This is a magical workshop exercise that you can use for basically anything, with any amount of people. Seriously.
We’ve run this exercise to help the UN World Food Program to make decisions on how to increase donations; we’ve run it for C-level executives at Lego on new strategic initiatives; we’ve run it on ourselves at AJ&Smart to come up with new ways to engage our clients.
The Lightning Design Jam is an incredibly flexible combination of activities, taking the best of the world’s problem-solving processes (Design thinking, gamestorming, Design Sprints, and Agile, to name a few) and crushing them down to their absolute essence.
When I first wrote about this exercise back in early 2017, I had no idea that it would explode as it did—that companies all over the world that I love and respect would completely change what they thought about meetings because of this approach.
So, by popular, demand, meet the new and improved LDJ (including video!)
Why lightning design jams?
Creative problem solving and clear decision-making are what separates good designers and managers from the best; the problem with anything that requires creative and critical thinking, however, is that it’s easy to get lost, lose focus, and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions.
Projects stall, teams lose momentum, and everything goes over-budget, causing many products and services to be released late and full of compromises, all because the team is so fatigued from working on endless, unprioritized problems.
Replace all open, unstructured discussion with clear process.
At first, this might feel weird, but the only way you’re going to see the results of this is to try it for yourself. The freedom of open discussion might seem conducive to creativity, or more informed decision-making, but when it comes to effectiveness and clarity, it’s the enemy. Structure and discipline create the freedom needed to be creative.
Running your own LDJ
What to use this exercise for:
Anything that requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problem,s or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, such as:
- The conversion flow of our checkout
- Our internal design process
- Improving our office environment
- How we organize events
- Improving sales flow
- Tactics for the next sales push
Supplies you’ll need:
- Rectangular sticky notes
- Square sticky notes (2 different colors)
- Sticky dots, 2 different colors
- Sharpies or whiteboard markers (has to be a fat marker, so that participants are forced to write short notes)
- A timer
Ideal group size
To make this exercise worthwhile you’ll need a range of input and opinions, but you don’t want so many people that the logistics of running the exercise get difficult. You can technically run the LDJ with just 2 people, although we usually recommend a minimum of 3—the ideal size is 4-6 people, and the maximum is 8 (more than this and the whiteboard gets crowded and the sticky notes become hard to keep track of). More than 8 people means you’ll need to work in groups.
Total time needed
The times we’ve suggested in the exercise are more of a guideline and may only be relevant to the first time you run through it. The exercise itself usually takes between 30–45 mins. For larger groups (or tackling multiple problems) all the steps can take up to 1.5 hours.
Choose a moderator
You absolutely need to select someone on the team to take the role of the moderator; they can join in on the process, but they must focus on making sure discussions don’t break out, as well as keeping time.
- Start with things that are working
- Capture all the problems
- Prioritize problems
- Reframe the problems as standardized challenges
- Ideate without discussion
- Prioritise solutions
- Decide what to execute on
- Make solutions actionable
Step 1: Start with things that are working
Materials: Square sticky notes and markers
Start by drawing a sailboat on a whiteboard with a water line halfway down, a billowing sail, and an anchor that hangs down below the water.
The top half (the wind in the sail) represents things that are moving us forward or working well, and the bottom half (the anchor) represents things that are holding us back or not going well. Make sure there’s enough space for a good number of sticky notes in each half.
The first step is for everybody in the team to sit at a table and, without talking, spend four minutes writing all the things that are working well with the topic. These can really be anything from “we all get along well as a team,” to “the quality of our designs lately has been really high.”
People should write one note per sticky note and pile them up in front of them as they’re writing.
Encourage the team to try and write as many as possible. After four minutes, the moderator will select one person at a time to stand up at the sailboat and very quickly explain each sticky note as they stick them in the top half.
Nobody else on the team is allowed to speak here unless they don’t understand something on a sticky note, with 1-2 minutes given to each presenter. Only allow questions to clarify the content of a sticky note.
You won’t actually end up using these sticky notes going forward, but it’s really important to start with the positives for two reasons:
- Thinking about the positive things first makes it easier to find corresponding negatives/problems in the next step.
- If the group starts with negatives immediately, the atmosphere can quickly turn to criticism and complaining, instead of problem-solving.
Step 2: Capture all the problems
Materials: Square sticky notes (same color) and markers
This round, the team will spend four minutes in silence writing all the challenges, annoyances, mistakes or concerns with the topic: anything ranging from “I don’t feel like we’re making progress” to “I feel like project X is getting more attention than my project.”
Encourage the team to try and write down as many problems as possible. Our experiences show that the most important problems arise quickly.
This time, the team does not read out their sticky notes; instead, when the four minutes are up, the moderator tells everyone to stand up at the same time and put all their sticky notes in the bottom half of the sailboat. This should take just about one minute.
The reason this is done without explanation is to avoid any personal criticisms. Let the sticky notes speak for themselves.
Step 3: Prioritize problems
Materials: Sticky dots
The moderator gives each member 3 sticky dots, and everybody must now vote on the challenges they consider to be the most urgent to solve, without discussion. People can vote on their own sticky notes and can put more than one dot on a challenge if they feel strongly about it.
Once the three minutes are up, the moderator quickly takes the voted problems and arranges them in order of priority.
Step 4: Reframe problems as standardized challenges
Materials: Rectangular sticky notes and markers
Now, the moderator is going to rewrite the top-voted problem in the form of a challenge to help bring out solutions from all team members.
Let’s look at an example: The top-voted sticky note here says, “I have no idea what’s happening on project x”.
Because many people have voted on it, we can see it’s clearly an issue many people are having. Rephrasing the sticky note in a “How Might We” (HMW) format allows us to make it solvable and standardize the way the challenges are written.
Here’s how that problem might be re-written into a more general challenge:
Step 5: Ideate without discussions
Materials: Square sticky notes (the other color) and markers
Now, each team member is given five minutes to write multiple solutions (1 per sticky note) for the HMW—in silence.
It’s important for the moderator to tell the team members here that we’re aiming for quantity over quality—we’ll keep curating for later steps. Solutions don’t have to be written in any particular way, but they must be understandable to people reading. There is no individual presenting of solutions, as this creates a bias towards the best presenters.
Once the 5 minutes are up, everybody sticks their ideas on the surface (wall, whiteboard, whatever) as fast as possible, ideally within one minute.
Step 6: Prioritize solutions
Materials: Sticky dots and rectangular sticky notes
This step starts with another round of voting. The moderator now gives each team member six dots and four minutes to vote on the solutions they think would best solve the HMW.
Just like we did with the problems, the moderator now makes a prioritized list of solutions, ignoring anything with just one vote.
You will now have something that looks like this:
Step 7: Decide what to act on
Materials:Whiteboard (or surface to draw the Effort/Impact Scale) and markers
Now that you have a list of solutions that should solve the most important problem/s, it’s important to know how much effort is required to execute the solutions.
Here we use a simple effort/impact scale to determine which solutions are simple enough to try right away, which are more effort and should be added to a project backlog, and which perhaps shouldn’t be addressed at all.
The moderator needs to be very proactive at this step, as it is the only one that has a tendency to open up discussion. The moderator will now take each solution one by one and add them to the effort/impact scale.
“Effort” is how much time and energy we think it will take to implement, and “impact” is the degree to which we think it would solve our problem.
So here’s what the moderator needs to do:
- Draw the Effort/Impact scale;
- Start with Impact:
- Take the top-voted solution sticky note
- Hover it over the center of the Effort/Impact scale
- Ask “is the impact higher or lower?”
- The moderator should then move the sticky note up or down the Impact axis until the team members stop saying higher or lower. Often small discussions break out here, so the moderator has to be diligent in finding a consensus and stopping any conversations extending past 20 seconds.
- Once the impact has been determined, the moderator uses the same method for effort: asking if the effort is higher or lower.
- This time the moderator moves the sticky note left or right until the group stops saying higher or lower.
- Repeat the process for the other top-voted solutions
Once the top-voted sticky notes have been added to the scale, you’ll have something that looks like this:
Now you have a clear overview of which high-impact solutions can be tested very quickly (in the yellow sweet spot on the top left), and which high-impact solutions will take more effort (top right). The moderator should now quickly mark all sticky notes in the sweet spot with a contrasting dot so we can identify them later.
When we were at the LEGO office running a series of these LDJ workshops, we saw that they were using a simple way of categorizing each of the four quadrants. They use these definitions to decide how and when to action all those top ideas:
Step 8: Make solutions actionable
The moderator now takes the “sweet spot” solutions from the Effort/Impact scale and asks the team to come up with three actionable steps toward testing them.
A good guiding principle is that the action steps to test out the idea should be able to be completed in a timeframe of 1-2 weeks.
Remember, these actions steps shouldn’t outline the entire solution—only a small version of an initial test to validate if the idea will work.
Don’t overthink it. The first step should be the most frictionless step, which can be done immediately and will motivate the team to get started.
Don’t get discouraged if the solution doesn’t work after a couple of weeks: not all solutions will solve all problems. This exercise is made to get the team used to solving problems and trying out approaches without overthinking or over-discussing.
Let’s look at one example:
Once all these solutions are written up, your team will have actionable tasks that can be committed to.
As for the solutions that didn’t make it into the “sweet spot,” you can put all the higher-effort solutions (from the top-right quadrant) into your backlog so they don’t get forgotten. What you might see happening is that the sweet spot actions actually end up solving problems in a way that the higher effort solutions become obsolete!
Structure and discipline create freedom
That’s it! In a short amount of time, your team has defined important challenges, identified possible solutions and prioritized what to execute on almost entirely without discussion!
We use this principle of eliminating open discussion in almost everything we do at AJ&Smart. From designing new product features to planning events or improving our office space.
As we mentioned before, creative problem solving is the core of design, so give it the respect it deserves and cut out the wasteful, demoralizing, fatigue-inducing discussion.
Jonathan Courtney is a Founding Partner of AJ&Smart, a digital product design studio in Berlin, Germany. He helps companies and organizations like the United Nations, Lufthansa, eBay, and many others create better products faster. He also has a strange and frightening passion for actor Pierce Brosnan.