Yes, dungeons & dragons. A board game where a group of people detach from their current lives, sit around a table, and pretend to be sword-wielding elves, orcs, and halflings. I’ve played this game my whole life and have been drawn to this imaginative, cooperative, and admittedly geeky style of storytelling. After recently running my first design sprint, I was surprised how comfortable and familiar I felt in the role of facilitator. Thinking back to the challenges and opportunities of the role, I realized how parallel it was to the experience of a dungeon master. DMs and Sprint facilitators require similar skills and mindsets. Therefore, for anyone looking to level up as a facilitator for future design sprints, I highly recommend they grab a handful of dice, a collection of their nerdiest friends, and a big table. Let’s break it down; hopefully I roll a critical hit on my persuasion check.
When you’re DMing, you’re constantly multi-tasking between planning where your party is heading next, building the next encounter, and listening & responding to their current interactions. Information is coming through a firehose. You have to know what to dismiss and what to catalog and use later down the road. You are constantly reading the room, gauging the mood, and knowing when to push the group forward or stop to catch their breath. Like a DM, a facilitator can’t be an all-knowing omniscient presence - it’s good to rely on other players (or co-facilitators) to help fill in gaps and assist with the rules and documentation of the engagement.
“Spotlighting” Individuals That Feel Left Out
Like a sprint group, adventure parties come in all sizes and with varying personalities. Some people have a lot they can contribute to the group but are less comfortable standing out from the crowd. As a facilitator, it’s important to spotlight these individuals and give them an opportunity to speak and share in a comfortable environment. This will ensure everyone can properly contribute and balance the perspectives of the room. Ask these individuals questions directly and provide them encouraging feedback when they respond. Ensure that the feedback within the group is constructive to motivate them to contribute further.
Toning Down the “Hero”
Similarly, you may often find that you have a “hero” in the party, someone that does most of the talking and has firm opinions on where the party should go. While they can be highly intelligent and charismatic leaders, they can also intimidate others in the group and discourage them from openly participating. It’s important that their specific goals do not force the group down a path they’re uncomfortable with. As the facilitator, it’s your role to ensure they don’t dominate the conversation. This can be done by time blocking each team member an opportunity to speak and giving everyone equal time to share and contribute. Break decisioning down to equally distributed heat map voting so everyone gets a say on how to move forward.
Being a DM requires a careful balance between preparation and letting the story unfold organically. Every DM has the heartbreaking story of mapping out a perfect session with a detailed setting and storyline, only to see it torn to pieces when the party takes the wrong fork in the road. Similarly, solutions in a Design Sprint can follow many different paths: it’s a major reason why we explore them, and why we include them so early in the process. Preparation is important to ensure a smooth and successful day, but as a facilitator it is good to leave your assumptions at the door and let the group organically solve the problem. Trust the process. Responding to change is a core skill. As a facilitator it is your goal to ensure the group doesn’t stray from the problem statement and off into the woods, but still explores that problem statement from fresh, unique perspectives. Embrace the unknown and see where the story takes you, it often lands you somewhere pretty exciting.
As a DM, you are often taking on the persona of the feisty gnome shopkeeper, roguish con artist, or stubborn paladin. To effectively become the character, you need to fully empathize with their problems, strengths, and shortcomings. Similarly, a facilitator, or any product designer for that matter, needs to deeply understand the personas of their users. A good DM is a confident presence in the room that eases the minds of the participants - this person seems to really know what they’re doing. DMs and facilitators alike can often admit that running the show is stressful and a lot is on their shoulders. However, taking a deep breath and carrying yourself with poise, even with a bit of imposter syndrome, can go a long way to ensure the group feels good about their experience and that their time is being well spent.
Tension hangs in the air as the party faces the mighty foe before them. The hour is desperate, and with a final swing of the battle axe the bruised and beaten adventurers… have to wait until next week to discover their fate - they need to go home and tuck their kids into bed. It’s difficult to properly time box a session, especially when the output of the day is so organically created. Ending a session at an awkward point, with unanswered questions, totally sucks for both DMs and Sprint facilitators alike. Continuity and pacing is key to keep momentum going throughout the week. It’s important to ensure that you establish with your group the critical items that you absolutely must take away from the session. Be mindful of this throughout the day and take a firm stance on moving on if you have to. It’s a careful balance of keeping things moving while still ensuring everybody’s heard, not rushed, and not forced in a particular direction.
While I personally get a thrill from taking a magical romp through alternate planes of existence, I totally get it if that’s not your thing. In the end, any hobby that challenges you to assume the role of group facilitator will translate well to running design sprints. Host a trivia night at a local bar. Run the draft at your fantasy baseball league. Coordinate a brilliant heist at your local bank. The world is your oyster. Just be sure to give D&D a shot at some point: on the outside I know it looks awkward and nerdy, but on the inside it is awkward, nerdy, and most often an absolute blast.
Illustration credit: Jason Thompson via media.wizards.com.