Transforming Project Management with Design Thinking

August 10, 2023
4 minute read

Good project management is the cornerstone to successful business operations regardless of industry. Whether you’re a project manager or executive yourself or are looking to improve your team on a smaller level, it’s wise to know how to leverage design thinking to transform the project management process.

But what exactly is design thinking, how does it work, and how can it really improve project management at your organization? Today, let’s break down the answers to these questions and more.


Design Thinking Explained

Design thinking is an iterative and nonlinear process that project teams can use to:

  • Understand users and problems
  • Challenge their inherent assumptions
  • Make innovative solutions for prototyping and testing

Put another way, design thinking is iterative thinking that focuses on design and development to solve customer or client needs as aptly as possible. It’s a problem-solving framework that can often be integrated into your project management approach.

Design thinking is typically broken down into five stages:

  • Empathize – here, you empathize with your target audience or end-user/client
  • Define – in this stage, you define the problem in clear, actionable terms your team can tackle
  • Ideate – next, you and your team brainstorm and come up with several possible solutions to the problems you defined earlier
  • Prototype – then, it’s time to come up with several prototype solutions which you can test early on before committing more development resources to the most promising prospects
  • Test – finally, you test the most promising solutions and eventually push them to market or to your customers

Perhaps more importantly, design thinking allows for some ambiguity and creativity. That's because design thinking doesn't require you to focus on rote or already-defined solutions. It's all about thinking outside the box and coming up with new designs or solutions to common problems.

How Can Design Thinking Aid Project Management?

Truth be told, design thinking can aid project management across the board. But there are specific advantages your business and team members might see once you start using design thinking as your guiding framework.

Understand Stakeholder/Customer Needs

Design thinking – with its human-oriented approach – is much better for understanding the needs of your customers or stakeholders. Design thinking requires you to get in the head of the people you serve, including end-users, fellow managers, team members, or anyone else. This can prove to be immensely valuable when putting together a business plan that outlines your business objectives or when settling problems within your team or streamlining the project management process in your business.

A better understanding of your customer’s needs is a major advantage. Imagine trying to come up with a new product to solve a customer's pain point. Rather than focusing on the business or practical limitations that your enterprise might have, you instead utilize design thinking to imagine:

  • What your customers might like in a new flagship product
  • How your customers will react to the launch of a new product
  • What pain points did your previous product miss that you could improve upon now
  • And so on

All of these questions will have a cumulatively beneficial result on any future products or solutions you make. Because this has a major benefit right at the beginning of the project development process, you’re unlikely to have to go back to the drawing board later on or completely throw away a project because it misses the mark.

Prototype Solutions and Iterate Rapidly

In addition, design thinking enables your team to prototype numerous solutions and iterate upon them rapidly. That’s a huge benefit, and for many reasons:

  • Prototyping lets your team identify the best possible ideas after a brainstorming session. It can be tough to know whether one idea or the other will be better or more feasible until you see small-scale prototypes of those ideas in action
  • Prototyping enables your project team to have a better grasp of the full range of resources it might need to accomplish specific goals
  • Prototyping lets you iron out any kinks or problems in early iterations of a new product or service before customers experience those hiccups. This, in turn, may lead to better reception of your deliverables later on

Increased Adaptability

That ties into another benefit that design thinking brings to project management: higher adaptability. Because design thinking is agile, flexible, and people-focused, it's more adaptable than other project management approaches.

Imagine being in the middle of a big project and suddenly needing to pivot to a different focus. With design thinking, you can imagine how that shift might affect your customers and, more importantly, how to best use your limited resources to minimize the impact on the end consumer.

Don't forget, of course, that increased adaptability comes with higher innovation and more creativity. Over time, your brand might produce more novel, interesting products and services for its customers than ever before, thanks to design thinking.

Improved Efficiency

Naturally, thinking about projects and problems in this way will lead to better efficiency throughout your team and even your entire company. Design thinking tends to streamline the innovation process while also facilitating greater creativity.

It's certainly true that mistakes and hurdles are part of the product iteration and idea testing processes. But with design thinking principles, you know what you need to do next and can also avoid resource waste. That alone makes design thinking a boon to any project management leader.

In addition, design thinking will help you put your people in the right places and maximize team efficiency. Assigning team members to distinct project modules will be clearer and easier with design thinking.

Expanded Problem-Solving

Lastly, design thinking can help to expand your problem-solving success rate. If your team is having difficulty voicing the actual issues or problems plaguing a new product or project launch, for example, design thinking helps you crystallize those issues in clear, actionable terms.

Once your team knows what the problems are, they can get right to work fixing those problems or solving customer pain points. Think of design thinking as a laser beam that can guide your team through the murkiness of creativity and product innovation. With design thinking, you always have a guiding star that will help you make the most of your limited time and resources and, in the long term, provide better results for your brand and customers.


Wrap Up

Design thinking has the potential to rapidly and dramatically transform your project management processes and results. When used properly, design thinking can help you avoid backtracking or wasting resources, plus lead to much higher customer satisfaction than ever. Start using design thinking today – in no time at all, you’ll master it.

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