Stress is Dead, Long Live the Time Pressure!

It is quite common to find a job as a result of your internship. Less often it happens that a student is offered a job as a result of data collection for an MA thesis. This is exactly what happened to KADRI HANSSON, a UI/UX designer and fresh Master of Business Administration from Estonian Business School. She defended her thesis on 5th June 2020 with excellent results. And the job that was offered to her is to facilitate Design Sprints that were in the first place, her research object.  She claims to be more aware of the triggers of Flow now and understands how to make teams work better and achieve more, after having successfully defended her research. Even though, her MA thesis interlinked Teamwork, Team Flow and Design Sprints, our current interview tackles mainly Team Flow during Design Sprints.

Q – To start with, please introduce yourself and tell us what led you to study Flow in the first place?

A – Well, my background is mainly in design and sales. I did my BA degree in Manchester where I studied product design for 4 years. After returning to Estonia, I started working as a graphic designer in a small music agency and also started my MA studies at Estonian Business School. Then, during my studies, I joined an American student internship program and stayed with them for 4 years. As part of the program, we were sent to the US every summer for 3 months to sell educational materials door to door. The experience was definitely tough but taught me a lot about sales, what makes people work well together, and how to coach individuals and aim for greater productivity and results. In the US we always worked in groups of 7-12 people and I noticed that some groups did really well while others did not. As time passed and my working life got busier, I decided to quit the job I had at the music agency and set up my own design company Hansson Design so I could freelance. So far, it has been going really well and I’m hoping to be able to invite a few more people to join the company this year!

I was first introduced to Flow about 4 years ago during one of our quarterly sales training for a US company – and I was just fascinated by it! When my supervisor suggested using the Flow theory as one of the theories to frame my MA thesis, which aimed to investigate efficient teamwork, I immediately felt that it would be an interesting area to study. I knew the feeling of Flow very well. I had personally experienced it myself both while doing sales and design. When I started researching the topic, I learned about Team Flow, and then made the connection to Design Sprints. What is interesting is that when my sales and design work led me to research Flow for my MA studies, the MA research has led me to a number of interesting work opportunities. So, I feel like everything really has come full circle. 

Q – Your MA thesis looks at the interrelations between teamwork, Team Flow, and Design Sprint. No need to explain the essence of the first two but let’s focus on the latter one. How does a Design Sprint work and what makes it special?

A – Design Sprint is basically a workshop lasting between 3 to 5 days that helps companies evaluate their products, services, or operational processes by using a variety of methods such as design thinking, rapid prototyping, and user-testing. The method has many adaptions now, but it was first developed by Jake Knapp during the time he was working at Google Ventures. I think what has caused the method to become so popular over the years is its structure – it is simple to follow and forces participants to make rapid progress and move otherwise abstract ideas into action really fast. It keeps teams focused on what is actually important, encourages prompt decision-making and follow-ups, and is very adaptable. For example, because of COVID-19, the last Design Sprint that I participated in took place online. To explain how it works, let me describe one of the activities a little. For example, one of the tasks that teams are given during the Design Sprint is to write down a 2-year goal for their company, service, or product in 10 minutes. To achieve this in such a limited time, participants are forced to be exceptionally focused. Then, once everyone has written down their version of the 2-year goal, the best concept is chosen by silent voting – by adding little red stickers to the idea that each participant personally believes to be the most suitable. As a result, nobody is in the position to sell their ideas, which means that truly the best idea wins, not the one whose creator is the most vocal.  Therefore, the method also works well for introverts.

Also, it is not just the instant Flow magic that happens as a result of this intensely focused work, but I’ve noticed that in bigger organizations, Design Sprints in a way also connect different departments that normally don’t work together that closely.

As a participant of a Design Sprint, you learn about the problems that other departments have been regarding the issue deal with from a different perspective – something that often can be difficult to do because of insufficient insight. Thus, you may say that Design Sprints have a short-term impact on team dynamics, but a long-term impact on the organization itself and its employees.

Q – Most people have heard about Design Thinking, but not much about the Design Sprint. If and how they are related?

A – Design Sprint and Design Thinking are closely related. Design Sprints use Design Thinking methods to solve problems. Since I work as a designer on a daily basis using design thinking is a common practice for me. However, it was during Design Sprints when I realized that using such practices of thinking was very difficult for some people, especially for the very practical and analytical types, who immediately started to solve every little problem and could not get comfortable with the uncertainty of creative processes and unknown solutions. During Design Sprints and creative problem solving, participants must let go of fear and old thought patterns and trust the system. During my research, I noticed that people who had never used design thinking methods before could often not understand that it was actually possible not to look for a solution straight away but focus on the process itself – and the right solution would then follow.

Q – You mentioned earlier that you have yourself experienced Flow during sales and when designing. Were there any differences between the two experiences?

A – These experiences actually differed quite a bit. While sales is a very vocal and social area of work, the design process for me is usually the opposite. When I’m designing, it is mostly just me – I sit at the table and work quietly. I am very focused on the project, so much that I do not notice the time passing, people around me, or the surrounding noise. I’d say that the focus is more internal. This is the time when I feel that I’m the most productive and when my mind is open to new innovative ideas. 
However, as I said, experiencing Flow during sales felt a little bit different.

For me, being in the Flow while selling felt like snowboarding in fresh powder during a sunny day – I was kind of floating the whole day, and it felt incredible.

Everything just seemed to go really well, everybody was buying and it really felt like there was no mountain too high. On days like that, I did not feel any sales pressure and the time seemed to pass very quickly. I was just having fun with people, which of course affected the mood of my prospects as well and caused a positive ripple effect as a result. On the other hand, when I was not in Flow, it was harder to find people who would buy from me even though I put the same effort in, if not more. Any issue seemed bigger than it was, and the time passed painfully slowly. When I compare the sales Flow to experiencing Flow during design work, where my focus is usually pinned to the design project at hand. When I was selling the focus was always on other people and their needs not on my own agenda.  I was very social and attentive the whole day as opposed to introverted.

Q – Before asking you about the results of your study, why do you not tell us about the methodology of your research?

A – Well, I first interviewed three Design Sprint facilitators to gain a better understanding of the overall Design Sprint process and their roles as facilitators. Then, I spoke to two different teams of three – altogether six people who had participated in Design Sprints within the last six months. From there, I gained a better understanding of what it took to participate in a Design Sprint and what the participants felt during the process. Lastly, I also participated in three Design Sprints myself as a self-participatory observer. It was very important to gain perspective from all sides who were involved with Design Sprints to gain a holistic overview of the process. The foundation of my data collection was a “summarizing table of thirty Flow components” that I had created myself based on my theoretical research – all my interviews and observations were based on those elements as it was important for me to understand how these factors affected the participants of Design Sprints.

Q – What are the main findings of your research and was there anything that literally surprised you?

A – In my MA thesis, I researched the Flow components which affect teamwork during Design Sprints. I realized that there are many different aspects that affect teamwork, and if used correctly, these factors can positively influence the outcome of any Design Sprint. One of the key findings of the thesis was that time pressure can definitely have a positive impact on work focus and group Flow. Setting shorter deadlines could, therefore, have a huge impact on the productivity of any team. The study also suggests that facilitators play a huge role in the outcome of Design Sprints. All the facilitators I interviewed seemed to think that prior knowledge about a specific field was not necessary, yet my observations showed the opposite – when not experienced, facilitators´ incapability to step in and guide participants could negatively affect the outcome of the process.  There were a number of other really interesting findings, but maybe one of the most interesting for me personally was the one regarding productivity. Usually, when people talk about productivity, what they mean is that one should work either quicker or accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously.

My research shows that it is actually the delays which are cause a lot of productivity issues and as a result kill Flow and creativity.

Flow was lost when people had to wait around – for example when they did not have the right equipment, when some team members were late, or when their progress depended very closely on someone´s progress. Therefore, the most important finding for myself is that as Design Sprints do not have any delays, this may positively contribute to Team Flow.

Q – In your MA thesis, you claim that the success of Design Sprint is not guaranteed and its success and failure always depend on more than just one specific factor?

A – True, my thesis showed that there are a number of aspects that contribute to successful team dynamics and Flow during Design Sprints. For example, moderating a Design Sprint is really challenging for the facilitator and a lot depends on their proficiency and skill. Choosing the right participants is also essential. For instance, I witnessed the loss of Flow during two of my observations. In both cases, it was mostly because of a single participant who was unable to let go of the professional hierarchy of the company and their daily structure of work. Both participants were in managerial roles and not interested in listening to the opinions of other team members. In one of these cases, the manager sat throughout the whole Design Sprint with crossed hands/shoulders (closed body language), frowning, and constantly disagreeing with what others were saying… In spite of the facilitator’s instructions not to criticize anyone’s ideas. This created a tense environment and put both the team and the facilitator into a difficult position. The facilitator could not kick the negative manager out as he had a lot of knowledge about the product that was being developed during the Design Sprint. The manager was also in the product owner´s role – which means that he had the final say in whether the concept goes into development or not. The whole team suffered because of his negativity. His responses blocked others, which not only killed teamwork but also the Flow. Whatever idea was suggested by other team members, the idea of the manager was chosen in the end as he just did not agree with anything else. As a result, his team members participated in conversations less and less. Nevertheless, even though the manager’s actions definitely had a negative impact on teamwork and the outcome of the Design Sprint, there were a number of other factors that led this Design Sprint to failure. Usually, there is a precondition for the Design Sprint that people need to represent different fields and fill different tasks in their everyday roles. Thus, cross-functional teams are believed to work the best in such team effort situations. In that particular team, all team members were familiar with each other prior to the sprint as they worked together on a daily basis, which seemed to cause them to argue more. As a result of knowing each other “too well”, there was less respect around – some team members started intervening others and being unnecessarily rude as they felt free to do so, which again usually is not the case when people do not know each other that well.

Q – COVID-19 obviously affected your graduation as your diploma was sent to you by courier, what about your research – did Corona affect that as well?

A – To my surprise, it did not affect me at all. I learned that Design Sprints can be efficiently run online as well. As I already mentioned, I did have the opportunity to participate in a virtual Design Sprint myself as part of my last observation for the thesis. It was very interesting to see how quickly facilitators adapted to this new situation. Content-wise, our virtual Design Sprint was the same as a normal Design Sprint would have been, but format-wise even more intense – instead of the usual 6 hours, the days were 4 hours long. And of course, participants were not physically together but we used a virtual workspace, Miro. It worked out very well. Design Sprints are intense anyway, but these 4 hours online were extraordinarily intense.

Metaphorically said, it felt like we were asked to focus and look through the hole of a sewing needle for hours.

Thus, 6 months of development work is squeezed into 4-5 days. On most days we finished already around 1 PM but I was truly exhausted afterward. The role of the facilitator was also more important than ever as they had to restrict which activities teams had time for and figure out ways to maintain their focus. Nevertheless, when the team worked together, all problems were solved, and by the end of the Design Sprint, everybody understood how the process worked. Nobody was suspicious about design thinking anymore, and hopefully, their own daily patterns of thinking were challenged a little bit too as a result.

Interview prepared by Marge Sassi, Flow Enthusiast, and FLIGBY lecturer at Estonian Business School.

Afterword and comment

by Dr. Zoltan Buzady, Academic Director at the Leadership & Flow Research Network

Dear Reader, please, feel free to contact Kadri Hansson on LinkedIn, if you have any questions or further queries about the research. At this stage I also would like to share with you some background to my professional academic development: Back in 2014, I had pioneered in creating the first-ever Design Thinking course in the wider Central European region, which was held jointly with the world-famous Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME). During that period I had decided not to use coursebooks anymore, but rather thematic collections of constantly updated Collections and Playlists. In the first round, now, let me share with you:

Marge and Kadri reported about #Productivity, #Stress, and #Time-pressured Decision-making, which is also one of the 29 Leadership Skills measured and developed by FLIGBY.

Time-pressured decision-making – Decision-making under time pressure is a readiness that enables effective decision-making when limited time and inadequate information is available. This is the skill to decide authoritatively and to be consistent with one’s decisions.

From Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s Official Definition of 29 Leadership Skills in FLIGBY

I have collected the most important earlier Blog entries related to these themes for you here:

Best wishes, and please follow-us regularly,
Dr. Zoltan Buzady