In the last two years at Google Ventures, I’ve done design sprints with more than 80 startups. One of the simplest tricks I’ve learned is that a dedicated space with walls—a war room—always helps us do better work. The walls of a war room can extend a team’s memory, provide a canvas for shared note-taking, and act as long-term storage for works in progress.
Unfortunately, war rooms are few and far between. I’m surprised by how many tech companies make space for a foosball table (fun but seldom used), yet don't dedicate a room to their most important project.
If your team doesn’t have a war room, don’t worry. In this post, I’ll explain how to put one together on almost any budget. Spoiler: while a dedicated physical space is great to have, it’s not an absolute necessity. But first, here’s a bit more on why war rooms work so well.
To solve a complex design problem, you need to track lots of moving parts. As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good—but our spatial memory is awesome. Plaster a room with notes and you take advantage of that spatial memory. You begin to know where information is, which extends your ability to remember things.
We all know it’s better to re-order a prioritized list of sticky notes or re-draw a diagram than to make the same decisions verbally. That’s why there are whiteboards in meeting rooms and why people love agile trackers with sticky notes. War rooms take those tools to the next level.
War rooms help your team work better together. When you capture every decision and put it on the wall, you don’t have to wonder if everyone is on the same page. The room is the page. The more you put on the walls, the more shared understanding you build. As a bonus, you spend less time revisiting already-discussed issues. A war room works great for long-term projects of a few days or a few weeks—and it also works great for one-off meetings.
In a Google Ventures design sprint, it’s common to have many things on the walls at once: user story diagrams, research notes, printouts of the existing UI, sketches of possible solutions, a detailed storyboard, and sometimes more. To accommodate all that stuff, you need a lot of space. That means whiteboards, windows, and empty walls where you can stick stuff.
You don’t want your war room turning into just another conference room. For best results, remove your war room from your company’s room-scheduling calendar.
Whiteboards come in a lot of styles, so choose wisely.
- Floor-to-ceiling wall-mounted—The best. I like to use every square inch of available space, and with these babies, that’s a lot of space.
- IdeaPaint—Great stuff (unless your walls have a funky texture). And for goodness sake, paint all the walls, otherwise, get ready to have somebody write "Not a whiteboard!" in whiteboard marker on the unpainted walls.
- Normal wall-mounted—These are okay if you get more than one.
- D.I.Y. shower board whiteboards—Much cheaper than real whiteboards, these require more elbow grease to install (you may spill Liquid Nails on your designer-y plaid shirt). The surface isn’t quite as good, so expect to clean it more often.
- Rolling—These come in small and giant sizes. The small ones have a lot of unusable space down by the floor, and they shake when you draw on them. The giant ones cost a lot more, but they’re actually usable.
In our design sprints, we go through a lot of different work modes. Sometimes we need to talk a lot, and we want chairs and open space. Other times, we’re drawing on paper and we want desks. The ideal war room has furniture that’s lightweight or on wheels, so it’s easy to move.
We took over a conference room and removed the big table in the middle. Next, we installed as many whiteboards as we could. We couldn’t do floor-to-ceiling, but we got close.
Finally we ordered a bunch of flexible furniture—some of it fancy-pants (like Modernica chairs) and some utilitarian (like clipboards and a coat hanger). Here’s the complete shopping list hand-picked by Google Ventures’ Daniel Burka. Some highlights:
- Rolling desks (CB2)—$150 each
- Stackable chairs (Office Depot)—$410 for four
- Rolling whiteboard (Amazon)—$550
It may be impossible to completely take over a room. If you have to share your war room, get some portable wall space that you can assemble and disassemble quickly. Your options:
- Sticky flip charts—Blank sheets of this stuff make a reusable, moveable backdrop for sticky notes and printouts.
- Giant foam core—Foam core comes in 96"x48" but it’s expensive and tricky to find, not to mention cumbersome. Which is why I prefer...
- Rolling whiteboards—see above for our favorite.
Sometimes you don’t even have a conference room to commandeer. I’ve seen this challenge at startups in incubators or shared offices. Don’t freak out. You can still make a war room by hacking the space around your desk. Use rolling whiteboards as partitions. It’s just like you’re a kid again, building a fort out of chairs and blankets! But don’t actually use blankets, because your co-workers might get creeped out.
We’re still experimenting and learning with our own war room, as well as those at our companies. How have you set up project spaces for your team?