How to Sell Design Thinking to Your Boss

Photo by Simon Greig

Photo by Simon Greig

When my son was 20 months old, he didn’t like green vegetables. He loved hamburger patties, though. So I put ground spinach into his hamburger patties. He loved them. Pretty soon there was more spinach than ground beef in those patties. He still loved them.

That’s how to sell design thinking to your boss.

I’m not saying lie to her. I’m saying, tell her the truth, but omit the parts that may seem important to you but may not be important to her. To you, the excitement of design thinking is all the human-centered design methods you’ve discovered. To her, these unfamiliar elements are a flashing red light that says “DANGER!” 

So why not just say “I’ve got a problem-solving approach that is perfect for this challenge,” and leave it at that? Just as I said to my 20-month-old son, “I’ve got food that you’ll like.” 

This idea is central to the tips I shared as part of a panel discussion at DT:DC last fall. DT:DC is a Meetup group here in Washington, DC, that evangelizes design thinking. About 70 of us got together to discuss the challenge of selling-in design thinking to established organizations. Here are six tips I shared:

1. To sell design thinking, BE design thinking: Your boss wasn’t ever trained in this, so be empathetic with her. Really listen. What’s important to her? How can you enroll her in co-creating the scope and approach? How can you right-size the project to meet her need for risk management? Claudia Kotchka at P&G told me she didn’t even use the term ‘design thinking’ when she began to introduce it at P&G. She would say, “That sounds like a wicked problem. Let us have a try at it. We’ve got a method for problem-solving that seems to really work.”

2. Curb your enthusiasm (and jargon): To succeed at bringing design thinking into our organizations, we need to get over ourselves, simple as that. Instead of hyperbole and hubris, we need to bring empathy and humility. And we need to speak in plain English.

3. In the ROI, focus on little “i” instead of BIG “R”: Instead of big promises about outcomes, make scrappy promises about speed and frugality, because speed minimizes cost and risk. That’s your boss’s language.

4. Emphasize the similarities, not the differences: While we may be fascinated by what’s new and different about design thinking, that isn’t a benefit to your boss. Emphasize how your plan is consistent with principles your firm believes in, and how it’s complementary to (not better than) the proven processes that are already in place. (That may be why Lean Startup is taking off, since all our organizations believe in Lean principles.) 

5. Tell a make-over story: “Remember project Zulu? Imagine how it might have been if we had validated it with customers in week 2, instead of week 42.”

6. Decry the alternative — a culture of debate: “If we can’t figure out an affordable way to explore this with customers, then we’re stuck with a culture of debate. And we see where that’s getting us.”

How have you made the case to your boss? What worked, what didn’t? Id love to hear your story, because we need to get good at this if we’re going to change the world. Leave a comment below or email me