Design thinking is the process used by creative teams for designing new products or services. Design thinking approach helps the product teams to understand user needs and finalize product specifications accordingly.

Most of us think that this innovative approach is mainly used for product designing, but I believe we can use it to improve the results of any project.

We are aware of the challenges faced by a project manager to keep the project on track, avoid delays and ensure successful project delivery.

To become successful, a project manager needs the full support of his/her team and design thinking if used for planning a project, can help in getting buy-in from all the project resources.

Let us see how we can use design thinking for writing good project plans and improving the chances of project success!


What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking process involves 5 steps as described in the diagram above. Though they are sequential in some way, they are iterative and overlap one another.

How can we use this 5 stage design thinking process to improve project success?

Project success depends on many factors such as understanding the customer requirements, meeting all the delivery deadlines, minimal issue tickets for improvements, etc.

A project manager needs to understand the project team, their strengths and constraints. The project manager also requires the full support of his/her project team and create a good project environment for them to work per the project plan, meet all quality checks and delivery deadlines.

The project plan is like a guide which will take the team towards a successful project closure.

Design thinking can be used to write a practical and workable project plan.

Planning a project with design thinking

1. Empathise

To empathise means, ‘try to understand the feelings, attitudes or thoughts of other people’.

In a project management scenario, it means that the project manager tries to understand the pain points and needs of the customers and offer them the solution to their problems. A project manager can design the right solution after considering the scope, budget and delivery timeline.

Usually, we give a lot of thought to know the needs of our customers but tend to assume the availability and support of the internal project resources. It can be unfair for the internal teams and can lead to a typical situation called the demand-supply mismatch in economics terminology!

A new thought to avoid this situation is using the first step in design thinking – empathise with the suppliers – the project resources.

Empathising with the motivational needs, challenges and constraints faced by these project resources become vital for all project leaders and project managers to ensure a healthy project environment. It helps to be non-judgemental while empathising with the project delivery participants.

2. Define

‘Study the project scope document. Define project milestones. Set delivery timelines. Estimate and allocate resources.’

Yes, this is the typical approach for preparing a project plan!

While thinking about how to design a successful project, we need something more. We need to consult the domain experts before finalizing requirement specifications for project tasks and timelines. And the experts are available right there, in-house!

Design thinking methodology encourages each resource on the project to view the user requirements or the project scope from their point of view and suggest the best way to plan for it.

3. Ideate, Prototype and Test

In real life project situations, it may happen that the project manager is not an expert in the field and is just the strategist and an expert administrator.

In such projects, involving the domain experts for a brainstorming session before finalizing the WBS (work breakdown structure or sub-tasks) and the delivery timelines helps the project manager come up with a workable and realistic project plan.

The project manager can also request the functional teams to come up with a plan for their part of the project work. The project leaders can then combine these sub-plans, reprioritise and negotiate with the teams to improve the timelines and the deliverable. They can then integrate these plans to make the comprehensive project plan.

The project managers can get buy-in from all the stakeholders involved.

Though this process may take a little extra time, it will improve the project delivery by eliminating communication gaps and the resultant project delays.

Successful projects are those projects that facilitate teamwork.

Design thinking approach encourages teamwork while still maintaining and acknowledging the individual expertise and contribution.


About the Author

Sanjeevani Sathe, is a VP Research and Content with Whizible, a firm with offers technology solutions for profitability improvement for project enterprises.

Sanjeevani is a Chartered Financial Analyst and has 10+ years of work experience in research and consulting with the Boston Consulting Group, UCStrategy and Rare Enterprises private equity group owned by Mr Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.

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