Lessons Learned From a First Time Design Sprint Facilitator

Last week I co-facilitated a Google Design Sprint for my colleagues, a process for solving big problems and testing new ideas in just one week. We did the Design Sprint version 2.0, which is the 4-day process instead of 5.

The main activities each day of the Design Sprint v2.0

Top 8 key learnings

The problem we were trying to solve was related to risk assessment in the public sector, so I learned a lot about the domain. I also learned a lot about the Design Sprint process.

One of the advantages of facilitating a Design Sprint is that you can get insight into new and exciting problem domains. But keep your focus on facilititating and don’t be tempted to participate.

These learnings are based on only one time as a facilitator (I have previously been a participant). However, I do find it useful to jot down my own key takeaways while they are still fresh from a beginner’s mind. I also think most of these lessons can be valuable when facilitating other processes.

1. Trust the process

If your domain is complicated or complex (as the public sector can be), parts of the sprint (e.g. the map and the story board) can feel hard and frustrating, and you might dubt that you are on the right track. The timeboxed activities and voting activities are designed to help you progress in a meaningful way.

2. Work together alone

Brainstorming doesn’t work. That’s why we let the participants think and be creative alone in silence. We then mix, match and build on each other’s (anonymous) ideas.

3. Block your calendar and turn off your phone

Blocking everyone’s calendar for a week allows for full focus, efficiency and effectiveness. No multitasking, no context switching and no digital devices (exept when building the prototype).

4. Collaborate with a designer

Design thinking, UX and UI competence is crucial, both in a Design Sprint and in product- and service design in general. The designer(s) should participate throughout the entire sprint.

5. Prepare and adjust

Define the challenge and desired deliverables in the beginning and be open for adjustments as new insight is unveiled during the sprint. Chosing the target customer and target event defines the rest of the sprint and is imporatant to get right. If your organization is large or your domain is complicated or complex, do some research, like system mapping, in advance. Try to get an idea on where the root cause or main problems might be. It might also affect who should participate in the sprint.

6. Choose the participants and experts carefully

The end result depends on the group composition. Make sure you have a cross-functional team with a broad mix of skills that represents the different expertices and interests needed to solve the problem. Make sure some of the participants also have ownership and resources to take the result further. You also have to put some effort into who you invite for the Ask the Experts activity on Monday.

7. Facilitating is hard and rewarding

A Design Sprint requires a lot of planning, organizing and preconditions to be met. The facilitator needs to be well prepared and organized around the activities and the schedule, while at the same time keeping energy and mood high throughout the days.

8. Know when design sprint is not the solution

Design Sprint is not the solution to everything.

As with all new and shiny processes, you need to know when a Design Sprint is not the solution.

Walking through the solution sketches.


These are some of the questions I still have:

  • How and when do you detect whether your solution should be bought or build? How do you avoid making a prototype of a product that already exists in the marked and is not part of your core domain?
  • If the sprint team is cross-functional, autonomous and self-organized, do you need the Decider role? (The Decider is the person making the last call on all decisions.)


Other than working together with an experienced Design Sprint facilitator, these were my main sources of information and inspiration when preparing for the sprint:

What is your experience with Design Sprints?

Regardless if you have more or less experience with design sprints, I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Lessons Learned From a First Time Design Sprint Facilitator

What does Agile and DDD have in common?

This evening I attended an inspiring meetup The pillars of Domain Driven Design with Marco Heimeshoff. I am quite new to DDD (Domain-driven Design), and Marco Heimeshoff did a great job explaining it.

In short, DDD is about translating business domain language into code, using one obiquitous language to create a bounded context in which to reason about the domain. This creates coherence and reduces risk and complexity. DDD can also create motivation, as it enables autonomy (through bounded context), mastery and purpose.

This picture illustrates how to not do DDD. Using DDD, the developer would implement the code using the same words as the user, like sofa  picture and table.

This talk has got me hooked and I am definitely going to learn more about DDD.

However, being an agile enthusiast, I couldn’t help but noticing the similarities between DDD and Agile. You could basically just swap the word DDD with Agile, and it would have made perfect sense.

From just this one talk, I gathered 10 examples where I felt that the topic could just as easily have been about Agile as DDD.

Example 1

What DDD/Agile is not:

  • New
  • Hard
  • Overhead
  • Only for complex domains

Example 2

It’s a dance, not a march (if someone gives you a three steps guide to DDD/Agile, it’s a hoax).

ddd is a dance not a march

Example 3

DDD/Agile gives you the most benefit in the complex and complicated domain, but can also be valuable in the other Cynefin framework domains.

Example 4

Who should learn DDD/Agile? Everyone involved in the software development process.

Example 5

There is a bunch of methods (that consultants will try to sell you), but they are not the core of DDD/Agile. Only use them if they are useful to you in your context. If you find other more suitable methods, please use them instead.

Example 6

DDD/Agile changes everything in the company (like how we are organized, the way we work, roles). DDD/Agile is a mind turner.

Example 7

The more you try to prove that DDD/Agile works, the more it backfires because people will protect their identity (their existing roles).

Example 8

You are not a DDD/Agile person. You are a problem solving person, aiming to add business value.

Example 9

The first rule og DDD/Agile is: You do not talk about DDD/Agile.

If you use branded names, people will get too hung up on the methods and the practicalities, and lose sight of the underlying purpose (and expect it to come in a box with a certificate).

Example 10

The way to implement DDD/Agile is through small controlled experiments.

This is just the examples I had time to scribble down during that one talk. What other similarities can you find? What are the significant differences?

What does Agile and DDD have in common?

Key Considerations When Starting a Community of Practice Inside Your Organization

Do you want to change how your organization works? Or do you have a burning passion for a specific technology or field of practice you want to share with your colleagues? Establishing a community of practice is a powerful tool to help you connect across silos and spread your ideas far beyond your own formal position and without direct authority.

Communities of practice have many valuable benefits, as Emily Weber points out in Building Successful Communites of Practice:

  • Accelerating professional development
  • Breaking down organisational silos
  • Enabling knowledge sharing
  • Building better practice
  • Helping to hire and retain staff
  • Making people happier

Personally, starting a community inside my organizations has been extremly rewarding and motivating. I’m constatly growing and learning together with wonderful colleagues from all over the organization, whom I didn’t know from before. However, starting a brand new initiative yourself is more challenging than joining an existing, well established community.

Based on my own experience, here are some key lessions I hope will motivate you to start a community inside your own organization.

1. Be open and transparent

We had our first meeting in January 2017 and since then we have had regular meetings one hour every other week. The meetings are open for anyone in the organization. We are currently about 100 members, and about 20-30 people turn up at every meeting.

As people hear about our community through word of mouth, they get curious and want to learn more before they join a meeting. So for them to know more about what we do, I make sure to document our values, purpose, members list and every meeting. We use Confluence, and our page is open for everyone to see and even edit. It takes about 30 minutes to write a short summary after every meeting, and maybe post some pictures. This also makes it possible for other people to add stuff and comment on the discussions, even those who didn’t attend the meeting. We also have an open channel at Slack.

2. Change topics, formats and locations

To grow your community requires courage to try new things, and it can be helpful to look at your community as a social experiment. Our default agenda is to split into groups and do lean coffee, but more often than not, we have workshops, lightening talks, discussions, presentations and other formats that members suggests. Make a survey and ask for feedback.

An eye opener for me was that while some people loved heated discussions with lots of interactions in the open canteen, others were uncomfortable and would much rather listen to presentations in a closed meeting room. Because of the variety of personalities and opinions I realized I would not be able to please everyone. Thus I have to constantly change the meetings to include different people. The same goes for topics. For agile, you have to find the right balance between agile for developers (e.g. continuous delivery and DevOps) and the more “soft” people oriented topics of agile (e.g. collaboration and culture). You can of course choose to pinpoint it down a specific area and smaller group, but since agile transformation requires a change in all parts of the organization, I try to broaden up as much as poossible.

3. Diversity matter – Also in opinions

Diversity in gender, neurodiversity and different social and cultural background has proven to be an important factor in creating innovation and value. The same goes for opinions. The best meetups we have is when someone openly feels safe to raise their concerns or disagree with what is being said.

This may sound weird, but it is important for us that you do not have to agree that agile is a good thing to join our agile community. Respect for different opinions is a crucial part of creating an open learning culture and avoiding groupthink and echo chambers.

The best meetups we have is when someone openly feels safe to raise their concerns or disagree with what is being said.

Avoid groupthink and echo chambers.

4. Ask for help

This is one of the many patterns from “Fearless change” that have helped me both run a community and in introducing changes in the projects I’m in.

When I was prevented from hosting a meeting in the last minutes, I asked one of the attendants if he could host the meeting. He said yes, and it went really well. What’s even more amazing is that after that meeting, there suddenly was a summary of what had been discussed up on our Confluence page. Someone had voluntarily, without being asked, stepped up and taken responsibility. I have also had someone else arrange for a social meeting after work, and after asking the community it only took one minute before someone immediately jumped to the task.

By including others and letting them help you out with arrangements, you not just take work off your own shoulders. You expand your network and attract new people to the community. You also make the network less vulnerable by depending on one single leader.

5. Just do it

I often find that we are limited by our mental boundaries of what we think we have permission to do. If you have a great idea you strongly believe in and want to spread across the organization, just make sure the idea aligned with the business goals and you have management support. If your organization values the creativity and passion in their employees, you probably don’t even need all the formal approval you might think you do. One huge advantage of not having a formal mandate is more freedom to explore and try out new experiments as the community grows and takes shape, and less time on reporting and administration.

Who or what is stopping you  from making something awesome?

The next steps

Being a network of people, a community is somewhat fluid and organic. It is therefore impossible to say where our community will be in a year from now. A community requires constant attention and nurturing, so planning and prioritizing the next steps can still be a good idea.

These are the next actions I am currently looking forward to take in order to grow our community:

  • Creating a safe to fail environment, where people can openly share failures as well as success stories (we have some examples on agile initiatives that have failed, but it can be a higher bar to share those stories if your company is in the early progress of creating a learning culture)
  • Expanding the leadership beyond myself, so that the community is not dependent on only one leader
  • Expanding beyond our own organization, sharing experience and learning with other companies


Key Considerations When Starting a Community of Practice Inside Your Organization

Five Forces Against Agile

Let’s say you had to choose a default strategy for developing software:

  • bureaucracy, waterfall development, centralised decision-making and micromanagement?
  • Or a culture of trust, autonomous cross-functional teams, continuous delivery and iterative development?

Seemingly, people in the IT-industry now have come to recognise the latter as a more successful strategy. We know that agile works. Even in the public sector. Then why is the transformation from slow, rigid and expensive processes to a more successful, cost efficient way of generating better value so hard?

Sure, there are obstacles in factors like these:

  • Budgets
  • Contracts
  • Architecture
  • Organization
  • Legacy systems
  • Tools and technologies

These are certainly real barriers for an agile transition. However, they are all tangible, visible and, dare I say it, easier to deal with than the more complex, darker forces lurking in the shadows of the human mind (they are not really dark forces, but a normal part of our human nature and survival strategies).

In this post I suggest five forces I see working against a better way of developing software. All of them might not be relevant in your context and some are stronger or weaker depending on your context. If none of them are familiar, consider yourself lucky.

1. Individuals resist being changed

If you work in a startup or with innovation, you might be familiar with the diffusion of innovations. Only 16% of people are considered Innovators and Early adopters. Humans have a history of surviving by staying with the pack and following the majority, and most people need serious consideration to accept new ideas. For organizations, the adoption to new ideas are even more complex.


2. People enjoy power

Agile is about autonomy, learning by doing and letting the team decide how they solve the problem. This requires a large dose of trust, not just inside the team but from management and leaders. Agile does not work very well in a command and control environment.

Unfortunately, people who are used to being in control and exercise micromanagement will naturally find it hard to let go of their control. It requires a shift from Theory X to Theory Y, where not only leaders learn to trust but the team member stop playing the blame game and learn to take responsibility.

3. “We would rather be wrong than uncertain”

Agile are optimized for changing requirements and uncertainty. Humans are optimized for categorizing data and generalizing problem solving. This gives us the warm and fuzzy illusion of control. We are extremely bad at dealing with uncertainty. As Dan North says it: We would rather be wrong than uncertain.

The irony is that agile sceptics often mistake agilists for being daredevils and risk takers, when in fact agile is handeling risk in a much safer way than what carving assumptions into stone is.

One consequence of this is that we are tricking ourself into believing we can predict the future with mental images based on a weak analogies.

The House Analogy

One often used analogy for software development is building houses. This gives us the illusion that we are building something concrete which we should plan in great and accurate details up front, and it will in fact turn out that way. And the bigger the better. It also implies that demolishing the house and starting over is expensive, when in fact, deleting code and starting over is literally done by a keystroke.

The Elephant Analogy

Another analogy we often use is comparing projects to elephants. “How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time.” This gives us the illusion that we know exactly how the end result is going to turn out, and we can just split the problem into 100% accurate increments and assemble all the pieces perfectly together at the end. When in fact we are trying to grow a new creature that doesn’t exist yet and no one has ever seen before.



4. Agile threatens The Establishment

This is an often overlooked consequence of following the agile principles. Delivering value early and frequently has a significant impact on how we are organized and what skills are needed. Our goal is to get real feedback early. “Working software is the primary measure of progress”. Instead of getting written specifications handed over, developers are working face-to-face with business people and user representatives. We are in the complex domain of the Cynefin framework and apply a probe, sense and respond approach. This greatly reduces the need for detailed planning, estimations and comprehensive documentation up front. Consequently, it reduces the need for coordinators, managers and administrators.



It can then seem like a contradiction when we choose to outsource programming, making it harder to collaborate through geographical distances and cultural barriers. At least it generates more work for management. Christin Gorman has an excellent point about this.

5. Agile is small and cheap

Agile is in a sense about keeping it small and simple and eliminating waste. Simplicity and downsizing does not generate the same amount of need for middle managers, coordinators, documentation, meetings and administration. Yes, we are saving costs and that is a positive force for the company paying for the IT related services. But on the other side we are also cutting income for the people making money out of those very activities that does not generate direct value.

Agile generate less income for management consultancies than the waterfall model (unless you are selling agile coaching, courses and certifications). Unfortunately, money is power and this is a strong force I think often is overlooked by somewhat naive techies. Budgeting and economy is not our favourite topic (and economists  on the other side don’t bother with understanding technology either when they outsource core business to India hoping for cost savings).

And let’s be honest. For humans in general, smaller projects are not as impressive on our resume.

“Don’t fight stupid – Make more awesome”

Introducing and sustaining agile can sometimes seem like a dark and long path through frustrating and complex people issues. Introducing change to a business requires great patience and a positive attitude. But it is also necessary to understand the challenges and unfavorable conditions working against you when all your best effort, logic, reasoning and patient are not getting you any closer to your goal. Recognizing the human drivers at play can make them easier to tackle and to know when to stop banging your head against the wall. Maybe you will even find a way to use them to your advantage?

Taking a deeper look at these human forces will also make you realize that all of them are a natural part of our nature and not as evil as they first might appear.

Fortunately, there are lots of techniques for overcoming people issues. Fearless Change (a wonderful read) by Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns contains powerful patterns that will make your mission towards change more fun and more efficient.

Besides, being the most adaptive creature on earth, humans have the capability of learning new skills and adopting to change. Bosses are becoming leaders, test managers are becoming an integrated part of development teams and project managers are providing their skills as coaches and scrum masters. And as I have learned from coaching theory and from reading Fearless Change: In order to introduce change, you have to genuinely believe in the hidden abilities and good intentions of people.

Five Forces Against Agile