We’ve all read about or at least heard of Design Thinking (DT), especially in the context of design teams or the design process. But you must also have heard that DT is not just a process. It’s an approach, a way to do things, that can be applied beyond the boundaries of the design teams.

How can we use the DT in the field of Project Management? And how can harness DT to reduce communication and cultural gaps when working with teams that are sometimes remote in time, space, and culture?

By examining each step of the DT process, we can find some answers.

A new partnership: an opportunity to take the first step towards empathy

Whenever we embark on a new partnership, our main source of information is people. We want to understand their experience with a specific topic directly related to their product, service, or business operation.

Beyond that, it is necessary to experience firsthand how they live within their environment so that their needs, problems, and desires can be better understood. To this end, visiting the partners, where they work, and having meetings with them is a good way to start.

Once we have an understanding of the problem or need, our next task is determining the areas of opportunity (if applicable and important). Then, we specify which problems or challenges should be attempted that will lead us to seek an innovative solution.

For example, some clients have a vague idea of the product’s appearance or performance, but they need clarification or support for functional and non-functional features as well as the look and feel. Some clients have no defined process or standards and may need to seek for help in understanding their benefits and implementing efficient ones.

Interdisciplinary ideas and perspectives

Since interdisciplinary work plays an important role in design thinking, the contribution of different ideas and perspectives is crucial for finding innovative solutions to the problems in the previous step – even if some ideas might sound “crazy” and seem “absurd”.

The key at this stage is to encourage participation and to recognize all points of view as valid without making people feel intimidated.

Remember, the solution to a problem can often come from the most unexpected sources. The most extravagant ideas are often those capable of creating the most radical and innovative solutions!

The prototype

The next step would be to design a solution and make it tangible with either a physical or a digital prototype. Normally, this is done with a “proof of concept”.

Regardless of whether it is a product, service, or a process to enhance better project management (e.g. Agile coaching), try to represent it in a minimal viable version. This will help to enable incremental adjustments to the prototype in case it is required without incurring too many costs within the improvement process.

Finally, we will get to a point where the user will be able to interact with or test the prototype. Thus, we will be able to obtain feedback from them to make enhancements. However, some considerations must be taken in this phase if we have incorrectly defined the problem and then presented a prototype that failed to satisfy the user even to a minimum degree.

In this respect, it is necessary to make this process repetitive depending on the tests and feedback provided by the users as well as the adjustments made. We may return to one or more steps several times until we find the result they expected, then perfect the model enough to make it as useful and repeatable as to introduce it into our “management toolbox”.

Design thinking and project management

How does all of this fit into project management? In many ways, the design thinking process mirrors that of project management. More importantly, design thinking can help bring your project management processes into focus.

The point of project management is to organize, monitor, and adjust projects across their entire lifespan. Yet many projects fall apart around some of the most fundamental components of the project, like their goals. Poor project goals get you off on the wrong foot from the very beginning, and your project struggles to progress from that point on.

Design thinking can make a world of difference here. Defining areas of opportunity, and specifying the challenges you hope to overcome brings your project into focus before you begin.

From there, you can incorporate interdisciplinary ideas into your planning process for the project. By doing so, you can make sure you’ve incorporated all the relevant ideas while still keeping your focus in the right place.

Making your project management work with design thinking

In practical terms, there are several concrete ways you can bring together design thinking and project management when dealing with communication and cultural challenges.

A good place to start would be to have one person as your full-time coordinator, i.e. besides the Project Manager, you would ideally have a Product Manager or Technical Lead /Director onsite the customer’s premises. This role would serve as the point-person, coordinating the work of the teams and bringing together in-person and remote workers. They would also serve as articulators of the management’s vision, keeping everyone on track and focused on design thinking principles.

This is further enabled by a process for documentation like Product Requirement and/or Technical Specifications Documents, etc. Many small companies shy away from documenting much for the sake of becoming more “Agile”, but the truth is that documenting the process of work is the best way to orient the team in all ideas and keep everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Last but not least you need a process for communication. Think regular, daily updates. Check-in with each team member to see where they are in the process, check-in on everyone’s understanding of the goal and their progress and reassess if delivery is happening smoothly and whether decisions need to be made or actions taken towards minding gaps in communication or culture.

Don’t forget to implement three other critical plans as well: a plan for communicating more complex requirements (one hour a week if needed), a plan for product training (maybe one hour every other week), and a disaster communication plan. Who do you contact and how? What does the update need? How often?

If you can answer these questions and consistently apply design thinking principles to keep your team focused, you’ll find yourself in a stronger iteration of project management. And most of all, it will allow you to orient your management success and bring the focus back to what matters most.