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Learn, Teach, Build. 3 Ways to Engage Your Organization in Design

Illustration of a lightbulb with gears inside of it instead of a filament.

Though the concept of design thinking has been around for decades, not every organization has embraced the value of design in solving complex business problems. Meanwhile, every design leader knows that when companies embrace design concepts, they develop strategies that outproduce those of their peers.

Not convinced? Trusted sources like McKinsey and InVision have published highly regarded white papers on the topic; yet, leaders today still face the challenge of convincing partners throughout their organizations that design plays a critical role in the success of the business itself.

So it’s no surprise that our InsideOut Design Leader Community chose to discuss ways to engage their organizations in design during our recent roundtables. Read on for insightful tips from senior leaders at high profile brands who are working every day to ensure design gets (and keeps) its place as a strategic lever that drives results.
 

First, Learn the Business

Before trying to get others to believe they need to incorporate design principles into their work, be sure you and your team know what they’re trying to achieve.

Seek training. Go beyond learning how design and closely related teams function. Reach out and find out how the business itself works. What problems do your products/services solve? How does the company make money? What are the high-level business strategies and goals? Often firms offer this sort of training to business-related roles only. Whether or not there’s formal training, reach out to the teams who set and are measured by those goals and ask questions. The more you know, the more you can show how design will help them.

Get in on the action. Make shadowing a part of your process, but not just on your own team. Have your team shadow peripheral roles in groups like engineering, product or marketing to see the full cycle in action. If schedules allow, consider a talent swap with other teams, or offer to do other people’s jobs to get real insight into their roles.

Speak their language. Don’t forget that many stakeholders may not understand design or appreciate all the creative details. To get them engaged, craft your presentations and frame your questions in a way that highlights how those details deliver results, reach more customers, and align with overall company goals. 

Create Champions

Once you know what your partners are up against and what their goals are, it’s time to build advocates. Making change efficiently requires more than you alone with a megaphone doing your best to educate.

Focus on experience. Even when internal partners don’t know or embrace design thinking, they want to connect with customers and add value. Helping them see the impact of their decisions on the user’s experience engages them in how design solves problems in new ways. When possible, set up design thinking exercises that your partners can experience for themselves to give them their own story to tell.

Teach what you know. Speaking of stories, share memorable ones about the impact of design on business outcomes that can easily be passed along to others. When sharing your knowledge, focus on the big picture: Where does design fit in the whole process, and what impact does it have on the overall business? Visually mapping out the full project plan will provide perspective; and, most importantly, focus on WIFFT (What’s In It For Them).

Prioritize long-term impact. Find future advocates who have influence, then uncover their biggest problems and show how design can solve them. Once you win them over, their support will go far in bringing others in the org along. Giving the executive team quantitative and qualitative data to support the impact of design on strategy prompts new ways of thinking as they craft plans to move the company ahead.

Bake Design Into Everything

If you want any of your hard work to stick, be sure there are clear processes and workflows in place to keep design in the conversation.

Get in on strategy. Real impact happens when design considerations are made early in the process–during strategy, not execution. Creating design documents that require strategic direction and customer insights and getting in the room when ideas are being formed is critical. And throughout the process, be sure you have the right approvers in the room to keep projects on target and avoid rework.

Build collaboration into culture. Formalizing collaboration will make it last. Consider introducing cross-functional mentorship programs or structured deep-dive collaborative sessions on the high-profile projects that involve many groups (including customers). Setting clear expectations on each collaborator’s role is important to successful outcomes. For example, the goal is not for everyone to be a designer but to know and leverage design concepts.

Set the stage for success. To be a true business partner, you’ll need to tie your ideas to business outcomes. Producing white papers that clearly demonstrate the impact of prior projects and creating presentations that outline your team’s process and capabilities will focus the conversation on results. Controlling what you share during design reviews–and when–also moves conversations from colors to customers. Starting out by sharing user research and using low fidelity prototypes are two ways to achieve this shift.
 
Most of all, don’t give up. Making change in any organization is a journey. Every company is in some phase of learning when it comes to design, so figure out where yours is and start from there. Taking steps to learn the business, building an army of internal champions, and structuring communication flows based on results will ensure that design stays in the conversation. Even if not right away, these techniques will create a pathway for integration into strategic planning down the line.

If you’re a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let’s talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth and sanity of our members, and I’m honored to get to facilitate those discussions.

Have tips of your own on how to engage an organization in design? Please share in the comments. Stay safe out there. Let’s keep learning together!


This post originally appeared on Aquent's Off Hours blog.

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