The Team Dynamics

Published on October 16, 2021

I want to remind you of two core observations from the first "Dishonest Sprint" issue:

  1. The Sprint itself is inspired by the Design Thinking process. But – if adopted by a team without a user-centered mindset – it cannot be used as a method to introduce this way of thinking. Having cut the "Understand" and "Observe" parts of the Design Thinking process, the Sprint encourages its participants to create ideas from their knowledge.
  2. There are tasks and objectives for which the Sprint is an excellent tool to bring people, experiences & knowledge together to create solutions in a fixed time. As a rule of thumb: The more expertise is available, the better suited is the Sprint.

For this issue, I want to focus on the situations & circumstances where you might be asked to adapt a Sprint process, but it's not optimal. In the first issue, I noted the following cases:

  • (Design Culture) The Sprint won't introduce people to user-centric and Design Thinking methods. It's built for people who already share these mindsets
  • (Problem definition) It won't help you to question assumptions and truly understand the problem
  • (Product Development) It won't work as a standalone process with no preceding research/strategy phase and no owner who afterward will take the results and work with them.
  • (Business Transformation) It won't help you to develop transformative ideas or business models with an existing team

Looking back at the past years, I'm more often asked to facilitate a Sprint in these kinds of situations rather than ones where it could excel.

Thinking about this, one of the reasons might trace back to the circumstance that due to its strict process & sequence of tasks, the Sprint doesn't need an external facilitator, only a designated team member to keep track of time and activities. Or maybe they need one for the first time, but later can adapt the process for themselves more easily.

In this sense, let's have a quick look at some typical setups for Sprint workshops and their respective characteristics:

#1 internal Sprint:

This product design or innovation team is very familiar with user-centered design processes and looks for a dedicated space to solve a concrete problem.

#2 internal Sprint w/external facilitator:

This describes a team that wants to try out a new method. For them, it's often the beginning of a transformation process, and they want to explore if this method could work for them.

#3 Sprint with an external team:

This is often a setup for a company in a transformation process that wants to break up silos or create a room where people can "feel free" and have new ideas.

#4 Sprint with external experts:

This is a setup where a team needs to find new ways of thinking about their product or problem and invite people with different experiences to help them solve it.

Of course, this overview is just a broader scenario of teams. Every single team setup is different. We'd also need to think about the presence and absence of managers/team leaders because they tend to distort the dynamic - between team members and in openness talking about issues and ideas. But I'll leave this part out for today.

What's critical for us right now is acknowledging distance. As you may have noticed, from number one to four, the teams grow further apart – from close colleagues to people who may just meet for the first time. This creates interesting dynamics within the session. Good! But acknowledging distance is especially crucial when designing the workshop. Why? Let me remind you of the Standard Google/Jake Knapp Sprint:

The way the Sprint is designed, it's solely optimized for solving a predefined problem. There's no time allocated for building trust. Not enough time to share knowledge and experiences between partners. Of course, you can do your icebreaker warmup activity – "Find 3 things you have in common" is probably my favorite one – but it only lowers the barrier for introducing each other.

I recently came across this excellent graphic by Yuting Huang for the "Terrible People" magazine's issue on "Distance". (non-affiliate link: [] & a forever grateful shoutout to "Do you read me?!" [] for 13 years of giving me access to the weirdest magazines I didn't know about)

The graphic is based on a concept called "Hidden Dimension" by Edward Hall, showing the distance between you and the people you know. But adapted to modern/social media relationships.

(source: via "Terrible People" on Instagram)

Interestingly, it doesn't include colleagues and working relationships – but that just makes it even more enjoyable to ask yourself: with whom are you willing to share something that you are insecure about (like an idea)?

Having an idea, sharing an idea, and discussing an idea are very emotional and intimate processes. You get more acquainted with the feeling the more often you follow the process, but the sensitivity of sharing an idea never really goes away. As I described in one of the earliest newsletters "On Creativity", we experience a cultural gap between the (romantic) European and (practical) American understanding.

As a reminder, in Europe, the creative idea is usually related to imaginatively expressing yourself. In an American understanding, "being creative" starts with the ability to communicate a thought.

What I observed over the past years is that

Under these circumstances, bringing up the usual "Don't shy away. Go for quantity, not quality. Every thought is worthy talking about" suddenly becomes dismissive towards the anxieties, a slight feeling of shame and insecurities of team members. But those are creativity killers.

Now the setting of a Sprint (primarily when used for transformation purposes) puts everyone even more under pressure. Because the goal is to come up with at least one good idea on Tuesday, iterate on it on Wednesday, prototype it on Thursday and eventually test it on Friday. So that afterward, you can tell everyone how much "actual users really really liked it". And to have an object of productivity.

The Sprint as a method doesn't leave much room to fail. But the space we're creating is a space of delusion. A delusion that claims that a group of people who don't know each other, who don't trust each other on a deeper level (except knowing that everyone wants the best) and who are not used to creative thinking could develop an innovative idea.

As always: it can happen. But more likely, it won't.

When I'm asked if I could come in to facilitate a Sprint that's not for a team experienced with user-centered or creative thinking, all of these aspects space of tension where I need to figure out what my client is expecting. And I need to manage their expectations of what we as a team and in this specific team constellation can achieve.

Are we here to introduce a user-centered design culture or creative thinking? Please don't expect an innovative idea that you can continue working with. This workshop will be a test run, a safe space to make mistakes.

Are we here to understand your problem? Please don't expect the prototype to be the final solution, but rather a tool to verify our assumptions. Afterward, let's actually solve it.

Are we here to develop a new product or business idea? Please acknowledge that "the idea" might come from outside agency/experts who are more trained in ad hoc, creative thinking and can easily build on top of what the core team is sharing.

Because if we don't acknowledge the limits of our capabilities, we might have a great time during the workshop, but two days later or so, there'll be a bad taste in everyone's mouth that we didn't reach our goals.

And ultimately, this creates an environment where people become discouraged or grow disbelief towards their transformation efforts. That's the worst that could happen in a still very transformation-averse German market.