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Navigating the Liminal Space: Design Sprints as a Futurist's Tool

Have you ever wondered why people pay attention to futures thinking after it's too late?


Perhaps you've encountered a leader who remained passive despite the futures intelligence you provided or observed a project that gradually faded away. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark example of how minimal anticipation most organizations have for the future. Human instincts help us react quickly to imminent dangers. But, dealing with far-off threats such as climate change takes more effort and learning. When humans don't perceive the future as being proximate or probable, they are less likely to prepare for it in the present moment. This intrinsic trait creates a barrier to organizational futures preparedness.


Even most innovative companies aren't immune to this behavior. The LEGO Agency would've faced an unfavorable future had it not decided to take anticipatory action to steer its future direction before it was too late. By experiencing, iterating, and engaging with the future using The Design Sprint Process, The LEGO Agency, LEGO’s internal creative agency, became aware of, and prepared for, what was to come, even on the operational level.



The Story Behind the Sprint


An Overview of The Sprint Process. Source: Sprint


At its core, the design sprint is a process for timed and structured decision-making. It serves as a tool that visualizes knowledge, making collaboration and strategic validation more efficient. In 2007, Jake Knapp, a designer at Google, realized that the brainstorming sessions he facilitated lacked efficacy. He found that time constraints often led to his best work, preventing overthinking. He also noted that the most impactful ideas often emerged individually and that having key stakeholders present accelerated progress. These insights birthed the design sprint, blending elements from business strategy, innovation, behavioral science, and design. Those interested in a step-by-step guide can refer to his book, The Sprint.



The Pain of The Groan Zone


Jake's insight into this energetic stagnation resonates with the concept of the Groan Zone. As described in the Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, it is a phase marked by confusion and frustration as individuals grapple with current realities and potential futures. This discomfort intensifies as individuals transition from personal perceptions to collective understanding. It becomes significantly pronounced (hence, the description, Groan Zone) when individuals or organizations move from their internal world (what they believe about a particular future) to a shared perspective (the collective beliefs about that future).


Adaptation of Kaner's Diamond Model of Participation. Source: Carrie Kappel


This human behavior mirrors many aspects of my past experiences as an architect. This zone starkly corresponds with the liminal space in architectural planning. Stewart Hicks, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in his video essay, describes it as one that is familiar but new in the sense that new things can emerge but aren't quite there yet. It is a no place, not entirely internal like a room in a house or external like a classroom or an office. It lacks boundaries, and this shapeless nature and absence of points of reference makes many people uncomfortable. The ambiguity of this space is much like the one faced after thinking about the future but not being there yet. Many questions, thoughts, assumptions, and ideas that are airy and elusive. They float, waiting to be addressed, or quickly disappear.



Moving Through the Three Zones. Source: Author, Pinterest


You might be wondering, what does the design sprint have to do with this? And how is it linked to foresight?


A design sprint can serve as a spaceship, enabling organizations and teams to navigate through the liminal space between conceptualizing future scenarios and steering toward a preferred direction. Its principles are rooted in diverse stakeholder engagement, consensus-building, direction visualization, prototyping, and learning — all essential for navigating complexity.



Why should you care as a futurist?


In my opinion, I think a significant aspect of the foresight process is to navigate and manage the transition period a practitioner encounters with clients. Most of the time, things don't just end at the moment we deliver a report or a presentation. The shock, disbelief, confusion, or even lostness that arise with these deliverables or client interactions are sometimes external -- you can see it. Other times, it is invisible, hidden like an internal space of a house behind walls, windows, or doors. When this energy can't transmit through this liminal space, the momentum is lost. Therefore, many futurists resort to alternative methods to facilitate that motion transition, such as Maggie Greyson, and Pupul Bisht.



Modeling the Future for Better Understanding


During my architectural tenure, I relied on models to prototype and validate project directions. Physical or digital representations effectively communicated potential outcomes to clients. These models illuminated my client's assumptions about the planned space, as well as mine. The client is also learning about this future space as I walk them through the model, sharing their thoughts, hopes and dreams.


The sprint provides a tangible, structured space for mutual understanding, guiding both client and futurist from internal perceptions through the liminal zone to actionable steps towards the desired future. The time constraint of the sprint forces the client to bring those questions forward, and the nature of the process allows for a diversity of thought, individual participation, and focused ideation that then is voted into an idea to test.


 

Heba Al-Hadyian, an APF Emerging Fellow 2023-2025, partners with international public and private organizations to identify opportunities, solve problems, and co-create new ideas. She leverages an integrated approach of foresight and design to contextualize emergent issues, spark conversations, and harness participatory decision-making.




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