Is Project Management Missing the Design Thinking Revolution?

Insights | 06 February 2018

Design thinking is all the rage these days and deservedly so. It’s one approach to problem-solving (and problem identifying) that is highly collaborative and centred around the wants and needs of the end user.

To gauge the growing influence in Australia, take a peek at Google Trends. The data shows a 10x increase in popularity for the term “design thinking” over the last 4 years among Australian internet users.[1]

Still, you may wonder what this has to do with traditional project management?

Turns out, plenty.

Writing in the Project Management Journal,[2] researchers Ben Sihem Mahmoud-Jouini, Christophe Midler and Philippe Silberzahn sketched out a compelling argument for why (and how) design thinking can improve project management.

They focused on three core concepts:

  • Exploration — Design thinking believes “action stimulates thoughts,” they wrote. Leveraging this more iterative approach can lead to better requirements and specifications. Rather than hew to the old command-and-control ways of project management, modern practitioners should encourage learning, trial and error.
  • Involvement — Design thinking “proposes methodologies, tools, and processes for easing [stakeholder] interactions.” Because it is so human-centred, conflicting views are planned for and celebrated. Contrast that with traditional project management’s focus on achieving rapid and sustained alignment.
  • Strategy — Design thinking is a “strategic capability that contributes to value creation.” Because the focus in on the ultimate value of the project, you can see more opportunity than a strictly linear and rational approach.

The authors document a striking lack of cross-pollination in the academic literature between design thinking and project management, writing “Of 110 articles from management peer-reviewed journals that mentioned design thinking, only 10 touched on project management and only then briefly”.

To help spark that interaction, we’ve listed some ways this could have an immediate impact on projects or programmes:

Getting to the “why” of failure

Design thinking can help address the underlying causes of project failures, namely “poor communication, rigid thinking, propensity toward tunnel vision, and information silos,” according to ZDNet.

One of the most famous examples of companies using design thinking is the global lodging powerhouse, AirBnB. They’ve publicly expressed how design thinking allowed them to overcome early failures.

As the ‘now-famous’ story goes, the company was on the brink with only pennies in revenue, a mere $200 USD a week[3] (AirBnB is now worth $31 billion)[4]. By meeting with customers and trying several wildly unscalable design thinking-led exercises, critical insights were unlocked. It wasn’t better project requirements or more elegant code. It was the insights gleaned from failing, getting closer to your customer and favouring rapid prototyping over perfect deliverables.

Leveraging different viewpoints

Done right, design thinking not only celebrates diversity, but actively seeks to bring diverse groups together. In other words, competing viewpoints become opportunities to exploit, not blockers to be overcome. Tweet: Done right, design thinking not only celebrates diversity, but actively seeks to bring diverse groups together. Competing viewpoints become opportunities to exploit, not blockers to be overcome. [@PMPartners]

“By emphasising the diversity of the team involved in the design process well beyond the designers, the artifacts, and the space they share, design thinking represents an effective and practical approach for managing stakeholder interactions in exploration projects,” Mahmoud-Jouini, Midler and Silberzahn wrote.

Stakeholder engagement comes up time and time again as a problem for project and programme managers, so there is plenty to learn here.

The Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet shared[5] this advice: “View stakeholders as your partners in delivery — they can inject new ideas and help identify risks.”

Putting people first

Another key part of design thinking revolves around the idea that people’s needs are at the heart of every successful endeavor.

This was the impetus behind the Australian Taxation Office[6] taking on design thinking as a core part of their transformation strategy. Consensus seems to be that design thinking was central in its evolution into a dynamic, customer-focused organisation.

David M. Kelley,[7] known as a founding father of design thinking, describes the impact:

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”

Last thought

There is little doubt that design thinking has much to give traditional project management. The key is to be open to learning, trying and testing.

If you need help with your projects or programmes, call us on 1300 70 13 14.


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