Design Thinking in Project Management

Design thinking has been invaluable in project management. Projects that deliver effective solutions, innovations and products leverage different aspects of design thinking throughout a project life cycle.

It comes as no surprise that a common challenge that projects face is establishing project scope even more so in agile projects. Design thinking methodologies offer a solution. Let me tell you about a project where design thinking methodologies offered the solutions that we needed to refine project scope and launch a successful project.

Once upon a time…

Our team was brought into a project wherein the project team thought that we had a robust project scope to deliver a data management system only to find out after the project started that we didn’t.

The project lead had taken the proper route to establish the scope after interviews and rounds of stakeholder feedback. The project scope was signed off by the sponsor and we had buy-in from key stakeholders. We started the project with clear deliverables as well as a list of exclusions. It started off pretty straightforward much to our delight!

But within the first few weeks, we realized this was going to be as far from “straightforward” as possible. We had expected resistance from a few stakeholders, but we got more than we had bargained for. Stakeholder resistance took many forms.

There was the usual combination of active and passive resistance. And one thing that we noticed that seemed odd was that even those who were close collaborators on the project, continued asking questions stemming from expectations that was beyond the scope of the project. No matter how often the project team reiterated the scope of the project, we heard the same questions.

We quickly realized that although the project scope had an end goal that would be impactful, we would have to reconsider some additional deliverables if we wanted the project to ultimately succeed. We needed to take a step back and apply design thinking.

Design thinking principles elevated project success.

The tools provided by design thinking add the systematic element of human-centered approach to a project. It enables the project team to effectively assess who the ultimate end users are and to design a successful end product. Design thinking not only gives us methodologies, but it enables us to begin with the right mindset.  

Start with the right mindset.

Empathy, embrace ambiguity and be prepared to iterate. There is no set sequence in how these should be done but determine the flow that is needed for your project and build the stages into your project plan.

Apply the design methodologies.

1. Seek inspiration.

As you set out to design for the end of user. An expert project manager can make project management seem very simple and it is only because they know where to look for inspiration and how to refine and apply their learnings.

Inspiration can help you answer the question about how to get started, and how to keep people at the center of the project.

2. Define your audience.

Take a broad stroke when identifying stakeholders. Consider some questions to help you identify your stakeholders.

For example: will the learning platform be used only for learning resources or also as a performance improvement tool? Will the reporting framework you are creating for the senior team be ultimately managed by their assistants? Are there any other tasks that could be simplified and who would benefit from the simplification?

Getting the right audience input when defining your project is the key element that will enable project success and its implementation.

Tools to define your audience and ultimately project scope:

  • Interviews. Start with who you know and branch out as you learn more about interdependencies and impact.
  • Research. Design thinking encourages us to explore our hunch instead of stifling it. Do you research and get feedback.
  • Immersion. Get more context by walking in your stakeholders’ shoes or live a day in their life. How do things work for them now and what would your product or system change for them?

3. Engage in ideation.

Involve the project team early to download learnings, share stories, brainstorm, and bundle ideas that have themes.

Ideation can help you get a visual concept or map of how to progress. Could a storyboard help you decide what needs to be prototyped? Add these steps to the project plan and keep your stakeholders involved.

4. Implement.

The good work that you put in to early on to define project scope, stakeholders and deliverables will make your project run smoother.

The lessons you learn while prototyping and the client feedback that you get will make this stage easier and save on resources. Be prepared to iterate based on feedback and continue monitoring your scope.

For our project, this is how it turned out:

We developed a clear RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed)1 so that we could have a proper input and implementation cycle. We created rough prototypes based on the design feedback that we gathered and began to see a positive shift in stakeholder engagement. We kept the original project scope statement, added one new deliverable that fitted seamlessly and created a roadmap for future enhancements.

When the launch date came along, we released the first version of the data management system. We had succeeded in delivering a system that worked better than what we had planned during project initiation! The system has continued to evolve and become more efficient and all that happened because we applied design thinking in project management.

Free download – Design Thinking in Project Management


1. RACI is an acronym of ResponsibleAccountableConsulted and Informed. The matrix design of the RACI Matrix describes the participation of the various functional roles in the project or business process, in completing tasks or results.

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