Design Sprint Q&A: Carrie Lawson with RTI International

Carrie Lawson is working to promote public health and reduce teenage pregnancy.

She and her team use design sprints to devise solutions for clients.

Carrie works for Raleigh-based RTI International, “an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition.” So it is natural Carrie and her team use human-centered design.

RTI began running design sprints in 2014. Carrie had to learn how to pull industry experts together to achieve innovative outcomes.

“Design sprints have been a way to benefit our clients and better our deliverables,” Carrie said. “We’re learning more of the practice, and our team is able to bring design thinking to our projects more and more.”

Continuing our Design Sprint Q&A Series, we spoke with Carrie to glean insights. She answers three questions on beginning design sprints, tips and overcoming obstacles for success.

In your opinion, what are the keys to an effective design sprint? Can you share a story that highlights these keys?

Carrie Lawson with RTI International

Carrie Lawson with RTI International

It’s critical to have different people at the table. While I’ve never tackled a five-day sprint, we do a single-day version. You have a one day to work on the challenge; it’s condensed. We learn through that. Time and time again, I have seen the importance of having a truly [cross-functional] team at the sprint.

It’s as important, no matter the duration, to have key players involved. One time, in particular, we didn’t have enough of the right people at the table. We had a few but not all. The session was not shaping up to be as impactful as we hoped.

So, we had to be willing to see the weak spots and add various experts in different disciplines to even it out.

We have hundreds of subject matter experts with science-focused backgrounds. However, at one sprint in particular, there was no one with business development experience or programming. So we were coming up with ideas that were inside the box. It wasn’t until we brought in other people onto the team that we were able to develop novel approaches.

What challenges have you faced with design sprints and how are you evolving the method to create more momentum?

Time is a challenge for everyone. Whether you’re taking five days or even a half day once a month, it can still be hard. When we do a one day sprint, we come back into short meetings. Even finding the time to do that is a little tough.

We are still trying ways to overcome the time barrier. Let me know if there is a magic bullet other than saying, ‘It is important.'

We have found people tend to have a mentality of the here and now. They’re focused on putting out a fire in their day-to-day work silos.

So, we have found that casting the sprint vision as a preventative to future fires is fairly successful. Help them see you’re building something that might stop fires from happening in the first place. A practical, long-term vision can shift the mindset, which can help buy in. Show your coworkers how the results will benefit themselves and the company.

What insights would you share with those implementing design sprints for the first time?

I wish I would have known this: you need to have people take ownership of the ideas and outcomes of a sprint if you want it to go anywhere.

Someone needs to be in charge going forward. People are ready after the sprint to take action, but there needs to be a designated person beforehand. It is deflating if great ideas emerge from a sprint yet never develop traction or see the light of day.

Next, I would say: people need to be comfortable getting out of their typical work mindset. I mean, after the first design thinking session, I was like, ‘I’m an adult; why am I playing with Play-Doh? And drawing?’ It can be challenging to get out of your day-to-day mindset and your comfort zone. But embracing this during a design thinking session shows in the results. Uncomfortability is where people are stretched and breakthrough ideas emerge.

RTI International is a treasure of brilliant research findings and industry-specific analysis. Check out their insights page to follow their work. You can also find and connect with Carrie on her LinkedIn page, here.

Matt PulfordComment