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Can you run an effective physically-distant design sprint?

Post by
Shanon Marks
Can you run an effective physically-distant design sprint?

The Secret to The Physically Distanced Design Sprint

It was Sunday, March 1. I stood in my office, contemplating a difficult decision to postpone a trip to Boston. My team wrapped up days of Sprint planning and was prepared to meet with our new client and spend the next week in a Design Sprint that would shape the launch of a new, large-scale Biotech website.

Effective design in Biotech requires a deep understanding of subject matter, an ability to extract information from chemists, researchers, and entrepreneurs while working against IPO deadlines that can shift throughout the program. The Design Sprint was the first step toward a solid project foundation. COVID dominated headlines, the virus was spreading, and it became obvious to me that the trip would expose my team to the possibility of an unknown virus. I postponed the trip.

Days later the country came to a standstill and I knew I made the right decision. Our team was not alone in thinking travel was an unnecessary risk and participants from all over the country and Europe postponed their plans. Triage began immediately as I worked with our clients to pivot into an entirely physically distanced Sprint. We evaluated our toolset and how we would plan to bring 11 participants across 4 different time zones into the same virtual space for 12 hours over two days.

Physically distanced sprinting does not equal "remote sprinting" and requires a tailored approach designed to support multiple remote participants. Physically distanced sprints are designed to accommodate the fact that every participant is remote, has familiarity with the tools you will use, and, most importantly, understands how to participate.

We began the process by acclimating our client team and communicating each of the activities we would conduct. We sent out pre-Sprint communications, conducted pre-Sprint surveys, and held Zoom calls to onboard each stakeholder to the upcoming Sprint. When day one arrived, we had a significant amount of data in hand, which gave us a head-start on understanding the needs and goals of the team and a deep foundation of knowledge in the science we would be tasked with explaining.

Digital Sprint 2.0

Before a single question was asked or a single digital post-it note was penned, it was critical that each sprinter understood exactly how to participate. Never underestimate how overwhelming technology can be for those who aren’t accustomed to using it as part of their primary workflows. We knew the key to a successful sprint would be the ability to overcome any technological barriers. We implemented a variety of tools to facilitate the exchange of ideas over thousands of miles and multiple time zones. Here’s the stack we use:

Survey Monkey for pre-Sprint surveying and stakeholder engagement

• Recorded Zoom sessions for stakeholder interviews

Mural.co for digital whiteboarding - the basis for your Sprint activities

• Zoom for communications and Sprint facilitation

It is an understatement to say that Zoom is the most important tool in the stack. The ability to lead the group through each activity is obvious, but the magic of Zoom comes through the many-to-one chat capability. Instead of asking our participants to interact with Mural directly, which is something that with enough time they would grow accustomed to, we simply had them chat their answers, contributions, “how might we’s,” and ideas to our team. In turn, our team would translate each idea into a post-it on the Mural board and magic would ensue. The participants see their ideas appearing, our team facilitating, and the board filling up with a matrix of potential.

The Challenge

Through this method, digital Sprints far outperform in-person sessions. There is zero data loss. Every idea is captured either during the Sprint or after through the session recordings, something not feasible or practical in a traditional in-person sprint. The maps, matrices, and Sprint boards nearly self-organize and reduce the overall timeline by more than half. The quality of the output is significantly more precise and, therefore, more valuable than a traditional Sprint can offer.

Fatigue is the primary challenge. Video-conferencing places a significant strain on the human eye. Keyboards may slow the exchange of information from mind to hand and distractions are unavoidable in our work from home settings. It’s important to factor time into the design of the Sprint; shorter sessions over multiple days are more practical for work from home settings.

Watch over your participants, ask consistently who needs assistance, and keep an eye out for fatigue and frustration. Having spent time with each participant through the onboarding process, you already have a deeper familiarity and name recognition and recall is one of the biggest advantages you have in a digital Sprint. The ability to manage the group by name can’t be underestimated. Addressing each participant directly, builds trust and camaraderie quickly, to the advantage of the Sprint outcomes.

Looking forward

We’re looking forward to a time where we can Sprint together. Nothing can replace human interaction, something I appreciate now more than ever before. But the radical impact of COVID-19 has inspired innovation and improvements in every aspect of our practice. To that end, the Sprint will be forever improved because of the lessons we have learned and the skills we have improved.

Although this isn’t a play-by-play of Sprint methodologies it will help you plan, implement, and improve a physically distanced Design Sprint. In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing the surveys, agendas, and Sprint templates we’ve developed for our Digital Sprints. These tools, in combination with the right technology, will ensure productive, efficient, and innovative Sprints for you and your clients, no matter the distance between you.