John Zeratsky

SPRINT, Make Time


He’s a writer, a speaker, a facilitator, and one of the original inventors of the SPRINT design process. Please join me in welcoming John Zeratsky to The Innovation Series, Welcome John! It’s very nice to meet you and thank you very much for your time.

Randy: I just had the pleasure of speaking with Jake Knapp a couple of months back. We didn’t get a chance to talk much about the book Make Time that the two of you wrote together. It's a really interesting perspective, but let’s be honest, there are quite a few self-help books out there on the market today. So what’s different about Make Time and why should someone give it a read?

John: Quite a few self-help books out there" — yeah, no kidding! Jake and I are huge nerds about this stuff, and we've read dozens of these books.

I could list off a bunch of reasons why our perspective is unique, but instead of doing that, I'm going to give you one big reason: Make Time is not a recipe; it's a cookbook.

Let me explain. Most self-help books basically say, "this is how you should do it." We've read lots of those books and done what they said. It's not that simple. And as designers, I think we're very human/customer/reader-centric in our approach. 

So the big thing that's different about Make Time, that people seem to really love, is that it gives you a bunch of different tactics to try. And these are not high-level suggestions. Our tactics are extremely concrete, we have personally tested all of them, and we continue to use most of them every single day.

And then we provide a framework for experimenting with these tactics and adjusting them to fit your lifestyle. We help people create their own system for making good use of time—we don't try to convince you that ours is the best.

 Randy: In doing my research for this interview, I ended up reading some reviews of the book (I know, I knew what I was in for...), but I did see an interesting theme start to emerge. More than one person that read the book characterized it as “good” as soon as they finished. However, they came back later and changed it to "great" once they had a chance to implement some of the suggestions. I thought that was really interesting. Based on the feedback you’ve received, what’s the single most important suggestion (besides reading the book) that you would give someone to help them make time in their daily life?

John: The Distraction-Free Phone, where you remove all Infinity Pool apps from your phone—literally uninstall them to cut off temptation at the source—is the splashy suggestion that gets a lot of attention.

But the single most important suggestion, something that people tell us months and years later has made a huge difference for them, is the practice of setting a daily Highlight.

It seems too simple to work. But taking a moment each day to ask yourself, "What do I want to be the Highlight of my day?" brings an enormous sense of clarity and purpose. I could go on and on about all the benefits and the reasons why it works. Maybe in a follow-up interview? :-)

But the direct answer to your question is: Write down your Highlight, and plan your day around it.

Randy: Alright, switching hats from author to speaker/ have worked with over 200 organizations in a variety of different capacities. I’ve heard you say that you leverage your background to help people make better use of their time at work and become happier, more engaged humans. I am a firm believer that taking care of your employees is a great way of taking care of your customers. What are some of the tools and techniques you suggest that have helped people become happier and more engaged?

John: My philosophy is that wellness, team building, development, etc are not these "other" things that exist separately from the work. I believe it's possible for leaders to invest in taking care of their employees by empowering them with better tools, processes, and frameworks for doing the work that matters. So, the ideas I share through my speaking and facilitating are based on that mindset.

I primarily help organizations adopt the Design Sprint process, which gives teams a recipe for starting important new projects, and the Make Time framework, which serves as a sort of "operating system" for everyday work and life. Both work by resetting the defaults of business as usual and giving people concrete ways to spend their time in ways that feel better and more focused.

Within these frameworks, there are a handful of specific techniques that people seem to love:

  • Time to work alone on creative projects
  • Focusing on one thing at a time
  • Structuring decisions to avoid endless debates and groupthink
  • Creating a "contact contract" so you don't have to monitor multiple inboxes 24/7
  • Balancing intense work sessions with genuinely restorative breaks (instead of operating in the mushy middle all the time)

Randy: Alright, let’s rewind to February 24, 2014. You wrote an article titled “Understanding Entrepreneurial Design” for the Wall Street Journal. In that piece, you said, “The best design work is multidisciplinary — with software, for example, product managers, engineers, and marketers collaborate with designers to figure out everything about their product”. I agree wholeheartedly, and drawing from my own experience would even add in a few more roles like customer support and QA testing to the list. How can collaboration with other teams make our designs better and us better designers?

John: It's crazy that we even have to ask that question. But it does need to be asked, because there is this weird idea in some industries that designers should just be left alone (ideally in a cool-looking creative space) to do all the design work, and the rest of the organization should just trust them because they're the designers. It's nuts. And there are no companies who have been sustainably successful in operating under this model.

The best designers are both synthesizers and prototypers. That is, they synthesize information that's relevant to their goal, and then prototype it in a form that allows them to validate and communicate their ideas. That's it.

We often focus on the technical skills that designers use to prototype (software, pens, devices, etc) because those things are visible, and because those skills are somewhat unique. (Actually, we also focus on execution, which is a job that should be called "production" in my opinion, not design, but that's a debate for another time.)

Synthesis is equally, if not more, important to the job of a designer. And in order to effectively synthesize the relevant information, designers need access to that information. Where does it come from? The other people inside (or outside) the organization who have it! The folks who are experts in their domains.

If you're designing something that customers never see, that requires no technology to build, and won't be expected to work reliably, then sure, you don't need to collaborate with marketing, customer support, engineering, and QA. But obviously I'm joking around here, because that's never the case.

Randy: Something else I would like to get your thoughts on…you studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Human Ecology. Then for over 15 years, you went on to become a designer at various technology companies such as Google, YouTube FeedBurner to name a few. In my experience, some of the most talented designers I know come from non-traditional educational backgrounds. What do you think are some of the most important qualities or characteristics that make a great designer today?

John: I described it a bit above: Synthesis plus prototyping. For me, these are both really interesting. Better synthesis leads to better and more creative ideas. Synthesis includes research, working with stakeholders, listening, capturing notes, intuition, taste, and a bunch of other "soft" skills. Better prototyping leads to a wider range of possible solutions, because you are not constrained by your ability to express those solutions, and it gives you higher confidence in your solutions, because you can validate them in a high-fidelity way.

I guess I feel like, if you are great at both of those things, you're a great designer. And more diverse, less-traditional backgrounds tend to lead toward developing those skills. Whereas if you only studied graphic design, or software engineering, or writing, you'll probably have a narrower set of capabilities in synthesis and prototyping.

Randy: What secret project are you working on now that you can tease us with?

John: I'm working on a ton of projects right now (probably too many), none of which are totally secretive:
- The Highlight Course
- Bringing our Official Sprint Bootcamp online for the pandemic era
- The Make Time Podcast
- A redesign of the Design Sprint website

Actually, there is one truly secret project: I'm exploring starting an investment firm. That's literally the first time I've said anything about that anywhere. So there you go :-)

Randy: So I have to lived in Chicago for a while: Deep dish pizza “yay” or “nay”? Full disclosure: I lived in Chicago for almost 10 years, I’m a “yay” but only for Pequod's Pizza on Clyborne.

John: OMG! Pequod's is in my top 5 pizzas, and I'm a freak about pizza!

I do like Chicago-style pizza, but it's gotta be REALLY good to justify the "hangover" that inevitably comes from eating a couple pounds worth of bread and cheese. I love Pequod's because it reminds me of Detroit-style pan pizzas I love, with the crispy crust and caramelized cheese.

Randy: Good luck and thank you again for being on the Innovation Series. It's been great to have you!


Past Interviews

David WongCME Group

Dr. Justin SchragerVital Software

Brian PoppeMutual of Omaha

Dustin ZieglerElevance Health

Dr. Joshua Vest, PhD, MPHIndiana University

Helen RobbH&R Block

Therese Fessenden NN/g, Microsoft

Brittni BoweringSPRINT Facilitator, AJ&Smart

Fabricio TeixeiraWork & Co, UX Collective

Jake KnappSprint, GV, Microsoft

Radhika DuttRadical Product Thinking

Tobias van SchneiderSemplice, Spotify

Jeff GothelfLean UX Author

Taylor PalmerUX Tools, Neighbor

Daniel BurkaResolve to Save Lives, GV

Carie DavisYour Ideas are Terrible, Coca-Cola

Sean AmmiratiDirector, Corporate Startup Lab at Carnegie Mellon

Aaron LerchWhy designers and developers need to invest in being equal partners

Alex BillingsleyHow to get designers and developers on the same page