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What Is Design Thinking and
How Can You Use It to Benefit Your Projects

See also: Project Management Skills

A natural part of being a project manager is the ability to be innovative. You can have completed all your training, but a project rarely goes accordingly to plan, and there will be times where you have to think on your feet and put those soft skills into action.

This is what is referred to as design thinking – innovative problem solving via a human-centred approach.

The latest buzz word

A modern project manager who keeps up with the terminology of the field will have heard of “design thinking” even if it’s just on the grapevine, but they may need some help turning this concept into creative and practical action that will benefit their role.

The main thing to remember is that design thinking focuses on the needs of people you are working for or with and can be used by many different teams.

Thinking by design

This empathetic approach works by imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and looking at a problem from their perspective in order to find solutions, and is an approach taught by Parallel Project Management Training.

For instance, the large accommodation company Airbnb used design thinking when experiencing stagnancy and a lack of growth. By imagining how they appeared to their customers and looking at issues through fresh pairs of eyes, they were able to make the necessary changes that accelerated their presence and popularity.

You don’t have to be a big conglomerate, however, to benefit from design thinking. Even the smallest company can take significant strides when adopting this innovative approach to their work.

Making the shift

There are five steps to working through the design thinking process and the beauty of its approach is that you can work sequentially through these steps AND go back and forth as and when needed to adjust your findings. It’s essentially a collaborative process that welcomes participation in the form of feedback, no matter how diverse the opinions.



The 5 steps

  1. Use empathy

    This is the most important step as unless you can see through a problem through someone else’s eyes you will struggle to find the best solution. Identifying the actual problem (rather than what you presume it to be) is critical and so you will need to talk to people and ask for their perspective in order to get a deeper understanding.

  2. Form a problem statement

    This is where you take what you have learned and formulate the problem around the needs of the people you are aiming to help. The statement needs to be clear enough to define the problem but open to different ways of addressing those needs. It can help to make this statement “action orientated” to inspire your team so beginning the statement with words such as ‘create’ or ‘produce’ will immediately help to tap into their problem-solving abilities.

  3. Time to ideate

    This is the exciting yet challenging step where you all get to put your thinking caps on! Practical solutions are fine but the whole point of design thinking is to think outside of the box and brainstorm as many solutions as possible.

    You will then need to evaluate and choose to keep or discard some of these solutions and formulate an answer based on one or a mixture of the ideas so you can move onto the next step. Try not to look for the perfect solution or get mired in analysis paralysis. You can always go back a step or several steps to refine what will become your prototype.

  4. The prototype

    The budget should always be a factor, so step 4 is all about coming up with a low-cost way to put your solution into effect. Your team can whiteboard suggestions and build inexpensive prototypes that can be tried out for feedback. Your prototypes will likely change based on feedback received, however, so it is important not to spend a lot of money at this stage. The goal is to create a mock-up in order to generate opinions from end users.

  5. The acid test

    It is important not to only focus on the solution itself but be open to the feedback it generates so adjustments can be made where necessary. This is more of an “experience” that can be used to create an even better product or solution.

Adopting the right mindset

Fear kills creativity and so project managers using design thinking will need to be bold and risk trying out what may initially seem like wacky ideas. Clients, stake holders and team members are encouraged to move away from linear thinking or constraining beliefs in order to get the best out of this creative approach.

Management need to be on board so that the people they are leading can express their ideas without fear of judgment. Design thinking will be stifled in a fear-based work culture or seniority that has always done things a “certain way”. The ethos needs to be embraced from the top down to stand any chance of success.

Promoting business agility

Agile is another buzz word amongst progressive project managers and design thinking goes hand in hand with agile to cut waste, save money and find design solutions faster. Spend too long thinking of solutions using traditional methods and the competition may beat you to it! Human-centred design uses people’s innate spark of creativity, humanizing the workplace and encouraging collaboration, which only serves to increase trust and morale.

Project managers

Design thinking is one of the skills required in project management because it is an invaluable asset alongside the natural counterparts of soft skills, facilitation and leadership that quality training imparts. A rewarding part of being a project manager is the ability to rise to a challenge and get everyone on board to deliver a quality and cost-effective result that inspires customer satisfaction and team morale. Leading teams in human centred methodology cements people around the problem where everyone is encouraged to bring something to the table.


About the Author


Michelle Gillam has written extensively over many years about a wide range of topics related to project management and change management. She is a PRINCE2 qualified project manager with a special interest in improving communication skills

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