How to Run Amazing Remote Workshops, An Interview with Robert Skrobe, Owner of Dallas Design Sprints
You’ll start to see a theme around here: we’re BIG advocates for how the Design Sprint can be chopped up, changed, and re-formatted for any type of workshop to help people work better.
But there’s yet another surprising thing about the Design Sprint: it’s also possible to run Sprints remotely with a team spread all over the world and still get outstanding results.
We’ve known this was possible for a while, having run remote Sprints with clients in the past, but even we were surprised to hear how one member of our community was taking it to the next level by running a real, live remote Sprint with up to 300 people from all over the world!
The person in question was Robert Skrobe, Design Agency owner based in Dallas, who we met through our Design Sprint Masterclass community.
Not one to be constrained by time zones or physical location, ambitious Robert brings together hundreds of people multiple times throughout the year to collaborate on the world’s biggest remote Design Sprint.
We get questions constantly about how to make a remote workshop a success, but who better to answer these than the Remote Design Sprint aficionado himself. Take it away, Robert!
We’ve been following what you’re doing for a while, but for those who don’t know you – tell us a little about yourself!
Robert: I’m the owner of a company called Dallas Design Sprints. I specialize in Virtual Design Sprints, meaning I focus on working with distributed teams: everyone having their own screen instead of two or three people in a remote location and everyone else in the same room.
I got here because I sensed that the Design Sprint was a process that could go beyond the bounds of just a production process, that it had real potential in other areas of working. So I decided to pursue that as a business endeavor!
Tell us a little bit about your pre-Design Sprint background…
My professional background involves a lot of different disciplines. I used to be a User Researcher. I also used to be a developer. I was in User Experience for close to half a decade. I was a Usability Specialist and was part of the Usability Professionals Association.
I’ve had direct exposure to a lot of the roles that are needed for the Design Sprint. As such, I usually understand enough to be able to relate to and help clients with what they need to get done.
So as a facilitator and an organizer I tend to empathize with what they have to deal with, and what kind of information they need to have to empower them so that overall there’s less friction in the Design Sprint process for them.
I sensed that the Design Sprint was a process that could go beyond the bounds of just a production process, that it had real potential in other areas of working.
Facilitating Sprints is challenging and energy-consuming in person, so how do you manage facilitating remote collaboration?
It depends on the situation, but ironically I do like being able to meet the people I’m going to work with in person before the Sprint starts (often that’s not possible though!)
I’m very much about human relationships and I think they’re foundational to not only working together well, but understanding how other people perceive and understand how you communicate. If you can have that human touch ahead of time, usually your remote or virtual Design Sprints work very well.
If you don’t have that, then you need to come to the table knowing that everyone is not going to be at the same level as you are. Both from a technical standpoint and from a communications standpoint. You’re there to not only guide them but help them understand how they should best contribute.
In a remote setting you really are challenged in more demanding ways than you would be in a physical Design Sprint!
What are your biggest DON’Ts for running a successful remote workshop?
- DON’T assume that your software is going to work 100 percent all the time. That includes your internet connection.
- DON’T assume someone can grasp something that you’re very familiar with, like Mural or any other whiteboarding software. Understand that your role is to help and to teach. It takes a little bit of extra time but it really pays off.
- DON’T expect your Design Sprint to work exactly as you have planned. I have yet to encounter one where nothing went off-script. The best facilitators that I know tend to be pros at adjusting to their circumstances.
- DON’T make the Design Sprint all about you or your company. You have to understand that you are being paid (or being paid attention to) to help solve a problem or to address the pain that your client has. That should be your focus.
It won’t work if you’re concentrating just on the short-term economics and then washing your hands of it all. You really have to understand what your audience or client needs, and what kind of outcomes you are all working towards together.
I think a lot of people lose sight of that in the game of trying to get someone to pay for a Design Sprint and then just work through the motions. The way I see it, there has to be a foundational relationship of understanding if everything is going to work out for the best.
Do you find it’s harder to convince people to do virtual work than it is to do work in person?
I usually don’t try to convince anyone of whether or not a Virtual Design Sprint is better for them.
I want to be in a position where it’s a no-brainer that they should work with me, and that I’m the right person for their challenge. And I want to be sure of that too.
If I’m not the right person for the job then I’m going to either refer them to someone else that I know, or I’m going to tell them well in advance that I am not suited to this.
So for me, it’s more about making sure their situation works with a virtual environment. Do the advantages of doing a Virtual Design Sprint align with what their outcomes are? Is their culture a good fit? Does it make sense for both sides?
My ultimate goal is the success of my clients. I want to be able to put my name, my brand, and my reputation on the line for their desired outcome to happen. So I would never want to force the issue of virtual vs. in-person. I’m really about trying to bring value and figure out if I can make a difference.
How did you make the shift to running virtual workshops?
After I left my last place of employment, where I worked as a UX Manager, I took a snapshot of the landscape of where things were headed.
I heard a lot of conversations about how hard it was to do a physical Design Sprint. At the same time, I saw a lot of the friction involved with Sprints kind of fall away in a virtual, online environment.
So I predicted that this is the direction the industry would go in. One of the things that companies are always going to look for is less friction in the process. They often won’t want to fly people into New York, Japan, or Australia. They want flexibility. They want the ability to recall what happened easily. They want to be able to prove to their stakeholders that the investment that they made is worth something.
All of those determining factors made me think that selecting the virtual niche was the right move for me.
I also see people who have originally been skeptical about the idea of remote work, starting to warm up to the idea.
You don’t need to be in the same room at the same time. You just needed to deliver on the promise of the work. You need to collaborate and come to the table with an open mind, and then be able to step away from the monitor and do some deep work on your own as a Designer, Developer, or a Facilitator.
What are your top tips for facilitating remote workshop?
- Being open to the idea that there’s never one way of doing things right
- Quickly adapting to new technology that you’re not yet aware of and that other people are using
- Taking part in the conversations. Whether it’s a one-on-one talk with a fellow Sprinter or in groups like the AJ&Smart’s Design Sprint Masterclass Facebook community. It gets easier to optimize the processes when you hear about other people’s experiences.
Your top software for making remote workshops easier?
Mural, hands down the best whiteboarding software.
What’s the biggest remote project you’ve done?
It’s got to be the Global Virtual Design Sprint. It had 300+ people in April 2019!
I’m planning the new one for November and am going to have about the same number of participants. We’re going to be offering virtual Design Sprint training, showcasing customized templates for all sorts of Design Sprints, and much more!
What’s your one key facilitation tip?
The more you can prepare, the better off you’re going to be.
You have to prepare as much as you can. Not only for the flow of the entire Sprint itself but also for how to communicate and connect with those that are going to be part of the process. You have to align expectations beforehand.
You don’t need to be in the same room at the same time. You just needed to deliver on the promise of the work. You need to collaborate and come to the table with an open mind
If you could go back to the time when you were starting with Design Sprints, what’s one piece of advice you wish you’d heard sooner?
I should have shown and told people more about what I was learning as I was learning it. I shouldn’t have waited until an event occurred for me to promote and share with others what was going on. I should have been much more proactive about my process, the journey, and what I learned and why it was so special and important.
Learn more about Robert and the Global Virtual Design Sprint, and check out the Mural boards that were created as part of the initial virtual Sprint here! We dare you not to be inspired!