
Douglas: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I love the idea of being purposeful and designing in these moments. I think where people get it wrong, and I’m not dogmatic about any of this, but I do feel that where people get it wrong is when they just look and they go, “Well, how am I going to do a design sprint online and just wholesale, just push everything into the virtual space?” Or it doesn’t have to be a design sprint; it could be your mission, vision, values workshop, or whatever it is, just taking it and putting the agenda online.
So we think a lot about asynchronous and synchronous time, like what’s done in the design sprint versus what’s done outside of it. And you’re taking that a step further, which is like, kind of, it’s not really asynchronous in the sense that they’re doing it outside of the meeting, because they’re still connected in, but we’re giving them another thing to do with their body other than sit still in front of the camera. And that can be a design element that we’re not considering enough.
Jake: Yeah. And I mean, I think also, a lot of conversations that happen in any kind of work where you’re working with a team, I wonder if some of those conversations could be asynchronous, you know? Could I sort of record my thoughts, or record a conversation between two people and then you play it back, like “Hey, catch up on this. Here’s the…” I don’t know.
You know, there’s always the challenge, will people actually listen to it? I think, for whatever reason, and I think this is something deeply hardwired into the human brain, we want to know what’s going on live. We want to know what’s going on now. Unless you can tell me a really good story about it, I don’t want to—it’s very hard to watch the replay.
And so I think that there is a potential for the live experience to be better. There’s probably the potential to help with the creating the story of the thing. And we’ve tried to do that with things like, we’re going to make a map on the wall, we’re going to capture what’s going on on sticky notes and put those things together. But, yeah, our gut reaction on how to build a tool that helps meetings happen online—you can see it because multiple people have come up with similar solutions—it’s to recreate whiteboard space and sticky-note space and things like that. But as we get more sophisticated, those tools might stop looking like their physical counterparts and take on a better form. It’ll be interesting to see. Unfortunately, not here yet.
Douglas: Yeah. I mean, that was the reason that we were so hesitant about releasing a template, because we felt like we were just still doing way too much experimentation. And we found that we’ve stumbled on some interesting stuff, and they will be there soon, but I think there’s still so much to be learned about how to do this stuff a little differently so that we can still get the same results. Our intent, our purpose is still the same; we just have to adjust it for the medium.
Douglas: So, you’ve already started to think about some digital experiences. You just said you ran a workshop with John Zeratsky recently. And you’re working on some online tools and training. Curious to hear what your current experiments are looking like.
Jake: They’re pretty modest. I mean, I think they’re not super-sophisticated in terms of what you were just talking about and the way you’re thinking about it. And partly this is due to the fact that a lot of my attention and energy is going into writing and being in quarantine with my family, and that’s all good. It does mean that I’m not in that mode that I once was where I was doing 30 design sprints a year. And the art of that is really improving radically as I’m able to look at all these experiments. So the kinds of things I’m trying to do are really just, I would take something that is easy for us to imagine or we’ve done it a bunch of times in person.
For example, a one-day workshop in person, which you and I have done together many, many times. Train people how to do a design sprint. We know what that looks like, that bootcamp, looks like in person. But you can’t just, as you said, you can’t just take that same agenda and say, “Okay, buckle up, everybody. We’re going to be together now for eight hours online on video. And I’m going to have you do those same activities.”
Doesn’t work. People aren’t sitting at tables. People are not able to work together as a team. They’re not able to build the same rapport with each other. Nobody has the stamina to listen. I mean, I think people—it’s probably already a punishment for them to listen to me talk for eight hours in person, but forget about it over video. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.
So we have to rethink the structure. And then, you start to think like, well, okay, are you going to make it shorter? Are you going to make it two days? And if it’s shorter, how do you get the essence of things that are most important? And what activities do you get the most value from practicing, and which activities should be more of a cooking show? And there’s that question of synchronous activities and asynchronous activities. Which things should people be able to shut off their camera and just work on their own and move around, do what they need to do?
And so it’s nice to work from sort of a known model that is effective in person. But it does feel like, even for that very sort of modest “Let’s take this thing that works in person and put it online. There’s a recipe for it in person,” we’re still really modifying the recipe.
Douglas: Yeah. That seems pretty much the sense that I get across the board. There’s just a lot of experimentation, and we’re still in that zone of kind of just figuring this world out. And the one thing that’s clear is it’s here to stay. And whether it’s bringing a team together that just can’t come together due to constraints, whether it’s a quarantine or just travels or schedules, sometimes it’s budgetary because it’s quite a bit cheaper to skip the flights and hotels and stuff.
Jake: There’s some advantages to it. I mean, one thing I’ll say. I made the “teaching the bootcamp” thing sound very complicated, and I guess because it is because that’s, in a way, more artificial than just helping a team solve problems. Because when doing more of a normal working with a team over video, I found pleasantly surprising how well it works and how a lot of the things, if you’re facilitating, I found it sort of adapted, okay, things are different. My role might be a little bit different here. And, oh, there’s a learning experience. I didn’t do a good-enough job of making sure of watching everybody’s face or calling for comments because I was overwhelmed with some of the other things that were new.
But more or less, one of the things that shines through for me in doing these sort of collaborative workshop or design sprints with people is that people are smart, and they are going to do their part and solve their side of the problem. And if I just facilitate to my best effort, there’s a lot of headroom to make it better over video, but fundamentally, a lot of these things that have worked well in person, they do work well over video. They’re just not optimized. And that’s the frustration. It’s like, I think this thing is really optimized in person, and now we have to go to an unoptimized version, and that just doesn’t meet my standards. But it’s healthy to have that experience.
Douglas: Yeah, no doubt. Or kind of all reinventing ourselves through all of this.
Jake, I’m curious, as a wrap here, what do you think you’d like to share as closing thoughts to the community? So just keep in mind that mostly facilitators are listening in, hoping to up their game and kind of navigate the space of online, virtual facilitation, and even just what it means to lean in, lean out as a facilitator.
Jake: I definitely have. I have thoughts on it. I don’t think I have super-helpful tips as a facilitator for tactical things you should do, and I hate not having those, because I love being tactical on a high level. I’m just going to have to be high level, but I hope that it’s useful to say this.
I think, number one, your effort, whatever skills you have already and whatever effort you will put in as a facilitator is going to translate to the new world of video and also the new world of we’re more conscious of racism. I mean, I think your skills are going to serve you well in this future. And more so than that, you play an important role that we all are going to need going forward, because what this year has taught us so far is that the system doesn’t work, and we need better tools, and we need better methods. And people who make it a part of their work, who devote themselves to helping other people do their work better, to helping other people break down the default settings and reimagine them and redesign them in ways that are more effective; that are more respectful; that can eliminate or diffuse politics and encourage alignment, togetherness, and meritocracy of ideas; where we’re not constantly negotiating, watering things down; where we’re not constantly judging one another; I think that as facilitators, we have a huge opportunity in the future. We don’t know that that future will look like, but I just want to sort of applaud you for being in this realm, and hope to give you a breath of wind in your sails as you go forward, because your work will really matter.
Douglas: So awesome, Jake. Appreciate it.
How can they find you and your books?
Jake: Well, you can go to jakeknapp.com to learn a little more about me. And you can find my books Sprint and Make Time, hopefully, wherever fine books are sold. But you can certainly find more information about them on my website.
Douglas: Excellent. Jake, it’s been a pleasure chatting, as always.
Jake: Yeah. Thanks, Douglas. Same here, man. I really enjoyed it.
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