Over the past several months, I’ve been honored to teach several design sprint workshops in conjunction with the Chicago Connectory. These workshops have given me a first-hand understanding of how the Chicago business, technology, and academic communities want to use design sprints. I’ve also gained a better appreciation for common obstacles that arise in thinking about and ultimately running a design sprint.

An insight I’ve gained is that there seems to be a certain fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding design sprints.

Design sprints, by their very nature, are designed to elicit a wide range of potential human-centric answers to a critical challenge. The overarching goal is to align and create a lovable representation of a solution and test it immediately to determine whether it truly addresses the challenge or not.

For many people participating in their first design sprint, co-creating a solution with a multi-disciplinary group in an intimate setting filled with creative tension may seem daunting. There is a popular attorneys’ wisdom that summarizes their apprehension: “don’t ask a question you don’t already know the answer to” which seems appropriate to explore.

The design sprint team may align and decide on a solution which may heavily impact their current responsibilities or, on the other end of the spectrum, co-create a solution for which they have no influence. Both scenarios can be terrifying.

Fear of Reduced Responsibility and Loss of Control

I often hear these two push backs specifically:

  • A design sprint is going to threaten my job. For example, what if a design sprint for a retail customer service function results in an artificial intelligence-based MLP (Minimal Lovable Product) that takes on many of the jobs that are currently done by its staff? What if the design sprint results in a solution that makes my entire job obsolete?
  • A design sprint is going to open a Pandora’s Box of problems I cannot solve. A customer service team might discover an issue completely beyond the team’s purview, and outside of its control. What if the design sprint results in a solution that necessitates someone outside of my influence to change their behavior?

These are understandable concerns. When running a design sprint, it is important to be sensitive to these natural fears. It’s essential to be empathetic.

How to Overcome Design Sprint Anxiety

At the same time, fear clouds good decision making and can actually make a person even more vulnerable to the very threats that they need to guard against. Here’s my take on how to combat that fear:

  • Proactively welcome the threat. It’s true, a design sprint may identify a threat to your job. But that threat would exist even if you had not done the design sprint. This kind of fear is similar to someone saying, “I don’t want to go to the doctor for a physical. They’ll just find something wrong with me.” Wouldn’t you rather know about the problem before it’s too late to do something about it? I propose taking advantage of the opportunity to discover how you may productively understand and respond to this threat.
  • Peek inside Pandora’s Box. Yes, a design sprint may force you to identify issues you were not prepared to deal with and outside of your sphere of influence, such as needing to re-skill employees in a different division or retooling your methods for collaboration with other departments. Just remember, doing a design sprint does not obligate you to act on the opportunities straight off. Actually, it’s quite the opposite — what we’re trying to accomplish is identifying a single solution which could positively address a critical challenge.

If the most impactful solution just happens to require a broader coordination with another team that isn’t in the design sprint with you, you will now have ample evidence why they should be involved in the co-creation of the solution with you. Also, you may realize you lack the funding necessary to retool your team today but the design sprint may give you the impetus and proof that an investment is the correct course of action. This will help you smartly plan accordingly for this year and beyond.

Ultimately, the outputs of the design sprint and the challenges it helps us uncover are opportunities for growth — opportunities to innovate. It’s strategically better to identify and understand the opportunities now even if you don’t feel equipped to deal with them at the end of the four-day sprint.

PRO TIP: Creating a design sprint brief that guides the team will ensure that your design sprint uncovers issues and challenges that really are germane to your customers’ needs and those of your own business. It’s good to open up new challenges and solutions you didn’t expect — so long as they don’t take you down an unproductive rabbit hole.

In short, don’t fear design sprints. Embrace them and be better because of them. Reach out if you have any questions or if you need any support facilitating your own design sprint.

Michael Kim

Michael Kim

Practice Lead, Digitalization