When I’ve chatted to other in-house design and innovation teams over the past couple of years, the topic of getting buy-in for what we do tends to crop up pretty regularly. Whilst many in-house teams find a great deal of interest in their work coming from their external networks, they can sometimes find it difficult to generate the same levels of interest and buy-in from inside their own organisations. There are perhaps several reasons why this might be the case:

  • People don’t know you exist;

  • People don’t know you do that [thing they wanted help with];

  • People know you exist and what you do, but

    • They have a budget to bring someone in, and you are just 'too cheap' to offer the 'level of expertise' they are after;

    • They want some fresh thinking from someone with cross sector experience and without organisational baggage;

    • They don’t see you as independent or objective;

    • They already have a great relationship with someone they want to bring in;

    • They don’t think you have the time, capacity and/or skills to do the work;

    • They think it is easier to blame an external consultant if things go wrong;

    • They are unsure of your approach.

Perhaps the most critical factor for the design community as a whole to address is that of organisations either not knowing about or being unsure of the design approach. Design has a reputation for being soft, fluffy and superficial and thanks to advertising and commercial branding the word design is often aligned closely with luxury. In terms of design thinking this is misleading, but it is perhaps one of the major reasons why non-designers can switch off to the idea of using design to achieve social outcomes - ‘in times of austerity there simply isn't room for ‘luxury’ so why would we use designers, we just want something that works, not something that looks good’.

It’s therefore in the interest of in-house design and innovation teams to help their non-designer colleagues become more familiar with design thinking. Here are a few things I’ve found work quite well:

Open up the doors to the Lab

There are many benefits to keeping the in-house innovation lab at arms length from the main organisation; after all how can you think outside of the box if you are working inside it. However, a major drawback is that it often leads to a ‘them and us’ culture. People outside of the lab are left wondering what’s going on in there, what are they writing on the wall and why do they need so many post-it notes? We need to find a way of striking the right balance between staying at arm's length and building internal relationships. Sam Ford and Federico Rodriguez Tarditi wrote an interesting article for the Harvard Business Review which advocates for investing in relationship building activities and being rigorous about fostering serendipity. By opening up the doors we open up the possibility of collaboration. By giving colleagues the opportunity to understand more about what we are doing, we learn more about what they are doing, and this increases the chances of discovering common objectives which we can work towards together. There are a few ways in which we can foster serendipity. Here are four ways I’ve found work well:

  • Lightning talks - Invite people from around the organisation to give a short presentation (perhaps pecha kucha) about a given topic. If your lab space is a physical space, host the sessions there. If you hold the sessions over a lunchtime or after work on a Friday you can add some food and/or drink and you can introduce people to some of the work you are doing during the breaks.

  • Inspiration sessions - Again, these are a great way of getting people into your working space, but they are also a way of showcasing a different approach to work. Ask people to share links to articles, blogs and videos that they find inspiring and host a discussion. These can lead to spin off work and collaborations, so they are ideal for building relationships with colleagues.

  • Project based show and tells - Letting people know what you are up to helps fill the vacuum and is a better plug than the rumours that might circulate otherwise. Invite people to come and hear short updates on the innovation projects that you are working on and invite them to respond with their own updates, and/or constructive feedback.

  • Weekly updates - Start a mailing list, blog or yammer group that people can join to receive updates on key projects. Each week provide both a short summary (a paragraph) and a longer version (perhaps a page) of what you’ve been up to. Show and tells can offer a third level of detail. People can choose which option they want. It also helps you consolidate your own thinking and sets you up for the next week of work.

Collaborate more

The global service jam movement have a nice mantra - Stop talking, start doing. I like this. For those of us working within in-house design and innovation teams it can be easy to talk enthusiastically about the virtues of design, but I’ve learned that forming relationships with colleagues and showing them outcomes is far more powerful when it comes to getting them on-board than waxing lyrical about design. Collaborating with colleagues is a great way of helping them understand that a design thinking approach is robust; it also gives you the opportunity to build a relationship and highlight your skills at the same time.

Familiarity plays a huge part in the decisions people make. Part of our role as in-house designers has to be bringing people along on the journey with us, giving them tangible experiences which help them to understand more about what it is we do and the impact design can have. 

Design is about the application of hard disciplines not soft furnishing.
— Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services