Strategies to get leadership buy in for design led change
Before I start this article, I want to thank Ms. Charu Agrawal for inspiring me to write an article on this topic and thank her even more for her valuable contribution in co-writing it.
A question that a lot of my students have asked me post becoming Design Thinking (DT) practitioners is, “How do I convince my senior management for Design Thinking?”. Whenever I hear this, I get recollected of a dialogue from a modern-day Bollywood classic — 3 Idiots, where in Farhan tells Rancho that “Papa Nahi Maanege” for choosing a career of his choice. However, with a lot of convincing and showing the benefits of his choice of career, Farhan was able to convince his father in the end. Same is the case with starting a design led change journey in most organizations.
I have helped many of my students navigate this important stage and Charu has been working on getting that buy-in at work. This piece is our attempt of sharing some of our learnings with the larger community. So, let’s start from the beginning.
In the true spirit of a design thinking practitioner, we must start with empathizing with the senior management. The business is running well, the company is achieving the targets and the share price is steady or growing. Why should then anyone change anything let alone the senior leaders? Just because you went and got yourself certified in design thinking? Or Just because this is the new method everyone is talking about?
Finding an answer to this question is a wicked design problem in itself. Some additional questions your senior leader might have asked you or at least thought of during your DT presentation probably look like these:
- Will this give some tangible results or is this just another jargon/fad?
- What investments will this need and how risky will it be?
- I am already adopting customer centricity (CSAT/ NPS practices), what difference will this make?
- I already have set practices and frameworks that have been habituated, how will DT add value and what will change?
Based on some of the experiments we have done in our respective works and have gotten amazing results, we have come up with some must dos for this journey:
A. Spot a problem
Half the battle is won with the right problem and articulating it correctly. A lot of us want to do grand things, hit the ball out of the park in one go. When you are still trying to get your foot into the door, you would grab even a small opening and not really wait for the door to be completely ajar. After going through a power packed Design Thinking journey, a problem that a lot of DT practitioners face is that they wait for THE BIG WICKED design problem in their organisation to knock their door. Well, if your senior leaders are still not convinced about DT, that knock is never going to come. Remember the famous saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step.” As an empathetic DT practitioner trying to bring the senior management on board, your first objective must be to find the right problem statement to solve.
Few places to proactively look out for:
- Refer the list of failed experiments in the organization
- Find a co-conspirator from business peers/ juniors
- Find a customer problem either by observing/listening to the voice of the customer OR by referring to CSAT / NPS results
- Find an employee related problem by observing OR by referring to ESAT results
Remember, sometimes there are problems are all around us, but we become myopic towards seeing them.
One of the DT practitioners from my earlier classes narrated this incident that I would say is a great example of listening and spotting a problem. One of her co-workers was moving from one country in Europe to another country for work. While having a conversation with our DT practitioner, the co-worker mentioned how frustrating it was to do all the paperwork for the movement and how non-user friendly the whole mobility process was. Our DT person investigated further with data, talked to a few more colleagues who had recently made similar moves and voila! She was looking at a totally relevant problem with a convincing business case. And it came out of a whining conversation! Moral of the story: Observe, Observe, Observe, Listen, Listen, Listen
Remember at this point you may have convinced the stakeholders of the existence of an issue they would like to see solved; you may not have still sold the DT process to them. So, what’s next? Post spotting the problem the most critical thing that matters is speed and agility of finding the solution. We call it “Early Value Delivery”. At this point you can start planning for an empathy and insights workshop to get deeper into the problem.
B. Don’t get carried away/ Keep it simple
A lot of practitioners of any methodology/tools, be it design thinking, or six sigma or power BI get carried away at the drop of the hat and start hurling jargon at the uninitiated at the speed of light. This is where they lose the slight connection, with the leaders, they may have created by creating a very compelling business case. While discussing with Charu, she mentions an incident with one of the leaders she had worked on different initiatives over years. He told her that he liked listening to her proposals more now because she now talks in a language that he can understand instead of forcing methods that he knew nothing about. So, unless a leader in keen on learning about your approach and learning about the DT glossary, be smart. Don’t start with a mile long approach. Keep it simple and aim for early value delivery. You can introduce Design Thinking principles in small bites after every successful delivery.
C. Bring in more cooks
Contrary to the popular saying, “too many cooks spoil the broth”, we recommend bring on-board team members; end users; leaders who are interested in co-creating. Don’t be a solo soldier. Design interesting brainstorming, ideation and prototyping sessions and involve more people preferably management people/ key influencers. The advantage to this strategy is that, when the solution is being pitched to the senior management, there are more people who will evangelize the power of the solution and the approach. When we have skin in the game or have helped fix an issue, we become strong proponents. Another advantage of co-creation is that you introduce the method to a new group of people who may replicate the same in other initiatives. You basically start a pyramid scheme, and it’s not a Ponzi 😊
Once the prototype takes some shape (even if it is low fidelity), it is time to now convert my story to our story. A prototype helps people to experience solutions, thus instigating them to contribute faster. This can be done by showcasing the prototypes to the right leaders, seek their inputs and contribution to the prototype. Another key recommendation we have at this point is to share the stage. As the DT guru, you may have the most knowledge about the methodology in the room but think about who will bring in the most impact in presenting the prototype? Perhaps an end user or a process owner or maybe an already converted leader. Remember, this is not the time to sell the idea.
This is an important juncture in the journey of getting leadership buy-in because you are asking them to contribute to the prototype and you are continuously going to incorporate the feedback, test and go back to them. So, they can see first-hand and quickly the impact of their feedback in improving (hopefully always) the prototype
As a DT practitioner, you may not get a go-ahead during the first prototype showcase, you will have to be persistent in evolving the prototypes and take them for leadership showcase again and again. With every version, you must show incremental value. There will be a point when you will get your first yes. Sometimes it is this sheer persistence that the leadership gets inspired by and gives a go-ahead.
For my first design initiative, I got my first yes after the seventh prototype!
D. Weave the story
I always say, “A designer definitely needs to be a powerful storyteller”. Often hard selling doesn’t work with leadership. This is the hardest part for a lot of DT practitioners. If every time I got a penny when someone said to me that they weren’t good at storytelling and communication, I would definitely be really rich by now. I refuse to accept that statement from anyone let alone a DT practitioner. We all are storytellers, we tell so many of them to our kids, parents, friends, colleagues. But when ever it comes to a formal environment, we go back to our old ways of boring ppts and information sharing. (In case you do struggle with storytelling, try reading this book: Weekend Language: Presenting with More Stories and Less PowerPoint by Andy Craig and Dave Yewman)
Some stories that work well with leaders are:
- Customer pain/ need stories — There is someone who is going through a problem and we can solve it, what are its benefits
- Growth opportunity stories — There is potential white space that we have identified and a solution can carve the path of next growth trajectory
- Industry FOMO stories — The industry ecosystem is moving up the value curve by consistent innovation. We need to also move fast else we will lose
- Pioneering stories — We have always been a pioneer and we need to continue to innovate, if we have to sustain our status
Note: Every leader is different, you may need to understand their pulse and accordingly choose your story cocktail.
I always recommend to DT practitioners to craft powerful stories around their designs, their experience of designing, their interactions during the process and narrate them widely and shamelessly. Remember, concepts and data talk to mind and stories touch hearts and what whatever touches our hearts is what we embrace.
To know more on how to craft powerful stories, read my article
The craft of weaving powerful stories
I always say, "Every story has a design". This signifies that there is a craft behind every narrative that we tell or…
E. Spread the word and take a larger leap
You would have by now solved the problem you started in the beginning and while doing that, you would have had a few colleagues know more about DT and also hopefully have converted some leaders. There may still be some who may be at the fence and others who need to see more. This is a good situation to be in. As DT practitioner you don’t have to just convince the upper management but also continue to build the base (remember our pyramid scheme). Inspire more and more people in the organization towards Design Thinking. One of the ways to do this is to educate people on DT in the simplest possible manner. Remember, what we don’t know, we tag it as tough and whatever we tag as tough we don’t embrace.
When I say educate more and more people, I don’t mean that train every single person in the organization on Design Thinking. Instead apply a DT approach to design the learning interventions also. Involve, educate, co-create, recognise. A DT practitioner must have all of the above in his/ her arsenal.
This stage is the dream of every DT practitioner, as it is the time to now take larger risks and choose larger problems to solve.
There is a lot more that can be written on this topic, but we want to stop here with the hope that you will be able to pick-up some of the mentioned tips to get the right leaders onboard.
About the Authors:
Ajay is the founding partner at Humane Design & Innovation Consulting (HDI). He has been passionately advocating creation of a design driven culture in organizations and helping them redesign their customer experience, services/products and strategy. In his role as an advisor to several key clients, he has demonstrated tangible impact design thinking can have across all business functions. He can be reached at email@example.com
Charu is a DT practitioner at heart. Empathy is one of her top five strengths and so when she was introduced to DT, it was a match made in heaven 😊. Charu excels in active listening and lives with agility and growth mindset. She works as an agile and CI leader with the snacking company, Mondelez. Charu loves to know more about fellow humans and write. She can be reached out at firstname.lastname@example.org