What is a Design Sprint and what do I need to know to plan one?


Perhaps you’ve experienced a Design Sprint as a participant and are interested in planning one of your own, or perhaps you’re completely new to the Design Sprint from every angle – either way, we’re excited to share with you our tips for planning your first sprint. Let’s start with a little background about what exactly a Design Sprint is.

What is a Design Sprint?

Design Sprints were originally developed at Google Ventures but have since become a staple in the worlds of facilitation and innovation.  They’re essentially a five-day series of workshops and activities that guide a group through the design thinking process. This can help them solve big problems, overcome challenges, explore new ideas, prototype an existing idea, and even test a prototype with users.

Depending on your industry and the needs of your team, Design Sprints can have a variety of purposes. They can align a team around a shared vision, tackle critical business challenges, find new breakthrough products or features – the list goes on. An experienced facilitator can craft a Design Sprint around nearly any objective that could benefit from design thinking problem solving.

Design Sprints are a tool to help your team find deeper value for the end-user. They help a team find what jobs need to be done, who needs to do them, what’s most important to focus on, and how they will get from point A to point B to point C.

Who should be invited to a Design Sprint?

Design Sprints are most successful when there is variety in the voices, perspectives, and experiences in the room. Be intentional about who you invite, but don’t limit yourself (or your team).

Be sure to include team members who understand the logistics of the project. This could include engineers, operators, programmers, etc. This will insure that the team does not waste time testing things that are infeasible or impossible to scale. They will be the filter to prevent the group from wasting time on impractical ideas. On the flip side, they can also give less logistically-minded team members the confidence to explore ideas that they might otherwise lack the knowledge or confidence to pursue.

If your Design Sprint is entirely comprised of logistically-minded team members, however, it may be difficult for them to go beyond the status quo and think innovatively. Adding creatives to your sprint is a great way to introduce new or hybrid perspectives and challenge team members who get so caught up in logistics that they struggle to entertain new ideas. Creative team members are great at moving past the how we do something and getting to the why we do something.

Can I run a Design Sprint virtually?

You sure can. Virtual Design Sprints must be treated a little bit differently than traditional, in-person sprints, but they can be just as effective.

Firstly, the pace of the sprint must be slowed down for a virtual setting. As many of us have learned, remote gatherings come with a unique set of challenges; thus, it is crucial to allow for extra time and patience to tackle these challenges. Trying to bulldoze through them will only hurt the process (and the participants). Physical separation can make it difficult to read nonverbal cues, so it can take a bit longer to notice if participants are distracted, confused, or otherwise falling behind. It can also be more difficult for participants to fully grasp tools and instructions when they are not given in-person, so there may be more questions as well as lower levels of confidence, both of which can slow down the room. Be sure to pad your agenda to account for technical difficulties, clarification, misunderstandings, distractions, and other hiccups.

Speaking of distractions – it is incredibly easy to get distracted during a virtual gathering. From ZOOM fatigue and important emails to household responsibilities, children, and pets, staying focused online can be challenging. When leading a virtual workshop, it will be of extra importance to prioritize agenda items that maximize participation. Facilitators in virtual Design Sprints need to pay extra attention to the engagement of each participant and be proactive in including everyone in every activity, discussion and debrief.

What do I need to know to run my own Design Sprint?

The first thing that you need to decide when planning a Design Sprint for your team (after the reason for the sprint in the first place) is who will facilitate. The facilitator can be internal or external to the organization, but they must be neutral and unbiased to the challenges, decisions, and projects being tackled during the sprint.

The facilitator, beyond being unbiased, needs to excel at generating engagement and positivity from a group. It is also important that they are an expert in the design-thinking process, at this is the backbone of the Design Sprint.

Next, you or your facilitator should choose the facilitation framework that will best serve the purpose of your sprint. Experienced facilitators may want to mix and match various frameworks across the agenda, but if you or the facilitator are a beginner to the Design Sprint process it may be best to stick to one framework. We recommend our guide to facilitation methods and modalities if you are not yet familiar with standard facilitation framework options.

Once your framework is chosen, it’s time to craft an agenda. Without a clear outline of what will be discussed and for how long, what activities will be undertaken and to what purpose, and when participants will be given time to reset their brains and bodies, you risk the room becoming scattered, unproductive, and/or completely derailed. Activities and discussions should be added to the agenda based on the Design Sprint’s purpose. We recommend beginner facilitators pull all of their activities straight from the facilitation framework they have chosen.

When should I hire an outside facilitator?

When in doubt, call in an expert. The facilitator is the key ingredient to the Design Sprint process; it is critical that they be confident in their role and have a deep understanding of the design thinking process. If you are wary or unsure whether an internal facilitator will lead your Design Sprint participants to excellence, it may be best to bring in an expert from the outside. This will also allow internal team members to see an expert facilitation in action and may give them the insight they need to successfully lead a sprint in the future.

Additionally, if the nature of your sprint’s ultimate goal makes it impossible for an internal team members to be unbiased, it is time to call in an expert from the outside. Professional facilitators from outside of your organization will be completely removed from office politics and will have no stake in the decisions your group comes to outside of successfully fulfilling the sprint’s objective.

If you’d like to hire a workshop facilitator for your next meeting or training, consider our services at Voltage Control. We offer a range of facilitation and innovation workshops that can help your company to get to the next level of employee engagement, growth, and innovation.


Check out our upcoming workshops & events!

We host regular meetups, boot camps, summits, and virtual workshops–from Professional Virtual Facilitation Training to our annual Control the Room Facilitator Summit. Learn more: https://voltagecontrol.com/events