Did you share last week’s Build episode on product design sprints with your teammates? Wait! Give me two chances to guess the outcome:
You did share it and you faced some pushback? Well, kudos to you for putting it out there!
Or maybe you didn’t because you were afraid of the pushback you’d get? That is OK, too!
Charbel Semaan and I are back this week and prepared to help you get over the pushback you received or will receive once you bring up the idea of product design sprints to your teammates.
Charbel and I have built a lot of products, and we know that even if our teammates hate the current process and the outcomes it produces, they will still find comfort in it and resist adopting a new one because there’s a lot of fear when it comes to change.
But no one is going to willingly admit to being scared, so they’re going to couch their fear in remarks that are skeptical, just say “no,” or create excuses like, “Now is not a good time,” or, “We just don’t have the money to run extra experiments.” Then there’s my personal favorite: “Prove to me that this is going to work!” But the whole point of an experiment is to test assumptions by following a process, and then seeing if they were right or wrong. You can’t prove anything until you do the experiment! #chickenegg
Because we want you to be really prepared for all the excuses and pushback around a design sprint, here are a few more excuses that you’ll hear when it comes to product design sprints from our friends at InVision. There are also some guidelines and prerequisites that we recommend you consider mentioned in this post to make sure a product design sprint is right for your team.
Here’s what you’ll learn from watching this episode:
Poornima Vijayashanker: In the previous episode of Build, we shared how you can use design sprints to help you test ideas out faster and get that much-needed feedback. If you miss the episode, I’ve included a link to it below this video. And of course, anytime you want to institute a new process in your organization, there’s going to be some pushback, so in today’s Build episode, we’re going to tackle how you can evangelize design sprints within your organization. So stay tuned.
Welcome to Build, brought to you by PivotalTracker. I’m your host Poornima Vijayashanker. In each episode, innovators and I debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies, and your career in tech. Today we’re continuing our conversation with Charbel Semaan, who has been a product designer for over 20 years, and most recently launched Made in Public.
OK, Charbel, you and I have built a lot of products, and we know that even if our teams hate our current process, and we give them a new one, they’re still going to be reluctant to adopt that new one because there’s that fear of change.
Charbel Semaan: Sure.
Poornima Vijayashanker: And we’re going to get pushback. So how do we handle that pushback?
Charbel Semaan: I think one of the ways I found to handle it successfully is to emphasize it’s not a replacement to your existing process. It’s a way to supplement, complement, or augment. And if you can run a design sprint in parallel and you’re really doing it as a side branch to what you’re already doing, and it gives you an opportunity to learn quickly in five days, and then be able to integrate that back into your existing processes. It’s super helpful.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. So that’s great in theory. But I know having to run a parallel process oftentimes for either a small team or even in a large organization can be a lot of setup. It can mean trying to carve out that time, so one of the key things to consider is what are going to be the benefits. Someone’s going to come and say why should we do this, how is it going to help?
Charbel Semaan: Great questions. Why should we do it, how is it going to help. I think there are two key areas. One is speed of execution.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.
Charbel Semaan: And what comes along with that, with the sprint, is constraints. And through those constraints you get clarity. So you’re moving quickly, you’re going from thinking to action in a quick way, and you’re also constraining yourself so you don’t have an infinite amount of time to decide what features, what angle, should we try it this way or that way, so you get to move quickly and you constrain yourself, so you get to clarity faster.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. So I’m sure for our audiences out there, there’s probably going to be some pushback around, ah that’s great on like a nimble team of maybe five, six people—but I’ve got 10, 20, 30 decision makers or stakeholders. I’m not going to be able to mobilize my team fast enough. So how do we get to handle those folks?
Charbel Semaan: Yes. I think you can work with those 10 to 20, or even 30 people to understand what are some big problems that you’re facing, that you’d want to solve, that are top priority, or they’re really affecting and impacting your productivity and your flow, your ability to ship.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Even if they’re conflicting?
Charbel Semaan: Even if they’re conflicting. I think you first start by gaining an understanding. So with a team that large, I’ve got 20 to 30 product managers and squads of teams of PMs and developers and designers, etc. You gain an understanding, if you’re that org leader, gain an understanding of what are some of the top big, immediate problems that are affecting the team and affecting shipping and product and affecting the business. And prioritize those. And then think about if I can run a sprint, if I could run something within five days and gain clarity and be able to unlock some blocker that’s going on across those 10 to 20, then who of that large group, who would make most sense to bring into this sprint.
We’re not going to stop the presses on everyone’s workflow. But we can at least prioritize, run a sprint with some key players, see how that goes. In some ways it’s a look at like an 80-20 perspective of 80% of the orgs, when you continue going as-is, there’s going to be this 20% or even 90-10, there’s going to be this small experiment we’re going to run. And if that’s successful, then we can see if we can apply it to other areas or aspects of the org, no matter how large.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Of course there’s fragile egos. So some people are going to want to be in that special pool.
Charbel Semaan: Sure.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Why wasn’t I picked?
Charbel Semaan: Sure.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So how do you message that?
Charbel Semaan: Not easily. Not easily. It’s not always easy. I think one thing I’ve found a bit helpful is to communicate openly that we understand we have X-Y-Z challenges. We’re all clear on that. And there’s…hopefully you have consensus, you have agreement. And from there it’s…we can’t tackle them all at once. We all agree to that. And so I think you’re gaining that consensus and that understanding. That mutual understanding. And then communicating, we want to try something that might help us start to chip away at the stack of challenges that we have. We’re going to run small experiments. As those turn out to be successful and we learn from them, we want to continue embracing and permeating through more teams and more people in the org.
So it’s coming and if it’s going to work, they know it’s coming, if you have a deep interest and you have a really…you’re raising your hand and you really want to be a part of this, please come to tell me. If you’re the org leader or the business leader, whoever you are. I think that kind of openness and communication starts to also be a signal for you to understand who are the people who, as you mentioned before, who are the people who can become those evangelists and those change agents in your organization as influencers to adopt something new like design sprints, and then be able to take it to their parts of the org as well.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I think it also serves as a signal to see how open your organization is, right?
Charbel Semaan: Absolutely, absolutely.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So I think maybe some people may get disheartened as they do this exercise and find out that they’re not getting a lot of interest, so how should they take that? It’s not a reason to send in your resignation letter.
Charbel Semaan: No, no, not at all. Don’t do that yet. I think one thing though, is just discussing with a CO of a global manufacturing business, is people need to feel involved. In my experience, in org development and innovation with an organization, especially large ones that no one really wants to have something just told at them, and that this is the way we’re doing things now. So introducing something like a design sprint into your organization, that can foster and cultivate innovation throughout all your people. Doing so by involving them.
So first it just starts with communicating that. We’re thinking of doing something new. Who has some initial interest? They’re like you said, you’ll start to see if there is or isn’t. That might be an indicator that are you really getting that kind of engagement from your folks, and as you test and as you do small experiments and you see who continues to raise their hand and want to be more and more involved. And when you’re not seeing that engagement, it may actually be an opportunity to run a design sprint on internal communications.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, yeah.
Charbel Semaan: So that’s the beauty of it for me is, I think you can sprint on any kind of challenge you have.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.
Charbel Semaan: It may not always be a business challenge in the product sense, or in the service sense. Sometimes it may be about your internal organization.
Poornima Vijayashanker: And what happens if you get too much interest? Everyone’s like, “Oh yes, I want to participate,” and all of a sudden you’ve got your 5,000-person organization and it’s like, “I’ve got things to say. I see things that are broken.” Yeah, I get this a lot when I go into places.
Charbel Semaan: Sure, sure. I think for starters, I think that’s a great problem to have. I think you want that level of engagement, that employee engagement, and your people care about solving challenges in your business. It’s far better than the opposite. Two, there is such a thing called mega sprints, and Jake Knapp actually runs mega sprints, which were pretty interesting, where there’s simultaneous sprints happening in one large room.
Short of that, the—to your point about the question is to get to a place where there’s an opportunity for people to raise their hand, have a voice, to be able to add to the mix and add say, “Here’s the challenge I’m facing,” and then it’s really, I think, an opportunity to create a culture of that mindset. So I go back to design sprints not just being this rigid five-day process, and the irony is it’s…it can be viewed as some rigid five-day process even though it’s a sprint, it’s meant to move quickly. The reality for me is that when you embrace it as a mindset, and that people in your organization, no matter if you have 5,000 people with 1,000 problems each, it’s an opportunity to think, “How could I solve this problem or test a new idea quickly, and can I use the framework of the sprint, can I use the elements of the sprint to take action faster?”
And I think anybody who’s leading an organization, no matter how small or large, would love for their people to have that type of empowerment and to be able to feel enabled and equipped to take action.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Now there’s also a lot of skeptics out there who might say, “Yeah, you know, I hear what Charbel’s saying but I’ve tried something like this a year ago, or like five years ago we tried lean or agile—how do I know that this is the new thing?” So a lot of times the concern is how is this going to be any different from what we tried in the past that failed miserably, and in the wake of it, caused a lot of destruction.
Charbel Semaan: Yes. Great question. This has actually been coming up recently for me and I’ve been doing more and more review and research on this. I think for starters it’s valid. It’s absolutely valid to be wondering, “Great, this is just the methodology du jour. This is now the new thing, and everyone’s going to jump on this bandwagon.” I completely understand that.
What I come back to though is the corner about the mindset. Lean can be thought of as a mindset. Agile can be thought of as a mindset. It’s a way to knock down blockers that otherwise impede you from trying something, learning from it, and iterating on it. So whether it’s this model, that model, or this or the other. I think the nice thing about sprints is that for me as a designer, because it’s rooted in design thinking, and it provides this construct to float through five days—and again I mentioned clarity through constraints and that speed of execution—it gives you an opportunity to go from empathy all the way to testing the idea. And prototyping is of course in there, inside of that.
Whereas lean is focused on build, measure, learn. So you just start out by building and you’re going to put it out and then learn from the reactions. As a designer I am a big believer in that initial upfront step of empathizing and understanding. When you understand what that problem is and who you’re solving it for, and it carries you through that initial slice of the prototype that’s just enough to get in front of users, and I have a hard time imagining folks who wouldn’t want to move faster and learn more, and be able to then iterate.
And this is one way of doing it. It’s a methodology that I’ve embraced that I…it gets me out of my own decision deadlock as well.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So in the wake of that kind of feedback around, “Hey, how is this going to be any different, you’re saying treat it as a mindset,” hopefully people are willing to adopt a new mindset or at least test it out. But there are also those who start to get kind of nitty gritty, right? They might say something like, “Oh, I don’t even know where to get customers to test this prototype,” or, “I don’t want to bother our existing customers.” How do you get over some of those more practical hurdles?
Charbel Semaan: Sure. That’s a great question. On the customer front, I think, on one hand, you hopefully have a pocket of customers who have a major interest in everything you’re doing. They want to be those early adopters. They want to test new features. They’re your biggest fans. And so on one front you can always start with them and then treat them right, treat them in a way where you have this open communication that we appreciate coming to you because you’re such a fan of ours and we’re a fan of you, and we want to come bring you our latest and greatest to see are we doing right by you. Are we solving the problems that you need solved, are we getting the jobs done that you need done through our software or through our product or service?
So I think on that front you build those ongoing and sustainable relationships with them.
Poornima Vijayashanker: And if it’s a new customer base?
Charbel Semaan: If it’s a new customer base, I think going back to that understanding the problem and understanding who. When you understand those two things, it’s surprisingly simple to find where they are. If you understand their habits, you understand their desires and their pains and their struggles, you understand where they seek the solution to this problem elsewhere, you can go to those places.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So do you have an example of a situation where a lot of these practicalities started to add up and people just completely lost sight of making a decision on design sprints?
Charbel Semaan: Yeah. Great question. There’s an example where…come back to the internal learning development team at Medallia. We had big needs, we had problems to solve in terms of scaling, training, especially for the growing sales team, the growing engineering team, which are very common teams that start to spark and grow quickly. And especially globally. So how do we scale the training? And practicalities like, well, video’s going to be expensive. Getting all the equipment. Having the studio. Do we even have time to shoot video and do that. People don’t watch online learnings. A lot of the common…what might be common sense or these truths that we think we have in our businesses, and the reality was when we ran a sprint, it was actually a colleague of mine and we ran a sprint.
Poornima Vijayashanker: So how did you get over that hurdle to actually get them to run the sprint given these practicalities?
Charbel Semaan: That’s a good question. There were a couple of people who were advocates. They wanted to embrace it.
Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.
Charbel Semaan: And the challenge was showing that running the sprint and the output of the sprint…the output of the sprint was actually more important than the sprint itself in a way. So because the output…and first they wanted to embrace the approach. They embraced the approach. They wanted to try it. And they wanted to get to that output. So we shared that video with the entire HR organization, and the output, the video itself, was what people focused on. Then when they wondered, “Well wait a minute, when did you do this and how did you do it so quickly?” That’s when we were able to say, “Well, we ran a sprint on it.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: Interesting.
Charbel Semaan: And we just shortcut a lot of the decision deadlock, a lot of the concerns and a lot…we did it with an iPhone on a makeshift tripod in this corner office that we blacked out the windows and we were able to just run with it. And it’s not the greatest-looking video but it’s a prototype. Then people realized, “Wow, we can go this quickly and this nimbly, why don’t we embrace this and actually try to do more?”
And the greatest part about that—I love the outcome here—is that, the head of the team said, “Great. Here’s a budget to go get the equipment you need, on a reasonable amount of money, and why don’t we use this corner room more frequently for these videos and let’s run with this.”
Poornima Vijayashanker: So that’s pretty cool. You basically turned design thinking on its head. Instead of trying to get people to adopt the methodology, just show them the output, tell them about the outcomes, and then when there’s a curiosity for how did this all come about, then you can say, “We used design thinking.”
Charbel Semaan: That’s right.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Cool. And I think then people are going to start to embrace it in more sections of the organization, or on more projects.
Charbel Semaan: That’s right.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, that is an awesome insight, Charbel. So for those of you out there who are stuck, feeling a lot of pushback, maybe instead of trying to get people to adopt the methodology, present them with the output and the outcomes and use that to strike the conversation.
Thank you for joining us, Charbel, and for our audience out there, how can they get in touch with you?
Charbel Semaan: Great. Thanks for having me on. This has been blast. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit madeinpublic.com, and see the projects that I’m working on, the sprints that I run publicly to help teach and empower to run sprints themselves. And sign up for the newsletter as well.
Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s it for today’s episode of Build. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive more great episodes and short build tips. Ciao for now.
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