Using improv in design sprints to build more creative and collaborative teams

Playing a game at Google SprintCon

Earlier this month, I led a workshop on using improv games in design sprints at the third annual SprintCon at the Google campus in Boulder, CO.

SprintCon is a delightfully small and smart gathering that brings together leaders and practitioners from the fields of design thinking and innovation to share knowledge and best practices around facilitating design sprints and leading change inside organizations.

In this post, I recap what I covered in my workshop at SprintCon, introduce the concept of improv as a tool for collaboration, and demonstrate why and how it should be in the toolkit of every design sprinter and design thinker.

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What are design sprints?

A design sprint is a methodology and process for solving complex problems through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas with users. Design sprints are time-boxed, collaborative efforts that combine methods and best practices from design thinking, business strategy, and innovation management to quickly align teams around a shared vision and clearly defined deliverables.

Originally developed at GV, a spin-off of Google, the process was codified in the Sprint book published by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, and has since been expanded and refined upon by teams at Google and other organizations, such as Design Sprint Academy.

What is improv?

Improv, short for improvisation, is a form of theater in which the performances are unplanned and unscripted, created spontaneously and collaboratively by the performers in real-time.

When you hear the term improv, you may think of stand-up comedy, but the type of improv that I practice, which was pioneered at Bay Area Theater Sports, or BATS, is a blend of theatre, comedy, and acting that has been described as “radical cooperation in action.” This type of improv is all about the cohesion and energy of the improvisors as they work together. The essential principals are:

  • Build on each others’ ideas (also known as “yes, and“)
  • Be present
  • Slow down and actively listen
  • See mistakes as opportunities
  • Make your partner look good

Why improv in design sprints?

This “radical cooperation in action” is an incredibly powerful tool for building productive, creative, and collaborative teams.

Whether you work for a large, established institution or a scrappy start-up, it’s likely that you and your colleagues are expected to adapt, communicate, and collaborate, and improv gives you the skills to do this.

Sketch notes from the session.
Many thanks to Deb Aoki for capturing notes during the workshop at SprintCon. You can follow Deb’s work on Twitter and Instagram.

The Cards

Improv games for sprints card deck
The cards explain when to use each game, how much time you’ll need, the ideal group size, and how to debrief the game.

In my session at SprintCon, I shared a deck of method cards I created. This set of 15 cards introduces different improv games, and maps out how the games align to the phases of the design sprint process and the design thinking framework.

It’s important to note that I refer to these as games, not “ice breakers,” as they are so much more than that. These games help people flex muscles that are needed at different phases of a sprint, build critical skills necessary to running successful sprints, and highlight important mindsets essential for creativity and innovation.

The games require some basic familiarity with design sprints as practiced at Google and/or the Sprint book, design thinking as it’s taught at the Stanford d.school, or human-centered design methods from the LUMA System of Innovation. (Need help running a design sprint? Contact Us)

Order a deck of the cards for your team!

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The Games

Below is a sampling of some of the games, and you can order a full set of the method cards with all of the games here.

Playing games at SprintCon
Playing improv games at Google SprintCon.

“Last Letter First Letter”

Why play it?
Strengthen active listening skills by listening to a speaker’s full sentence before crafting a response.

Phases it maps to:
Design Sprint: Understand
Design Thinking: Empathize

Time:
5-10 minutes

Use before:
User interviews
Stakeholder interviews
Contextual inquiry

Group size:
Any, but done in pairs

How to:

  • Everyone gets a partner. Decide who will be the interviewer and interviewee.
  • Suggest a simple topic, such as, “The best trip you ever took.”
  • The interviewer asks the first question. Example: “Tell me about your best trip.”
  • Because the last letter of “trip” is “p,” the interviewee’s response must begin with a word that starts with “p.” For example, “Paris. That was the best ever!”
  • The interviewer must now ask the next question starting with the letter “r.” Example: “Really? Tell me more.”
  • And so on.
  • Remember: the first letter of the first word you say must start with the last letter of the last word the other person just said.
  • Let it run about 2 minutes.

Debrief Questions:

  • How did your interviews go?
  • What did you notice?
  • What was it like to listen to your partner’s full sentence before coming up with your response?
  • What does that tell us about how we usually listen and respond?
  • What could you apply from this when doing interviews with users?

“Word-at-a-Time Email”

Why play it?
Co-create a future desired state with a colleague, and embrace uncertainty along the way.

Phases it maps to:
Design Sprint: Define
Design Thinking: Define

Time:
5-10 minutes

Use before:
Kicking off define phase
Business model canvas
Future press release
Point of view statement

Group size:
Any, but done in pairs

How to:

  • Everyone gets a partner. Partners sit or stand facing each other.
  • Imagine that you have just successfully launched your new program/product, and your organization has just received a happy email from a customer.
  • Together, compose the email by taking turns saying one word at a time.
  • Start off with “Dear” as the first word.
  • Don’t say more than one word when it is your turn.
  • Consider words such as “so,” “because,” and “therefore” in order to move the narrative forward.
  • Don’t try to control the conversation; it is an equal give and take.
  • Let the exchange run for about a minute.
  • Conclude it with “Sincerely” and a fictional name.

Debrief questions:

  • What was it like to only say one word at a time?
  • Did you ever find yourself wanting to direct or control the story?
  • Did your partner surprise you with any words?
  • Did your partner say a word that you were thinking of? How did that feel?
  • What did you learn from this?
  • How might you apply what you learned or observed to our sprint?

“It’s a [blank]”

Why play it?
Practice seeing everyday objects in a “new light” as a way to enter a divergent, generative mindset.

Phases it maps to:
Design Sprint: Sketch
Design Thinking: Ideate

Time:
5-10 minutes

Use before:
Comparable problem
Crazy 8s
Analogous inspiration
Other ideation methods

Group size:
Any size up to ~30

How to:

  • Bring a random, everyday object to the sprint. Examples: a stick, a rock, a box.
  • 
Move to an open area of the room without tables or chairs. Everyone stands in a circle.
  • Someone starts by taking the object and saying, “It’s a _____.”
Don’t say what it literally is; let the object inspire you to see something new.
  • For example, if the object is a stick, someone might say, “It’s a unicorn horn!” and hold it up to their head.
  • Someone else might then step into the circle, take the stick, and say, “It’s a conductor’s baton!” and move it in the air as if conducting an orchestra.
  • Encourage people to jump in and take the object, before they have an idea in mind.
  • Go for speed. Don’t worry about being “right,” clever, or funny.
  • 
Everyone should get at least two opportunities to hold and name the object.

Debrief questions:

  • What did you notice?
  • Did you find yourself holding back or drawing a blank?
  • What happened when you jumped into the circle without an idea in mind?
  • 
Did anyone else’s ideas inspire you to see something new?
  • Did it get easier or harder?
  • 
What can we take from this to the generative phases of our sprint?

Conclusion

The “radical cooperation in action” of improv is an incredibly powerful tool for building productive, creative, and collaborative teams.

By playing improv games in sprints, you can flex muscles that are needed at different phases, build critical skills necessary to running successful sprints, spark creativity, and empower your team members to be better, bolder design thinkers.

Try one of these games the next time you run a sprint or workshop, and let us know how it goes. And most importantly of all, have fun!

Want all of the games?
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