Manage Your Projects For Success Using Elements Of Design Thinking

Industry Trends

January 16, 2015

Design Thinking framework combines empathy for the users, creativity in the generation of insights, and an iterative experimental approach to assessing the quality of solutions. It is the new way to envision technology innovation. By enhancing traditional IT project management framework with the elements of design thinking, we can greatly reduce project risk and improve ROI.

In this blog, I have drawn strategies that I have personally used to turn around derailed IT projects by enabling aspects of design thinking in traditional project management elements, which include:

  • Project Governance
  • Time and Cost Management
  • Delivery Management
  • Communication
  • Knowledge Management

Project Governance

Establish sideways, top down and bottom up people collaboration

The first and most common reason for project failures is inadequate team cohesiveness and collaboration. Regardless of the project management methodology that is being used in the project, many projects fail because the project methodology is being implemented “in theory” often by writing lengthy project plans, spreadsheets and by conducting countless (often unnecessary) meetings.

Using the user-centric element of Design Thinking, we can greatly improve cohesiveness and collaboration within project teams.

Top down collaboration

Weekly status meetings/ steering committee meetings with Project management and sponsor team alignment.

Bottom up collaboration

Daily Stand-ups to build team momentum and establish accountabilitywithin development team members and peers

Sideways collaboration

Ongoing iterative prototyping and feedback sessions. Demo solution components. Enhances cross functional team alignment

Timeline and Cost Management

Include the “cognitive” aspects of the project

The other big reason for project failure is an inadequate understanding of the “human factor” during the scoping process. With many new technologies and changing market trends, the scoping process often ignores the learning curve that is associated with these new products as well as the emotional connection with end-user needs. The estimation process often doesn’t consider the fine difference between what’s possible versus what’s humanly possible. Even a multi-phased project approach can cause problems if it doesn’t consider the learning curve of the new technology for both the consultant and the customers.

Incorporating an additional buffer in the project timeline for the new product learning curve can improve the correctness of cost estimates. In addition, conducting Design Thinking as part of scoping will help the sales and delivery teams to understand the cognitive aspects of user-needs and co-create a better solution.

Delivery Management

Co-create as opposed to proposing “silver bullet” solutions

Many projects fail because we try to dictate solutions without really understanding the emotional needs of the end users. This results in confusing the problem with its symptoms; as a result we greatly risk project success.

Click here to learn more about how you can incorporate Design Thinking during the problem discovery phase. When it comes to solution, it is prudent that project teams co-create the solution in collaboration with end-users during the delivery phase.

The “Iterative prototyping” element of the Design Thinking framework can help you streamline the “delivery” aspect of project management.

Iterative prototyping with periodic user feedback can bring great success to your IT project. Design teams fail to realize that our previously generated theory doesn’t always work in every given situation. Prototyping allows quick assumption testing with inexpensive experimentation before moving into deeper cycles of development. Not only does it enhance communication between the client and the consulting team, but it also saves the project team from last minute design surprises.


Albert Einstein once said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it

Lack of “simple and frequent” communication can result in project nightmares. This is especially seen within projects with distributed staffing models, projects with complex requirements and with larger teams. The “visualization” element of the Design Thinking framework can help you streamline the “communication” aspect of project management.

Converting verbal discussions into visual brainstorming sessions can greatly reduce the communication problems experienced during design discussions. It might create more scope upfront, but it lets you create “better scope” and avoid unproductive meetings later in the project.

Poor project management is often due to the lack of visibility into the constantly evolving tasks of delivery. Project managers often put a great amount of effort in writing lengthy plans and updating checklists and lengthy spreadsheets, which are generally ineffective. A more effective way of managing day-to-day details of the project and constantly evolving work tasks is to use sticky notes or a white board approach with hand written top priorities for the day.

Another challenge comes from running projects with distributed staffing models – offshore/onsite mix. While having video conference meetings and live meetings with screen sharing are good ways for people to collaborate in a distributed staffing model, “technology only” isn’t sufficient to ensure smooth collaboration between distributed team members. There are certain times in the project when you have to bring everyone together, face to face, in order to gain strong commitment and understanding. When it comes to distributed staffing models, there is no substitute for building the human connection, particularly during the critical phases of the project. Those include (but are not limited to):

  • Design Thinking phase
  • Phase Kickoff meetings
  • Integration Testing daily meetings
  • Cutover daily tracking

Knowledge Management

Knowledge transfer and sustainment planning should be initiated during discovery

Many projects fail because knowledge transfer is left until the end of the project. Successful knowledge management results in better user adoption and it promotes sustainable change. Knowledge management doesn’t mean building an online repository of documentation, but rather about creating an atmosphere for continuous knowledge sharing and mutual understanding. Co-creation with peer alignment, iterative prototyping, periodic feedbacks, and visualization are the key workings of design thinking and can hugely improve the momentum of knowledge transfer between development and end-user teams. Here are some strategies that can help you.

Discovery Phase

  • Co-create solutions using Design Thinking Journey Maps and Story Boards
  • Foundation of solution prototypes are created. Basic features are identified with a common understanding

Design Phase

  • Peer alignment sessions. Iterative prototyping and feedback sessions
  • Ongoing design updates are understood by end users. User see the solution as its being built. Solution demonstration and integration aspects are outlined

Final preparation

  • Formal handoff SME groups
  • Readiness for sustainment phase

Have you encountered problems you would like to solve with Design Thinking? Share your questions and experiences in the comment section.

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