Design Thinking Won’t Get You Far If You Can’t Build An Argument For It

One of the things I miss the most about grad school is the lack of red tape involved when it comes to the ideas that we fostered in our design thinking sessions. Even when we worked with clients (which we fortunately were able to do often), the basic structure of our work consisted of the same schoolwork paradigm: do the research, talk to the stakeholders, have a workshop or two, derive an insight or five, and present an idea based on those insights.

The clients would listen to us and–love or hate our idea–would smile, thank us, and we would get a grade. While this format is probably the best approach towards being able to go from 10-week assignment to 10-week assignment as a student, it does leave a gap between this experience and real world experiences working at what could be considered a typical organization.

My current gig is at one of these such organizations. We are over 100 years old, with thousands of employees worldwide, and in dire need for modernization and innovation in many different aspects. As you may have guessed, being the resident design thinking expert in my team means that a lot of the times, uncovering the path towards that modernization falls on me.

This is the most exciting part about my job. Engaging in design thinking strategic sessions has led to some great ideas–after all, design thinking is all about coming up with creative, innovative, sometimes crazy-sounding user-centered ideas, and making them financially viable and technologically possible. Indeed, if you Google design thinking, you will find lots of different frameworks and exercises related to Design Thinking that aim to do just that: fostering lateral thinking, increasing empathy between the user and the designer, finding unique solutions to common problems, etc.

The least exciting part about my job, however, is when we leave a design thinking ideation session, excited about the prospect of building something that will bring real value to our customers, and a company veteran says something along these lines to me:

Yeah, it’s a great idea, but nobody’s every going to want to pay for it.

The truth is, most organizations are on this same boat (I will go ahead and make the job-protecting claim here: I am not poo-pooing this organization, which also remains nameless just to err on the safe side; I re-iterate the reality that lots of organizations go through this. We are making an effort to drive our thinking forward, and that much is less common, which puts is in a good place).

Organizations do not change their ways in an instant, and when they decide to do so, enabling that change is a slow uphill battle. Cultural norms, paired with the risk involved that nobody wants to take on, might make anyone who didn’t participate in the ideation session hesitant to back you. After all, if this thing fails, and their name is on it, it could affect their next promotion, bonus, raise, etc.–it could even get them fired! Why would anyone bet their entire livelihood on anything else other than the tried and true methods that have kept them safe in their jobs?

It’s not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing either–it’s simply a reality often faced in business, and it’s been a hard pill for me to swallow as someone who tends to champion user-benefiting disruptions in lieu of the status quo.

This is the part of this post where I start making my point (sorry for the long intro!). You can be the smartest person with the brightest idea in the room, but that will not be enough to make innovation happen in your organization. Like with anything in life, if you want to make a change, you need to build a convincing argument for it. Startup founders and aspiring entrepreneurs are all too familiar with this concept–with any startup, there is an incredible amount of emphasis given to the pitch, and this is not by chance. In a startup pitch (much in the style of the TV show “Shark Tank,” or, my personal preference, a podcast called The Pitch), the aspiring entrepreneur takes their time to meticulously convince a group of people to give them money to fund their idea. They are putting together an argument in favor of their idea to convince others that it is right.

I like to explain this as my “lawyer hat” (my dad was a lawyer in a former life, and something must have stuck): if you want to convince a jury that your client is not guilty, you will have to present the necessary evidence to do so.

Working in a company such as mine (or hey, maybe yours, Reader) is not very different. Sure, you’re probably not building an argument to convince the owner of an NBA team, but every VP, director, or other senior exec at your organization should be seen exactly the same as Mark Cuban or [insert investor name here] would: a potential ally that will help you and go to bat for you, but also has the power to kill your idea.

The only differentiating factor that defines whether this person is an ally in your corner or the killer of your idea is the power of your argument.

In order to help you with your future arguments, I went ahead and checked Wikipedia for you (what? I never claimed to be the expert here… You’re welcome, sheesh) to learn some more about argumentation theory:

What it says: Argumentation theory is the study of how conclusions can be reached through the use of logical reasoning.

What it means for me: The goal I need to keep in mind when selling my idea is that my listener should use their own logic to reach the conclusion that my idea is a winner. This means that you should think about your listener in the same way that you think about your users (see my Think With Google piece for more insights on how to identify users). What do they want to hear? What will matter to them? How can you guide their own mind to reach the conclusion that this new idea is also good for them?

What it says: The key components of argumentation are:

  • Identifying and understanding arguments, either explicit or implied, and the goals of the participants.
  • Identifying the premises from which conclusions are derived.
  • Establishing the “burden of proof”–determining who made the initial claim is thus responsible for providing evidence.
  • To marshal evidence and convince the other party of acceptance.
  • To identify faulty reasoning and provide counterpoints.

What it means for me: In order, by bullet point:

  • Like I mention above, find out what the other party wants, what matters to them, and what their position is. You have your idea, and your argument is pro- the adoption of said idea. If your audience is someone whose track record and previous statements seem to hint that they’d be open to this sort of change, your argumentation would probably be much different from someone who you think will require a lot more convincing. You have to tailor your approach based on this.
  • Going deeper than just learning that “Bob leans towards yes, but Nancy leans towards no,” you should attempt to understand the why of their positions. What do things look like from their perspective that inform their decision? This matters because even if you are presenting to two people who lean towards “yes,” their reasons might be completely different, and you should account for both.
  • The burden of proof should mostly, if not always, fall on you. If you are presenting a new idea, it is up to you to show your peers that this idea is better than the status quo. You will have a hard time defending against someone that decides to give you the burden of proof that the status quo is better– “it’s been working all these years” is pretty difficult to defend against, unless the status quo is a true dumpster fire.
  • If you did your research and documented your process, presenting evidence will not be too hard. I would say that the evidence does need to reflect the points you are making in your argument and should still be tailored to your audience. If you want to convince a greedy banker to switch to renewable energy, the environmental angle is not likely to work, no matter how true the evidence is. However, if you show that banker that it will save them money to make the switch, you will be more likely to succeed.
  • The only thing I would caution against when it comes to finding counterpoints against faulty evidence is to have your money where your mouth is. In the age of fake news, you have to have receipts for everything.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to building an argument, but more like a list of important points to keep in mind when preparing to sell an idea to any stakeholder in your process. As designers, strategists, entrepreneurs, or intrapreneurs, our job and its responsibilities don’t end when you leave that room with the post-its, models, prototypes, etc. It is our responsibility to foster these ideas and ensure that they see the light of day, and in order to do that, it is crucial to know the argument that will ensure that success.