Who to Engage When Kicking Off a Design Thinking Project

Any project you’re kicking off needs a strong foundation. You need to decide whether design thinking is the right tool for the job, define the scope, create a brief and engage the right people to make your project a success.

We frequently get asked, “Exactly who are the right people to engage?” Well, they’re the stakeholders in a position to make or break your project—the ones that control organizational resources, set and guide the vision, and drive implementation. The key is bringing them on and getting buy-in and support from the beginning—you don’t want to go through all the work of a project only to have it mothballed! (Sad-face Emoji).

Here are 5 groups of stakeholders you’ll need to consider:

1. Stakeholders Involved In The Project

Begin at the beginning—with the people who are a direct part of the process. These are the folks who will be signing off on the project and outcomes, like leadership and project sponsors. Make sure they’re not only aware of your plans, but have had opportunities to offer their input. You want them to be truly excited and supportive about it, not just give it a lukewarm “OK.” You’ll be asking for their involvement in kickoffs, pitches, and feedback sessions later on so you need them to be enthusiastic advocates—and that means keeping them in the loop.

2. Stakeholders That Can Stop Your Project

There are likely to be some folks in your organization that have the power to call a halt on your project. They may not see the value or they may simply prefer to have things done their way. This group may include some members of leadership, but also managers and directors who are being asked to empower their team with support and bandwidth. You might not need their input on the project brief or structure, but you do need their buy-in on the project and the benefits of the design thinking process as a whole. Work on building their awareness of the structure, also giving them a safe place to ask questions and vet concerns. That gives you the opportunity to get their support (or at least understanding) and also lets them know you’re not just trying to force changes against their wishes.

3. Change Advocates

These are the people that have the ability and presence to catalyze energy in the organization. They span all roles and levels, so don’t just look to leadership. Getting them excited about the project means they’ll get the rest of the organization excited—these are your organizational cheerleaders. You probably don’t need their direct buy-in, but you want their support because they can create serious momentum behind the project. Let them know what it is you’re kicking off and find key opportunities to get them involved, like pitch sessions and ideation sessions.

4. Stakeholders With A Link To The Larger Organizational Strategy

Looking outside your direct team, are there other people across the organization who might have the ability to do this work better, faster, or stronger? Are there people who might be able to connect this work to larger organizational priorities now or in the future? The more you can tie this work to larger initiatives, the easier it will be to gain support and share outcomes. It’s helpful to bring these folks in for milestone share-outs (insights presentations and final pitches) and debrief conversations so you can discuss what worked well and talk about how you might collaborate on these kinds of projects in the future.

5. Anyone That Will Benefit From Awareness

This might seem like a broad category, but it’s an important one to consider. There are people in and out of your organization that will be inspired and excited to know you’re approaching your work differently. They may be clients, recruiting and HR stakeholders, leaders from elsewhere in the org, or people that might want to use your services in the future. These communications are more like internal marketing than a way to get buy-in—you probably don’t need their involvement in this direct project, but don’t miss the opportunity to share a great story while it’s going on.


Being a changemaker means both exploring new methods and mindsets to creative problem solving and encouraging their adoption throughout your organization. When you get ready to embark on a new project, reach out to the right people in advance. It’ll help ensure the success of your project, spread awareness of new ways to problem-solve, and light the spark of inspiration for other people in your org. So do your homework, find those key stakeholders, and bring them on board!


Andy Hagerman
[email protected]
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