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Douglas Ferguson ‘Beyond the Prototype’

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March 15, 2020
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The Power of Ten Show
March 15, 2020

Douglas Ferguson ‘Beyond the Prototype’

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Andy Polaine: Hi and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and on changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, educator and writer. My guest today is Douglas Ferguson, an entrepreneur and human centered technologist with over 20 years of experience, he is president of Voltage Control, an Austin based workshop agency that specializes in design sprints and innovation workshops.

He’s had several CTO roles at startups and was CTO at Twyla where he worked directly with Google Ventures running design sprints, and now brings this experience and process to companies everywhere. He recently published his first book beyond the prototype, which offers a six step plan for companies struggling with the shift from discovery to launch, especially in the post-sprint slump.

Douglas, welcome to Power of Ten.

Douglas Ferguson: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Andy Polaine: So before we get to the book  it’s interesting, or to me at least, that you’ve, you’ve held CTO roles rather than design roles. And it was about a pretty mixed background in, in terms of disciplines. I mean, I’m not casting aspersions on your, on your background.

How have you ended up here?

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, it has been a varied career and I think that’s really a testament to my kind of spirit for continuous learning and always just being curious about what might the next chapter look like. And I did start off as a software engineer early in my career and got  handed this lesson around, you know, technology for technology’s sake is no good for anyone. And while we were really very proud of the technology, we had built core metrics and had a mass, quite a nice array of customers. Omniture came in and just started to eat us for lunch, and it was really a better user experience that they were delivering, but we just didn’t have that language back then.

Mm. And so as an engineer, I took note of that. And as I became a leader in engineering and product, I started to, I was really focused on kind of how we assemble teams and get the most out of, out of the work we do. And since. There weren’t really a product leaders in the organizations that I was joining.

I was kind of wearing both hats, so kind of chief technology officer by title, but also holding this kind of chief product officer role and, and, and serving that function. And so I had designers working for me. And it got to work with, got the higher end work with quite a mini talented designer. And so I kind of got a design degree, you just, by working alongside those folks and really kind of worship thing, the awesome ways that they’re approaching problems.

Andy Polaine: But I mean, given that you’re no stranger to the creative process there, right? Cause you’ve also got this music and recording background, right?

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, of course. I didn’t, that’s a great point. You know my mother was a piano player and became. Um, you know, really it doesn’t faccia weight it with music in a very young age and started playing in bands in high school, and then.

I’m was recording bands on the side for hobby and college and, well, I guess you could call it even a part time job. I was you know, massing equipment and doing various things like uh, you know, sound reinforcement for concerts and recording. Bands and whatnot, and then slowly accumulated. I’m pretty much a professional recording studio, and so the a, that’s just been a labor of love, if you will.

It’s really hard to, to, to run a recording studio business just so much amazing. We were just talking before this podcast about some amazing consumer. Gear that’s available. You can get these Yeti mics. It sounds so great for 150 bucks. Versus the studio equivalent would be, you know, for that whole setup with the mic, the preamp and the converter, you know, we’re talking five grand minimum.

Andy Polaine: I don’t know if you’ve listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s  Broken Record podcast, and they were talking about, I can’t remember who they were interviewing, but it was something incredibly famous though, who is talking about you know, when he set up a recording  coding studio in his home in like the 70s or the 60s, and stuff, when back then, that was such a major act to do, to have all of that kind of equipment in there. And I wrote a piece recently that I didn’t expect to write, which was about  learning from Ed Sheeran, my daughter kind of got into him, and then I ended up watching the songwriter documentary.

And one of the things that struck me then was how amazing it was that he was able to basically have a recording studio, one on the tour bus, at least good enough to do demos, arecording studio on a-his producer is scared of flying-so they took a ship across the Atlantic and they had a recording studio in there. And the, the ability to kind of just produce something very high quality, kind of on the fly, but also very iterative.

So he would sort of have the kind of base track roughly and then go, I think I’ve got a partial bit of a verse and just sort of looping the track around here, kind of dropped that bit in and gradually they were to build it up incrementally.

And I obviously, I found lots of kind of parallels with the design world. So let me try something on you, which is that when musicians go in for a recording session, and particularly because they are often. You know, booking a chunk of time. That recording session is really the musical equivalent of a design sprint.

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, it’s fascinating. You know, not everyone approaches it from that perspective though. Cause some, sometimes when they’re booking that kind of chunk of time, especially when you’re talking to musicians that are starving artists, then you know, they’re, they’re trying to maximize that time. So they’ve, they’ve demoed a lot of stuff at home and gone and gotten everything ready.

So then, then, then it really. It counts, right? So they’re in there to nail it, which adds a lot of pressure and it mean, and performance anxiety, and you’re not necessarily getting the most creative takes or and whatnot.

And so I, as you were telling this story, it really struck me just this iterative design process around, you know, with the creation of the four track where people can kind of carry these things around. And then that resulted in musicians like Beck who are like four-track musicians, right. And invented his own genre in the way. And  the thing I’ll say is that, that comes to mind for me too is I really like to use the studio as an instrument. Um, and so it really comes alive as a creative process where folks that don’t own studios and think of it more as a place to just go capture and document what you’ve done. They, I think they think of the studio quite differently.

Andy Polaine: I think that was what was also interesting about Ed Sheeran using his Loop Station was kind of just to really restrict his palette in many respects to himself and the loops. And and then what you were just saying about artists having to, they have to really nail it, but they’ve done quite a lot of kind of prototypes, basically the demos of the prototypes of the songs right upfront.

Douglas Ferguson: Absolutely.

Andy Polaine: Um, and so they kind of roughly know they, they know the form and the shape and what they’re trying to do is nail it on the day. But one of the things about having that kind of pressure is it forces you to kind of make decisions and move on rather than kind of spend ages getting it perfect.

I think, you know, possibly second album syndrome is partly that thing of you now got the luxury of more time in the studio and say desperate to get it kind of perfect. And it never-it never will be and so it kind of slumps.

Douglas Ferguson: Absolutely. And you know, the, the other thing I’ll say is I think that’s one of the reasons why analog sounds so much better than digital cause and the digital world you have endless options. And with tape, you know, there’s this whole notion of, I gotta wait for the tape to rewind. There’s, there’s a certain amount of like meditation you have to do while you’re waiting for that to happen. And, um and then you’re maybe reluctant to do another take if you know it’s an ordeal.

Whereas like in digital, you can just exhaustively just grind it until you take all the life out of it. And so, so I agree there. There’s definitely a, um. There’s like a notion of perfection that I, you know, that is elusive and sometimes those magical moments that weren’t perfect are so much more meaningful or beautiful.

Andy Polaine: Yeah. That, that’s, that reminds me of John Warwacker, who’s a very well-known designer  and artist and musician actually too. He once said, you know, he used to really like it when computers were slower because whilst it was rendering or like Photoshop was rendering a blur or something like that, you know, I’d think about what I want to do next and I… I definitely noticed a thing that happened around the kind of early 2000s, I think, where a lot of, there were a lot of kind of conferences about flash  and people kind of doing the, you know, in the whole kind of vector art stuff and generative kind of vector art , design and art was very popular where it was all about the kind of speed that everyone could work at.

And I remember at the time thinking, that makes me feel. A little bit uncomfortable cause I feel like that it sort of got quite mindless. And that, you know, arguably, that’s… I still kind of complain about this with the sprint culture actually.

So let’s get back to sprints. It felt like a book that was one of those books that kind of had arisen out of hard won experience and it felt like a kind of, “let me save you from some of the pain” type of book.

Is that, is that fair to say?

Douglas Ferguson: You know I was on a quest to try and sort these things out for my clients. And I was also a bit, you know, it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome too early on. And I was like, thinking to myself, man, how did I mess this up so bad? And and then when I started noticing that.

Andy Polaine: Everyone does it.

Douglas Ferguson: Others were running into this and my clients were, it was happening to my clients. And then I was going to the sprint conference and realizing that I was hearing a lot of other people running into these issues. And, and then I think it’s also the reason why hackathons are so horrible.

I mean, they’re, they’re, I think they’re the epitome of this, right? Because they’re not, at least the design spr int, tees it up in a way, much more interesting way. And there’s much more hope that with that you can, you can land the plane, but you still, there’s still a lot of intention and care that you have to take to this. And there’s literally literally no handbook or what to do after.

Andy Polaine: That’s true. It is true. And so you’ve kind of, you’ve split the book up into, into these six steps. Do you want to kind of just quickly go through them? I really want to get back to the kind of the post sprint slump that you really start at, but tell, tell us how you sort of came to those six steps.

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, I was ultimately you’re just thinking about all the things that I’ve… would have gone back and done differently. And then as I interviewed people and ran workshops around this concept. You know, it was the thing that I just kept repeatedly hearing over and over again. And then just, I started to kind of organize them into logical categories and they kind of kind of fell a linearly.

And you know, it’s not a perfect science cause there are definitely some steps that you could do all at the same time. But I think just from a mental model, it’s nice to think from them as linear steps and so I laid them out in that way. And. In fact, I’m about to, I’m working on version two.

Version two is going to have, yeah, that’s right. Well, it’s funny that beyond the prototype was a prototype. I’m actually was working on a book with a coauthor Karen Holst and we are wrapping up that book now. It’s looking like it’s gonna launch in April. We had so many questions about like how we want it to handle different scenarios and really, I started to realize that a lot of those questions can only be answered and actually doing this, making a book. And so I thought, well, why don’t I write a book and answer some of these questions? And it turned… It just turned into a much bigger project than I had anticipated, and I ended up just deciding, Hey, this is a prototype. I need to get it out the door.  

So yeah, the publisher now, I’m  looking at version two and I’m going back and I’m adding a new step. I’ll give you a preview of that step, even.

So one of the things–and I really struggled earlier with my first editor because we were kind of trying to decide whether to include this or not, and I kind of included it as like this Design Sprint 101 and I’m actually gonna make it an official step in this new version–and it’s called get, sorry, Set The Stage.

Andy Polaine: Right, okay.

Douglas Ferguson: And so, and the thing we really struggled with was, since this was about the design sprint slump, it’s like, well, the  preparation and is before the slump, but I’m so adamant now because it’s come up still so many times that the best way to avoid the slump is to not get in it or do things that are going to minimize it, right? Because the deeper you go, the harder it is to get out. And there are things like picking the right Decider. And you know, that’s one of the number one things I see people mess up with a design sprint is you know, assigning that role to someone who doesn’t really have the authority or someone who does have the authority delegating it to someone, but not really delegating like there’s undo it later.

So it’s like, what’s the point of doing all this hard work if you’re just going to let people undo it?

Andy Polaine: You mean sort of asking, asking for input, but then saying, well, I that, thanks for that, but I’m, I think we should do this in my experience.

Douglas Ferguson: Exactly. Yeah. Or I mean, well, so now you’re getting into some meeting science stuff, which we’re really passionate about right now, and it’s like if you’re going to have a meeting and to make a decision, make, make it very clear, set that expectation.

If you’re just collecting information and you’re going to make the decision, make that clear. The problem is when people don’t make those intentions clear and then you to go into the meeting and then then. People, everyone has different assumptions and…

Andy Polaine: Yeah, let’s come back to the meeting thing, because I definitely want to cover it.

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, of course. So the thing I’ll say is that the set the stage is so important and there’s, there’s just things to consider and making sure you execute a great workshop in general and design sprints got, its even its special components that you need to consider. So just making sure those things are done correctly, while just make sure that you come out with with the momentum that you need or that you should get. And I’ll say one, one big issue is that it, it’s a five day process. It’s heavy artillery. You shouldn’t be just throwing it around Willy nilly. And, but when you, when there is time to do it. And you’re super convinced it’s the right time and it’s easy to get hung up or caught up in this whirlwind of convincing people to do it.

And the, the people that, you know, all the purse strings, the, even the decider, getting them onboard and the participants. And so you spend all this time selling people on it and then it almost takes on this life of its own right. And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the design sprint is, and not the whole thing.

Andy Polaine: Yeah.

Douglas Ferguson: It is just the first step in your journey. But you spend all this time convincing people to do this stuff and you, and sometimes I think people oversell it and then they come out with all this momentum and then they don’t know what to do with it because everyone’s like, been sold on the fact that, okay, well this is the, this is the thing.

And then it’s like, well, yeah, but we gotta we still have to support it afterwards. Right. And and so understanding that and setting those expectations also sometimes this work can if it’s, if you’re really focusing on something truly innovative and looking at what might be new possibility and unlock real potential, then there’s, there is a chance that there will be no home for this thing. Whatever it is that you create based on their business and the way it’s structured. And so being open to that and being ready to engage those conversations is again, just setting the stage, getting expectations in order, so that once we’re there and we have this momentum, we’re not used to experiencing that, we’re going to at least anticipate it and be somewhat ready to deal with it.

So that’s, that’s the first and foremost thing. Set the stage. And then you have to wrap up what you got to wrap up your work. So revisiting your, any other questions that you set forth for the design sprint, any new questions that surface there in the user interviews and anything, any, any insights that yield more new potential that you might need to get more clarity on. And it’s important to, to iterate on the, on the prototype and just to continue to learn.

And then, then you need to think about what kind of a governance structure that the team that’s going to be operating on this. Um. It, you know, there might be success and tell your metrics. There may be in a modes of working, like, are we going to fall on an agile type process?

A lot of times these teams that are spun up around these kinds of projects aren’t really governed by the same rules. You know, that the normal product team will be governed or, or whatnot. And so just making sure there’s operating agreements. I don’t know how we’re going to make decisions. And. And and how we will do our work.

Andy Polaine: Can you give us, can you give an example of that? Cause you cover quite a lot of ground in, in, in just in that little bit of that, that switch between the teams that, or can you unpack that a little bit? The teams who are doing the sprints are not governed by the same kind of rules or process either the team goes on to be doing or that the teams that they’re then going to work with are doing.

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, so sometimes in larger companies you, especially if you’re doing kind of explorative type stuff and you’re kind of harvesting potential innovative type of projects then those teams aren’t necessarily the teams that actually build product and launch, you know, they’re not commercializing or are scaling up kind of products and so they may not have processes for, for building and and so how do you think about the, the process by which you’re gonna going to kind of build these things or, or you know, are you going to follow kind of development sprints? Are they one week long, two weeks long? Um, and the fact of the matter is, even if you have those processes, a lot of times these teams are constructed across functional members from other teams and when they may, if you’re anything like Spotify where, you know, every team’s allowed to kind of pick their best and a preferred way of functioning than some of these some of these rules need to be adopted.

It’s sort of like Monopoly house rules, right? It’s like we need to, we need to just agree on how we’re going to play the game together. And and so it could be as simple as, you know, are we going to do one week or two week sprints or are we even doing Scrum? Do we do standups or, or what’s the, what’s the culture around around how we govern ourselves and how we… just how work gets done day-to-day.

On the decision making thing, there was specifically one example where the team that got put together didn’t have a clear leader. There was someone from the engineering side and someone from the product side that were considered kind of co leaders, but there weren’t really clear expectations set around who and who was going to be the ultimate decider. And there’s no tie breaker and  to pin to leaders and and it created some really unfortunate dynamics, especially when, you know, the product leader’s manager, the senior Vice President over product management came asking questions, you know, and they, they also didn’t have success and failure metrics clearly identified.

So when those questions got posed, there was no clear, like way of indicating how well they were doing. There was no way to track, you know. Progress if you will. And and so when those tough questions came, it was really easy to start doing finger-pointing ’cause they didn’t have really reliable stuff to lean on.

Andy Polaine: Right. One of the things that I noticed about the burger that I found a kind of really interesting kind of actually you to be looking back at it when I was preparing for this podcast was you spend… You’ve got design sprints 101 and then you go into…  I’ll talk through the chapters actually.

You’ve got the post sprint slump, wrap it up, share your story, chart the course, expand the inner circle, cultivate the culture, get guidance. And then you’ve got your bonus chapter, which is splint, er, splint, sprint planning, which I’m guessing is the thing that was, will be setting the stage perhaps.

But the thing that struck me, looking back at that sort of table of contents of those chapters was, there’s only really, it kind of two chapters that are actually about doing the design work and the kind of creative process, if you like. A big chunk of this is really about communication, right? About how, you know, you’re talking about how to share your story, how to get people on course. I mean, it’s planning too, right, but it’s a lot…there’s a lot of content in here about. How to get people to… so there’s things you were just talking about, about communicating amongst themselves and making decisions, but there’s also a lot around you know, how do you get other people on board? How do you expand that?

There’s this lovely thing where you say, “to keep things bite sized when you’re cultivating the culture to reduce the blast radius of your project and the potential for leadership freak out moments, break the work into small, manageable pieces.” So there’s a lot of stuff around that, which is about kind of how teams operate and agitate within an organization.  More than actually kind of what you might think that a, a sprint, a book about design sprints is about, which would be, how do you come up with the most amazing ideas and so on.

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah, you know, and that’s definitely a, kind of, I think speaks true to my background and my interests, ’cause, you know, I really focus on how to help teams do their best work. And I’m kind of somewhat process agnostic and I’m a big fan of kind of what. Design Sprints have made possible, but I’m not really too concerned about how people… the approaches they take within that framework, even if we’re doing a design sprint, right. ‘Cause they might, they might, they may have their own vision of how to approach the design and and to me it’s more about, “Hey, can we, can we use this as a tool to, to have a conversation and to get the room intelligence kind of flowing and humming and and build some momentum? And then make sure that we’re everyone’s informed enough to, to harness that momentum and keep, keep it, keep it moving. Because at the end of the day, you know, it’s… If we can drive outcomes, it’s kind of irrelevant how we get there.

Andy Polaine: Yeah. And it’s the, it’s the sort of Achilles heel, and I was talking to you and a few other people that we know about. Um, this Master’s I teach over in Switzerland, and the thing I’m teaching is about leading conversations, and it’s my, my colleague Yan Eckert, who kind of came up with this thing said, “you know, the one thing that is a really major part of working as a designer, especially a designer, insider and organization, is being able to kind of communicate and communicate with other stakeholders and get them on board and stuff and communicate your ideas.” And that’s the sort of the thing you’re not actually really taught at design school. You’re taught a lot of process at design school and a lot of methods, and it’s changing a little bit now.

But actually this stuff I, like you, I think have probably a similar experiences where I get asked to go and train a team and work with a team, and you know, we do some methods stuff, but actually it’s sort of the conversations afterwards about, “but how are we going to get, I can’t convince this person to do that. And how do we get people to the higher ups or, you know, to, how do we sell this upwards and so forth.” And there’s a bit where you say, “is your company poised to…” oh ‘know thyself’ that’s right. You know, “Is your company posed to promote innovative entrepreneurial culture and even if they say they’re ready, do they really mean it?”

I thought that was really kind of telling, cause I think a lot of us have probably been there despite the language of innovation is kind of everywhere, but the actual practice of it kind of isn’t. And setting the preconditions for that to work is a lot harder than some sticky notes. So tell me about your, what’s… you sort of got this interest in meetings. I can imagine like a lot of us have probably spent far too much time in really rubbish ones why that’s come about. But tell me about  your, your view on, on meetings and “weathering  the stickystorm,” you said

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s like just like anything when, when it gets over done or misused or you know, it’s almost like the Design Thinking equivalent of Agile. Where if people, so many people just glom onto the practices but don’t understand the principles.

So when I see someone writing user stories and basically they’ve just got the mad lib and they’re just plugging in variables into the blanks and it’s like, man, that’s not a user story. It’s like you’re just, you’re just filling in the like a little form. It’s like, how about we really think about like, what’s going on here and like create a dynamic story that we tell with the team that we can go to and get to a deeper alignment and understanding around? Okay, now we’re talking. And so the sticky storms are the equivalent, right? It’s just like, “Oh, let’s just throw some posting nuts up here. We’ll just do, I’ll do some clustering and we’ve got a workshop.”

And it’s like, man, they’re turning… It’s almost like the sticky storm is the, as the pathological version of bad meetings, because they’ve taken what can make a meeting… They’ve taken what a meeting, what it could… could be amazing about a meeting and turn that bad too.

Andy Polaine: Why does  it happen, do you think?

Douglas Ferguson: I think it’s just a lack of… It’s laziness maybe and also somewhat like a fear of… lIke an inferiority thing where they hear something and they don’t want to… they want to appear that they know it without having any time to, to master it. And then, so it’s like, “Oh, I see. I can do that too.”

‘Cause, so the thing is, like, simple things can be really powerful. And that can be very surprising. And people see the simple thing that someone’s taken a lot of time and care to make simple, and they try to repeat it without really understanding the why. That’s why we get into trouble.

Andy Polaine: I think as design has become more strategic and you know, and moved, or sort of mixed with business so much you know, in that kind of situation, I think that’s one of the things that’s happened is the, the, the craft, if you like, or the technology of, of that strategic stuff is pretty simple.

Writing things on a sticky note and sticking it on the wall doesn’t seem like that’s a thing where you look at and go, “well, I, you know, I can’t do that”. Which, you know, if you’re looking at, say like a traditional graphic designer or a musician doing something, someone who is not versed in that looks at that person doing those things and goes, “well, I’m, unable to do that. That person has a craft skills that I don’t have.”

And I think part of that, it leads to this kind of conflation of, “because I know how to write on a sticky and put it on the wall I therefore know how to, you know, at an a spot to, to cluster… affinity cluster in a way that’s intelligent or to spot patterns or to break things down and so on and so forth.” A lot of that… part of that process–and a lot of that kind of synthesis as well–um, seems very abstract from the outside and is almost invisible. And I think you don’t, you don’t get the kind of same evidence of, of craft that you do in those other kind of disciplines or traditionally. And I think that’s probably why some of those things go bad.

Douglas Ferguson: There’s a two by two that explains what what you’re describing. So there is a, let’s see. Unconscious incompetence. And then you move into conscious incompetence, so you become aware of your incompetence. So then then you’re able to build skill, and then you become consciously competent. And then true mastery is when you’re unconsciously competent.

Andy Polaine: That’s very nice. Where does that come from? Or is that yours?

Douglas Ferguson: I don’t, you know, I don’t know the source of that. I heard it from a peer coach of mine as a model that he uses and um, yeah, it just totally came to mind when you were talking about this stuff, I was like, this is totally, that model.

Andy Polaine: It sounds… It’s very akin to systems thinking and complexity theory, you know, where you’ve got the classic known knowns and known unknowns and all of that.

Douglas Ferguson: Oh yeah. You know, speaking of that I was thinking of Brian you a little earlier, and… because you were talking about, you know, the, just the advent of people making home studios and these things and just the fact that he, I, so I named my company after my obsession with synthesizers.

I would always tell people how as I was programming my synthesizers, it was very similar to working with teams and just the complexity of, you know, making one change over here, we’ll have all these ripple effects through the system. And so I would, I would, I just had this metaphor in my head of, you know, whenever I worked at my synthesizer, it just felt very similar. And I actually sometimes solved problems with, with the people problems that I had just as I was kind of patching these, and I think it just triggered interesting similar parts of my brain.

And I recently was watching a documentary on Brian Eno and I found out that he was he read that first book on cybernetics and that’s how he developed his technique for music. And I thought it was really so fascinating and made me love him even more because I was like, I, I arrived at similar conclusions but through using the synthesizer, probably inspired by him and others, but he actually developed this whole methodology by the the inverse way.

Andy Polaine: Right. I think it’s… this is why I was kind of interested in your background ’cause I think that having some other thing that you, you know, are deep into and, and, I’m very sure it does kind of cross wiring in your brain where you go, “when I see that in a way I can’t not see that through this other lens”.

I mean I studied film and so filmmaking and I, I still see a lot of ways of working like that. And I still see a lot of parallels and a lot that can be learned from the way filmmakers work.

Douglas Ferguson: Reminds me of Creativity Incorporated with Ed Catmull, talking about sharing the ugly baby early on and on all the Pixar films. Such a, such an awesome book. And one of my favorites.

Andy Polaine: It’s a, it’s highly recommended read.

So, I’ve got a question for you actually, which is how do you deal with one of these questions? You probably experienced clients or teams or stakeholders who have said, “listen we want to do a sprint, but we only want to do it for two days, or can we do it for one day a week over the next six weeks? ‘Cause we don’t, we can’t really take everyone off of the work to do it.”  How do you deal with that? Do you just say it doesn’t work? Oh, do you have some kind of magic solution?

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah. Um, wow. Um, so much is context dependent, but usually my answer is, you know, if you, if you’re thinking along those terms, you probably don’t have a problem that’s well suited for a design sprint.

Most of the time design sprints are going to be used for something where people are really stuck. Um, they haven’t been able to make progress or there is, there’s this new project and they know that it’s going to require, you know, some, the brain trust, if you will. And the only way to assemble them as to actually make it intentional and, and and make it happen.

And so… most of the time, if I encounter people that are wishy washy on it, then you know, we’ll have some conversations to just to see if their concerns are rooted in reality or they’re just nervous. But, usually, that’s an indicator that it’s just not a good time for a design sprint to be honest.

And the thing is, like, as a steward of the process, I’d much rather convince someone not to do it rather than have the name get tarnished. ‘Cause there’s just so many design sprint training classes and so many people just spitting out sprint masters that I think that… you know, there’s definitely a, I even heard a CEO once said, you know, my problem is that I just don’t know when to do a design sprint. I was like, man, that’s a  weird problem to have.

Andy Polaine: So you worked directly with Google ventures, right? So you, you kind of learnt from the horse’s mouth as it were.

Douglas Ferguson: Yeah. And

Andy Polaine: you

Douglas Ferguson: know, the early on, the fascinating thing to me was what the things that they’re really adamant about but weren’t in the book.

Andy Polaine: That’s why your book exists, right?

Douglas Ferguson: Because, well, well, yeah, I don’t even talk about most… A lot of that stuff is stuff we’ll put in and like our design sprint trainings and even Jake trains them. But the thing is, is like the book has to be packaged up with stories. It has to be stuff that anybody can, can kind of grok and understand. And so there’s a certain level of nuance that you will pick up on when you’re actually doing these things together. And it’s like, Oh wow, that’s really fascinating. Or that, you know, it’s super important. Like even the seven person thing…

Andy Polaine: Come on, spill the beans…

Douglas Ferguson: Well, like the seven person per thing, right? Like it’s in the book, but like, man, they were like really adamant about it and like, that’s nothing that you could gloss over.

And I even have clients all the time wanna send 20 people to a design sprint and they’ve read the book. And if they didn’t have me, they would be doing it with 20 people. And so there is… I think there is things that they learned from not only being just amazing designers and you know, like you were saying, they are, they’re skilled in the craft, you know, they’ve done it, they’ve done this and they’re professionals, but they also on top of that had the opportunity, a very unique opportunity at Google Ventures to go do this week after week, after week after week, and refine it and dial it in.

And so there’s just certain things you just pick up and just observing them that… and there are probably things that I’m not even articulating, you know, I, I just know that there’s a certain level of confidence after having this observed and worked with them kind of coming out of it. So it’s like so hard to even put that to words sometimes.

Andy Polaine: Yeah. It’s funny, isn’t it? There… it can sometimes seem really pedantic, that stuff. I mean, it’s the same as, you know, facilitating good workshop, you know, tiny things make a big difference sometimes.

Douglas Ferguson: What about the desktop kind of flip up post-its. These are the post-it notes that are kind of zigzagged. And so they’re designed to go in the holder…

Andy Polaine: Oh, I know, the concertina ones!

Douglas Ferguson: So that  means every other one the sticky is on the bottom and the thing’s just flipped over. Yeah. Oh facilitator woes, man.

Andy Polaine: I know, I used to throw those across the room all the time at Fjord when we got those, there was always kind of a couple snuck in there, I used hate them.

The show is called Power of Ten. It’s after the Eames from Powers of Ten. It’s all about this film, about the relative size of things in the universe. And so I ask all the guests what one small thing that is really well designed or needs to be redesigned has or would have an outsized effect on the world.

Douglas Ferguson: Well, this is very top of mind for me right now with the COVID-19 issues that are circulating around. But I think the interaction, the online meeting interaction. Zoom is, like, leapfrogged everyone. And I think other mettings systems started to catch up, but I definitely felt a massive difference between just quality and consistency once they–and that’s a testament to their growth, right? And while they’re still, you know, there might be people out there to complain about it, but I can tell you before it–cause I lived in those days with like other companies, which I won’t name–but like, you know, just horrible connection issues. And, and part of it’s too connectivity has improved and et cetera.

But the thing is, there’s still a lot of fidelity issue of as a facilitator, I cannot tell who is engaged and who isn’t. Um, I can’t build the same level of rapport. And so. You know, if there are, there are ways to gauge sentiment of people in the room more deeply level of engagement to be able to easily call on people. There’s definitely, there’s just a, there’s that depth that’s missing that really is detrimental to doing virtual workshops. And I think it with Zoom and Mural we get really close, but there’s still a missing element that I’m, that I’m really hungry for. And and there’s some incremental things like I’ve been feeding Mural lots of ideas ’cause I get really excited about this notion of being able to facilitate the digital space like I could a real wall. And there’s just things that I can do. I can walk up to the wall and do some very dramatic things that I can’t do digitally. And and so, but I think ultimately the 10x or would be to have real, some way to have a real connection and to be able to like, understand deeply what’s to just deeply connect with people and, and this virtual meetings environment

Andy Polaine: Yeah, reading the room is, is one of the real arts of facilitation, isn’t it?

Well, we’re coming up to time.  People can find the book on Voltage Control is Uh, and you’re amazingly on Twitter as the, well, I said The Dug, but you said The D.U.G.

Douglas Ferguson: That’s right.

Andy Polaine: You going to give me the why?

Douglas Ferguson: Sure. Yeah. We talked about my history as a musician and back in the day, it was the, it was the mid nineties, and I was in a math rock band if anyone knows what math rock is and…

Andy Polaine: A math rock band? What’s that?

Douglas Ferguson: Math rock is, kind of it’s maybe to the untrained ear would sound kind of like hardcore or punk or something, but it’s a very specific genre where it’s very angular sounding and almost robotic at times. And the reason it’s called math rock is because it involves a lot of counting cause we’re using a really odd time signatures.

Yes. And it’s a, so a lot of stops and starts, you know, the drummer is like grabbing the symbols, so it’s muted. And anyway, it’s a, it was fun stuff. Really enjoyed it. And my band, Imperial, was… And you know, the fun thing about Imperial is we used to have loops of storm troopers and we’d have stacks of TVs and these loops of storm troopers would be playing while we were behind us.

And we were, we were on tour with one of our pal bands called Regraped and we were all very drunk one night and decided to give ourselves hip-hop nicknames. And so I was christened The D.U.G.

Andy Polaine: Aha. Very good. That, that sounds, that band and everything to sounds very mid nineties. It’s very good. So people can find you as @TheDUG on Twitter. Douglas, thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Douglas Ferguson: You’re welcome. It’s been great to be here.

Andy Polaine: Thanks for listening to the Power of Ten if you want to learn more about other shows on the, This is HCD network. Go to where you’ll find ProdPod with Adrienne Tan, Decoding Culture with Dr John Curran, EthnoPod with Jay Hasbrouck, Bringing Design Closer and Getting Started in Design with Gerry Scullion, and Talking Shop with Gerry, myself, and some of the other hosts. You’ll also find the transcripts and links to this show and you can sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel and connect with other designers around the world.

My name’s Andy Polaine, you can find me at or @apolaine or Twitter. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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