Six strategies for facing internal resistance to design thinking

strategies for design thinking

Understanding the mechanics of design thinking is critical to introducing it into the ongoing practices of your organization. But just as essential is facing organizational resistance to change. Bringing design thinking into an organization requires a hearty sense of optimism combined with vigorous tenacity.

colleagues talking
Image © Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University

While more and more companies are institutionalizing systemic design thinking initiatives, from IBM to Home Depot, for many organizations—especially not-for-profits—the the design thinking process can feel downright radical, and getting internal buy-in for it is not for the faint of heart.

To be an internal change-agent in your organization, you must embrace the resistance you’re likely to face.

Below are some tips and strategies around integrating this human-centered process for innovation into your company or institution.

1. Build empathy for your colleagues

When you start introducing design thinking mindsets and practices into your organization, you may hear something like this:

This will never work here.
We don’t work this way in XYZ company.
Now is not the time to change our process/try something new.

I heard variations on these when I first began introducing  design thinking at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and I hear it often from clients as they bring colleagues into the process.

Colleagues listening to each otherWhen faced with internal resistance like this, it’s helpful to approach your colleagues as users. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and conduct empathy interviews. In having an open-ended conversation in which you ask “why?” a lot, you may challenge your own assumptions and discover insights you can act upon.

For example, when introducing design thinking on a project, I found myself encountering frustration from a particular staff member. I thought her resistance was about the design thinking process in general, but when we sat down and had a one-on-one conversation, it turned out that it was about something more specific. This staff member was tired of attending meetings with another co-worker who always dominated the conversation and didn’t allow for multiple voices or divergent viewpoints. So we implemented (and enforced) the Rules for Brainstorming, and her resistance and frustration subsided.

2. Start with a minimal time commitment

One of the biggest challenges I encountered when introducing design thinking at SFMOMA was around time. I kicked it off with a 2.5 hour workshop for a large cross section of staff. Aside from the challenge of finding a meeting space, it was nearly impossible to find that much time in everyone’s calendar, and my colleagues were (rightfully so!) frustrated.

So I iterated on my plan. I started offering one-hour mini-workshops on different aspects of design thinking for individual departments. For example, instead of a workshop on a full design cycle, I offered a short training session on how to conduct empathy interviews for the marketing department.

3. Change your space

Seasoned design thinkers are very tuned into space and how the design of a space affects a team’s mindsets, behaviors, and performance. Entire books have been written on the topic, and there are subtle things you can do to your space to fuel collaboration and innovation, and signify to your colleagues that you’re doing something different.

team workspace

One technique is referred to as “saturate your space.” You can fill your work area with images of your users and your notes from interviews and observations. Not only does it give you a constant physical reminder of your users, it often invites infectious curiosity from colleagues.

You can also set up an informal, low-impact prototyping station. This can range from an informal desk where you leave out prototyping supplies to a dedicated conference room.

Neutral touch-down work spaces dedicated to projects are also powerful signifiers of the collaborative nature of design thinking. Instead of spaces that are dedicated to individuals, you can establish shared project spaces that are open to anyone working on a particular project.

4. Create a buzz

Make your successes, no matter how small, visible. Drop anecdotes about what you’re doing in meetings. “The other day, I talked with this fascinating customer …”  Share your results around your institution, and also share them with your colleagues.

A team of collaborators
Image © Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University

5. Make it fun

Make your design thinking sessions the most engaging meetings in your organization. Start off with icebreakers or improv warm-ups, serve snacks, conduct the meeting with everyone standing instead of sitting—do anything to change it up.

6. Build a team

Finally, and most importantly, you need to build a team. This is what John Kotter calls “creating the guiding coalition.” No matter how determined and competent you are, you can’t do it alone. In an ideal world, support for introducing design thinking would come from all levels of the organization (including the top). But in reality, this isn’t always how change happens. Therefore, it helps to have a handful of colleagues who can support each other.

Remember that you and your colleagues are the designers for this process as it fits within your organization. Because design thinking is inherently iterative and adaptive, your colleagues can have a voice in the process and you can shape it together.

When trying this “at home,” apply design thinking’s mindsets of curiosity, optimism, and collaboration. Understand your users, try out multiple solutions, prototype, test, and iterate.


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