Skip to content

“This will never work here”: six strategies for facing internal resistance to design thinking


Photo by Eandiwu / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

As I work with museums on how to integrate design thinking into their ongoing processes, I find myself spending a lot of time talking with my peers about the resistance—and sometimes outright hostility—they face inside their organizations around this new way of working.

Understanding the mechanics of design thinking is critical to introducing it into the ongoing practices of your institution. But just as critical—and probably even more challenging—is facing organizational resistance to change.

With the exception of a handful of museums I’m aware of that are using design thinking (Queensland Museum with their internal QMX group, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and The Tech Museum of Innovation; please leave a comment below if you know of more), it’s not common practice in most institutions.

Museums are generally not on the forefront of change around internal practice and process. Staff turnover is low compared to the for-profit sector, and ways of working get ossified. For many institutions, the design thinking process can feel downright radical, and getting internal buy-in for it is not for the faint of heart.

Bringing design thinking into a museum demands a hearty sense of optimism combined with vigorous tenacity.

To be an internal change-agent in your institution, 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 institution.

1. Build empathy for your colleagues

When you start introducing design thinking mindsets and practices into your institution, you may hear something like this from a colleague:

This will never work here.
We don’t work this way in XYZ Museum/Institution.
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 SFMOMA, and in my consulting work with other museums, I hear it from clients as they bring colleagues into the process.

When 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 some 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 working sessions 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 this addressed the concerns of the original staff member.

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 mini-workshops on different aspects of design thinking for individual departments. For example, instead of a full workshop on all five phases of the process, I offered a short training session on how to conduct empathy interviews with visitors 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 attitudes, 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 new and different.

The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

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 visitor in the galleries …”  Share your results around your institution, and also share them with your colleagues on sites like this and through other platforms like Twitter (hashtag #musetech) the MCN-L listserv, Museums and the Web community, and American Alliance of Museums’ LinkedIn group.

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 treats, 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 in museums. 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 institution. 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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: