Is Design Thinking for Projects…or Strategy…or Both?

Design thinking has been around for decades, but it has taken root more deeply in recent years. As the transition to a digital economy continues, design thinking plays a role in making and keeping the customer first. It also supports shorter delivery time frames, increases chances of project success, and wards off the effects of inertia.

Let’s dive in and explore what design thinking is and the role it plays in both strategy and for managing projects.

The Design Thinking Process

Design thinking follows a generally accepted five part process. And while process is important, design thinking is not necessarily sequential. Flexibility is a key tenet of the process. While all parts of the process are important, the order is less important, and iterating back and forth between process components is normal.

design thinking process steps

  1. Empathize – The ‘Empathize’ process component comes first. The focus is on listening, observing, hearing, and recording. It can be formal or informal, at a distance or up close, individual or in a group. The idea is to capture everything that you see and observe nonjudgmentally. It can be helpful to have questions, but they should be open-ended and not attempt to steer the conversation in a particular direction, but maybe just to bound it.
  2. Define – Having completed at least an iteration of ‘Empathize’, to ‘Define’ means to synthesize your observations and data into an initial draft problem statement.
  3. Ideate – The initial step in the ‘Ideate’ process component is to come up with as many ideas as possible to solve the problem. No ideas are bad at this point; reserve judgment until later. Once you have reached a point where all or most ideas have been squeezed out, you can then switch gears and begin debating among the solutions and narrowing down the list to a few strong possibilities.
  4. Prototype – Select the best idea – it can even be a few if it is easy to construct prototypes for them. In this process component, the objective is to build something tangible that real users can see, hear, and touch.
  5. Test – Devise one or more experiments – situations and use cases for the prototype. Plan on a structured process for recording observations and gathering data. Ask the users for feedback and record and analyze it.

Although the objective is to move from left to right through the process components in the diagram above, the process is iterative. However, the process of applying design thinking for projects of any type commonly involves performing the steps multiple times, tracing back and reworking previous steps again and again.

The Design Thinking Mindset

Any human activity requires getting into the right mindset before proceeding. Design thinking requires a certain thinking constraints

The overall approach is to deliberately drive toward a solution to a customer’s problem. In design thinking, the customer is truly number one; everything is centered on the customer. With focus on the customer, the job in design thinking is to find a balance among the following three factors, ultimately finding the ‘sweet spot’ where all three intersect.

  • Desirability – What does the customer want? What is the problem they need to solve? Often the customer is not even clear on what they want until you take them through a process of discovery.
  • Feasibility – Part of what keeps the customer from seeing what they want is that they do not even know what is possible. As you better understand the customer’s job to be done, you can begin to show them possible solutions that they never considered and ask for feedback – if this looks like what they want.
  • Viability – Not only must a solution be feasible, but it must be viable – economically, environmentally, and physically. It must be practical and sustainable.

Design thinking is holistic; it is not just about designing a product or service. It is not easy. It is a process for dealing with so called “wicked problems”. As such, there are four rules that seem to be accepted broadly in helping teams stay on track for the design thinking journey.

  1. The Human Rule – All activity is focused on the customer – which means it is ‘human-centric’. The rule is to never forget the human element – that the problem at hand is ultimately a human one.
  2. The Ambiguity Rule – It takes endurance and staying power to deal with ambiguity. There are rarely black and white decisions. You will need to make decisions under uncertainty, and be willing to experiment and try things.
  3. The Redesign Rule – Human needs may not change, but the solutions for them undoubtedly will. A good design today may be a bad design tomorrow. Be willing to detach yourself and your ego from past good work and move on to redesign new solutions.
  4. The Tangibility Rule – Building prototypes brings them closer to reality. It makes them more tangible…and the more tangible they are, the more relevant and insightful will be the feedback. Try to make things as tangible as possible.

“Wicked problems” are ones that cannot be solved with a single calculation, the stroke of a pen, or a wish and a prayer! They are deep, persistent, ongoing and pervasive problems that require personal commitment and persistence to solve – and are best approached by adhering to the above rules of design thinking.

Design Thinking as Part of Strategic Thinking

There are three trends that have brought design thinking front and center as part of strategic thinking.

  • Shorter planning cycles – The speed of change has compressed the time cycles for planning. This results in an increased need to identify and deliver what customers want, and a vulnerability to disruptive innovation.
  • Digital technology – This has not only expanded the content of products, but also disaggregated market segmentation. Digital technology has actually empowered customers.
  • Ecosystem strategies – As organizations incorporate activities of partners into their strategies, design thinking can help in the effective development of useful, friendly, and efficient touch points where they need to be in the ecosystem infrastructure.

As a result, design thinking has gained a strong foothold as part of strategy consulting services. For example, McKinsey has developed a strong design component to its strategy consulting practice. You can find examples of value added initiatives stimulated by design thinking in “More than a feeling: Ten design practices delivering business value.

The real shift in strategic thinking occurs when you move from thinking about customers in terms of segmentation, such as geographic, age, sex, and other factors, to one of customer experience, such as specifically what some people like, want, or need. Design thinking is a much finer grained approach, and allows for much greater potential customization of products and services than previously possible.


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Design Thinking for Projects

design thinking for projectsDesign thinking is helpful on projects of any kind and can be a refreshing addition to other established PM processes!

Besides helping project teams to move from the emotion of hope to insight and finally to confidence (image credit to IDEO), below are just a few things that immediately come to mind:

  • Traditional PM – Even in a waterfall environment, it can be a challenge to extract requirements. Design thinking can help. The idea that customers not always know exactly what they want has always been a hurdle, and incorporating interim deliverables on large projects can help keep things moving in the right direction.
  • Agile processes – Most projects are hybrid and have at least some agile component. The idea of iterating through proven process steps seems natural and intuitive. Projects can benefit from incorporating some elements of design thinking.
  • Business analysis – Whether the project is large or small, developing requirements iteratively makes sense. Whether it is the customer interface person on an agile project, or a formal business analyst on a larger project, using design thinking concepts to walk in the customer’s shoes, develop prototypes, and test early and often adds value.
  • Stakeholder relations – Design thinking emphasizes being customer centric. This idea can be extended to projects by with emphasis on being more stakeholder centric. All stakeholders are customers in some way. It may actually take minimal time to make sure a more peripheral stakeholder is satisfied.
  • Project closing – Design thinking implies that a project never really closes – or at least the product of the project is never really finished. Only iterations are truly finished. If we as project managers can define the closing of projects with that in mind, we can close projects and perform hand offs that are more meaningful and leave that continuation of the effort seamlessly in someone else’s hands.

The tool set that project managers are expected to have is clearly expanding. With demand for a PM skill continuing to transition from a focus on schedule, quality, and cost to full literacy in business and strategy, there are many tools that can help. Design thinking is definitely one of them.

Make Design Thinking a Habit

Design thinking is not a skill that you learn in the classroom and then put on the shelf. To the contrary, it requires practice. It is definitely a skill that you learn by practicing.

To summarize the process, it seems that we as project managers can find a way to practice and become more competent at design thinking as part of our regular activities as PM’s:

  1. Empathize – Proactive empathy – listening and observing openly and deliberately – with all project stakeholders and all team members.
  2. Define – Practice defining problems only after listening and observing. Keep in contact with stakeholders to ensure the problem definition is as accurate as possible.
  3. Ideate – Practice seeking as many possible solutions without passing judgment, and once you have gathered all the ideas, and only then, rate and prioritize the ideas to begin narrowing down the list of possible solutions.
  4. Prototype – Practice trying out tangible solutions with stakeholders in some way. You can provide a visual, a mock up, or an actual prototype – whatever works for the situation.
  5. Test – Practice experimenting! Even if it is simply trying out ideas, just do it. An experimental mindset can open you and your team to a lot of personal growth and greater effectiveness at delivering value.

Design thinking for projects of any kind is an applied skill worth developing and putting to good use.


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