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Lots of what goes into facilitation I can’t explain—like anything, you just do it, gain experience, and get better over time. But there are a few principles and tricks I consciously remind myself to do, again and again, because they work and are not obvious to me. (Some of these are in my book Sprint but most are not.)
At its core, facilitation is simple. You’ve got to ask questions to get information out in the open, write that information down and ask more questions to make sure you’ve written it down properly, and you’ve got to mind the clock and move through the steps. When feeling overwhelmed, get back to the basics.
My biggest trick to facilitation is to follow the design sprint process, and in situations where I’ve had to run other meetings, I like to come up with a process and schedule in advance. Even after a bazillion design sprints, I refer to the checklist in the back of the book when I’m facilitating to remind me of the next steps. The recipe sets you free to do your job well.
People coming and going to other meetings will ruin the sprint (unless you have carefully planned for cameo appearances, more about that in the book) and it is painful and hard to stop once it starts, so get commitment in advance for people to be in the room 10–5 or don’t do the sprint at all.
Sprints are much easier to facilitate when people know how the activities fit into the whole. So the week before the sprint begins, I send the team this 90 second sprint video and a link to my “Stop Brainstorming and Start Sprinting” post—both are fast and skimmable. Of course, it’d be awesome if everybody read the book in advance (and on the rare occasions when I’ve done sprints with teams who have, it’s fantastic) but it’s not realistic. On the first morning of the sprint, before we begin, I tell a quick story about what the sprint is going to be like. (You might play the 90 second video, with or without audio, so they’re reminded of how the steps will look.) And on the beginning of each subsequent day, I remind the team what’s going to happen that day (if you like, you can use these day-by-day videos.)
Once you’ve explained the sprint, tell the team you’re going to facilitate, keep things on schedule, and move everyone from step to step. Then say “Sound okay?” Don’t expect a chorus of enthusiastic responses—but there is something powerful and symbolic about getting the team’s permission. I learned this from Charles Warren, a master facilitator and great teacher I met at Google who’d worked for years at IDEO.
I’m not a fan of ice breakers. A goofy ice breaker starts you off with a credibility deficit if there are any skeptics in the room. I want the team to have confidence that I’m going to make excellent use of their time and attention. That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, but I want to start things off fast and pragmatic. And eventually the ice breaks on its own. Be patient and do not assume that you have to have an ice breaker just because it’s the default for workshops—yes, it’ll be a little awkward at first, but trust that people will get comfortable. They always do, and you’ll be glad to have the extra time later on.
It’s important for the facilitator to learn people’s names—conversations go so much better when you call people by name. Whenever anybody is a stranger to me, I like to go around the room and ask everybody to introduce themselves and write their names in a corner of a whiteboard, making a little map of the room. Then everybody, including me, can refer to it when they want to know someone’s name—no name tags required.
You will gain more confidence over time, but also you should know it’s natural to feel nervous before and during the sprint as the facilitator. I certainly do and I have been in so many sprints you’d think I shouldn’t be nervous… but I definitely feel it before every one. But you need to project confidence in the process and the team, even if you’re not feeling totally confident in it yourself.
It’s not on you to be the smartest person in the room. If you think it is, you’re creating unnecessary pressure and you might make a fool of yourself. The facilitator is there to make sure the sprint happens, and to provide the framework so everyone else can succeed. You don’t have to solve the problem or have a brilliant insight. You’re not the actor or even the director, you’re more like the producer. You’re not the omelette, you’re the frying pan. It’s a damn important job, but don’t stress about being smart. I’ve been in sprints with all kinds of super smart people I wanted to impress—sometimes even with famous founders who I really admired. But I quickly learned that the best thing to do was not to be smart, but rather to be helpful. And the best way to be helpful is to make the sprint work, so the hotshot CEO and her genius team can solve the problem. You ask questions, write stuff down, and mind the clock. That’s a lot, and it’s important.
You don’t have to go crazy with this, but you’re the battery for the sprint. If you are low energy, the group will be low energy, and if you are upbeat and positive, the group will be energized.
I’m very mindful of my caffeine levels when I’m facilitating. I’m a coffee drinker and am always tempted to drink lots of coffee so I’m amped at the beginning of the day (when I’m most nervous and want to be high energy) but if I do, I’ve found I’ll pay for it and crash in the afternoon. Instead, I sip a coffee (if it gets cold, I’m doing it right) and use lower-dose black or green tea to keep my energy level throughout the day. I also intentionally drink a lot of water, because it helps me remember—warning, this is about to get real…
If you’re hydrated yourself, you won’t forget this, but remember 90 minutes is the max you should ever go without a break because people will need to go pee. Seriously, you’re in charge, don’t make folks uncomfortable.
Find ways to give people positive feedback for their work in the sprint. When somebody says something clarifying, say “That’s a great way to put it, very useful.” As the map comes together, say “This map is really coming together. We’re right where we should be.” It might sound a bit cheesy, but these little reinforcements boost the team’s momentum and confidence.
The design sprint process is not the natural way people would work together if you just got together in the room. And at times—like during the critique on Wednesday, or when you’re writing “How Might We” notes on Monday—it’s super unnatural. Don’t try to act like it’s normal behavior. Over and over, I say “This may feel a little awkward,” or “This is going to seem unnatural,” and I find that people are visibly relieved to hear they’re not the only ones—and quite often this defuses difficult people who want to roll their eyes about process. If you’re already laughing with them, they don’t have any punch left. Well, sometimes they still do…
Don’t let people use their phones or laptops. It’s totally uncomfortable to do this, but you have to do it. Ask them to take their call or email or whatever outside. Say “I have to ask you to check that out of the room, because the screen makes it hard for everyone else to focus. But it’s totally fine for you to duck out and come back.” Everyone else will silently thank you, and you’ll build respect. But regardless of respect, you seriously have to keep devices out of the sprint or things will go bad.
Alright, now we’re getting into it. What happens when you’ve got a difficult person, a long talker, an endless debater, a time waster, or a straight-up jerk? You have to deal with it, but you can start out very nice. I use three levels of escalation:
I like to use the word “pause” instead of “stop” when I need to interrupt the team. “Let’s pause this conversation.” It’s a little thing, it’s just a nice word—seems more polite (and easier to accept for the team) than “stop”. But it means the same thing.
Good facilitation requires a balance of patience and impatience, confidence and humility. Be patient and let the team talk for a few minutes, but be impatient enough to mind the clock and curtail it — productive conversation or not — when it goes on too long. Be confident so the group has confidence in you, and confident in the structure so things keep moving, but humble enough to let others come up with the content, the insights, the solutions — and sometimes go a little off topic. Part of humility is sometimes letting the conversation wander because it might yield a surprising insight for someone — but you can’t let that go too far. You’ll get the hang of this balance over time. When you’re starting out, trust the schedule in the book, it’s pretty good. Over time you’ll just know how much to let the conversation go and when to say “Decider, I need you to break the tie so we can move on.”
Another one from Charles: Always act like things are on time. Don’t worry if you get behind schedule a little—I frequently do, and it’s quite possible to catch up again. But don’t broadcast to the team that you’re behind. In fact, although you should use the time guidelines in the book to help you with the schedule, I recommend not writing those times on the whiteboard or sharing them with the team. If you’re behind, they don’t need to know that, because again, you’ll catch up. And it’s easier to catch up when the team has confidence in you.
If you do have to rush people along, or if something seems weird, feel free to blame the process, the book, and/or me. It’s not you who says devices aren’t allowed, it’s that jerk Jake. It’s not you who says we have to do Crazy 8s, it’s the book, but let’s give it a shot.
In everyday work, it’s easy to get bogged down reacting and optimizing — but in a design sprint you have the chance to maybe reset course. You can maybe do something big that really matters to your customers. I say maybe because it’s hard. Designing something great requires you to act with sincere idealism, and most workplaces don’t encourage that.
Try for it. Remind yourself and your team remember why you all took this job or started this company or signed up for this project in the first place. Don’t optimize. Don’t react. It’s okay to aim for making something that “does well and does good.” If that sounds idealistic, yes, exactly! It is okay to be idealistic, and you can do it successfully if you sprinkle in some honest cynicism. Here’s how you do it:
You might not feel comfortable with all this in your first sprint, and that’s okay. But you can get there, and it’s worth it. When I created the design sprint process, I was frustrated by how many teams wasted time while building mediocre or meaningless products (there’s the cynicism) when they had the opportunity to move fast, do something awesome, and make the world a better place (there’s the absurd Silicon Valley idealism). I still believe this brand of idealism can work. But don’t just be idealistic. And don’t be a half-assed idealist, with cynicism weighing you down. Embrace them both and do something great.
You’ll get better and more confident every time you facilitate. Accordingly, even if you read the book cover to cover and use all the tricks in this post, you’re still not going to be the world’s best facilitator the first time you do it. Get as many reps as you can, and know that the first few reps will give you the steepest, fastest learning curve. Including workshops and sprints, I’ve probably facilitated well over 200 things, and I still learn new stuff, but even after just five I was probably 85% as comfortable at facilitating as I am now. Offer to facilitate a team meeting or a half day workshop or a sprint for another team. Get to five reps as fast as you can.
If you can, laugh at yourself. Laugh at the absurdity of a bunch of grown-ups sitting around following a checklist of activities. And…
Running a design sprint is hard work, no question about it. But it should also be fun. To me, it’s the absolute best of work: a challenging problem, focused time, a team of people working together and bringing their best, disagreeing constructively, and making progress. In your life, there will only be a certain number of moments like this— savor it.
One more thing: Keep in mind that you don’t have to be perfect for the sprint to work. Your map doesn’t have to perfect (my map has never been perfect), you don’t have to explain everything perfectly (I never have), and you don’t even need to remember these tips. The process is extremely robust and can handle lots of imperfections and still work out. Just ask questions, write stuff down, and mind the clock. ⚡️