7 ways to overcome obstacles to design thinking buy-in

Design Thinking

Christy McMillian

At Comrade, we partner with clients in the Financial Services, Technology, Government and Nonprofit fields to teach and use Design Thinking techniques to:
- Empathize with customers and employees
- Map journeys and experiences to identify areas of improvement
- Collaborate to solve problems and uncover opportunities for innovation
- Gain internal alignment based on clear, actionable steps to achieve a shared vision
Our clients understand—and realize—the benefits of this process because it’s balanced with a focus on creating value for the business and the customer, and because it creates a realistic plan of action. However, as with any business methodology that suddenly gets popular, it can fall flat if the process isn’t fully understood and used in the way it was intended. Here are a few key ways we’ve found to make it work in real life.


Problem: “Design Thinking is just for designers.”

We believe one of the biggest problems with Design Thinking is the name itself. The practice is neither limited to design challenges, nor is it just about thinking. We think a better title would be “Collaborating to Solve Problems Quickly and Deliver Business Value by Making Experiences Better for People Based on Understanding Their Needs and Getting Their Input,” but we realize this may not be as elegant.

Solution: Understand what it is

What’s important, however, is helping your organization understand that Design Thinking isn’t necessarily a prescriptive process. It’s a philosophy that encourages taking a human-centered view in order to improve the products and services humans use.

Problem: “I am incented to sell my product, not to make our customer’s lives better.”

Many organizations have a product-out approach and are organized into vertical departments designed to focus on a single product or service. While this can help deliver products quickly, it doesn’t encourage cross-department collaboration or learning, or support a long-term view of the customer’s experience with multiple products or services.

Solution: Make sponsorship a priority

To realize the benefits a Design Thinking process can uncover, senior executives need to support and encourage cross-functional collaboration and incent their employees to not just deliver individual products, but to deliver experiences across channels and over time.

Problem: “How is Design Thinking going to help me deliver my projects faster?”

While Design Thinking is an excellent methodology to uncover insights, take a customer perspective and encourage collaboration, it is not a silver bullet for solving all your internal delivery challenges.

Solution: Manage your expectations

What it can do is help you ensure you are trying to solve the right problems with exercises that help you get to the root cause instead of addressing just the symptoms, but it’s important to understand and use the right tool for the job.

Problem: “I just got six-sigma trained last month. Now this?”

We know there is skepticism that Design Thinking may just be today’s of-the-moment corporate buzz, that executives will be on to the next big thing tomorrow and that it isn’t actually relevant to everyone. These feelings are compounded when it’s introduced by a centralized Design Thinking group or team that is solely responsible for facilitating it.

Solution: Think bottom up, not top down

We firmly believe Design Thinking instead should be woven into the fabric of company culture itself. Tools and training should be available to everyone to use for their day-to-day problem solving and the practice should be evolved and adapted to suit everyone’s needs. Design Thinking shouldn’t be a department, but a philosophy.

Problem: “I’m overworked as it is – I don’t have time to learn something new.”

One of the core principles of Design Thinking is empathy. But empathy isn’t just for your customers. What about your employees? We often see teams that are frustrated because they are already overworked and are being asked to adapt to a change in direction and priorities mid-flight, disrupting the way they’ve been delivering projects, products or services for years.

Solution: Provide the right support

The right investments in time, training, support, incentive structures, executive support and money, can relieve a lot of strain on your team. Consider using research and employee interviews and providing channels for employees to voice their pain points. Give them space, both physically and in their schedules, to collaborate with other departments on problem-solving so they are personally invested in improving the way they do what they do.

Problem: “How do you measure ROI on an Empathy Map?”

The worst insult to the value of Design Thinking is to think its outcome is a piece of rolled up butcher paper covered in multi-colored Post-its collecting dust in the corner of someone’s office. Sure, everyone had a great time at the all-day workshop with the Sharpies and unlimited snacks, but did we ever do that thing we talked about? What did we talk about anyway?

Solution: Define your outcomes

Focusing on the customer experience requires a new set of measurement techniques to know if you are really creating value. Your Design Thinking process should result in an actionable plan that can be implemented within a determined timeline, with clearly defined success metrics.

Problem: “Our organization is designed to prevent risks, not take them.”

We believe company culture has the greatest impact on your readiness to adopt Design Thinking. There are many kinds of corporate culture, and you need to understand yours before you implement any kind of organizational change. Are you Sales or Performance-driven? Innovation-focused? Collaborative? Customer-centric? Risk adverse? Top-down?

Solution: Consider your company’s culture

Enabling acceptance, understanding and adoption of any new philosophy means understanding who you are and what really matters to your team. Adjust your message based on your core values, and you’ll have a higher rate of success. Not because you told them to. Because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

Christy McMillian

Christy McMillian

Client Partner and Lead Strategist, CI&T