Project managers play essential roles within an organization, constantly going above and beyond to plan, execute, and deliver on essential projects that drive a business forward, all while saddled with the weight of strict budgets and time restraints. 

A good project manager makes delivering successful projects look effortless but creating and executing an effective project doesn’t always come easily.

Enter design thinking, a problem-solving process that empowers project managers to explore a whole new realm of innovative solutions.

There’s no denying the success a project manager can achieve through design thinking within their project design. Centered around creative and user-centric solutions, it’s unparalleled in problem-solving for effective project management. Through the steps and methodologies of design thinking, project managers are able to gain better direction for their projects and deliver exceptional results for their users and stakeholders. 

Let’s take a closer look at the phases of design thinking and the various methods of using design thinking within project design.

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Design Thinking in Project Management

At its core, the concept of design thinking is simple. Design thinking is a structured method of problem solving that follows three stages: collaboration, innovation, and acceleration

Through this framework, project managers gain better understanding of their end-users to develop insight and direction for the task at hand. Effective project management through project design is crucial to delivering the best value possible.

5 Steps of Design Thinking

There are 5 steps of design thinking to deploy in effective project management:

1. Empathize

Being a user-centric framework for problem solving, it’s only fitting that the first step of design thinking is to better understand your user. Get to know their demographic, acknowledge their needs, and understand their desires and objectives. Conduct research and perform interviews to identify the problem, and gain a thorough understanding of what the ideal solution would entail for the user.

2. Define

As Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” The define phase of design thinking challenges project managers to do just that. Reflect on phase one observations to create a simple problem statement. This will lend direction to your workflow and act as a strong foundation to stage three.

3. Ideate

You know the problem, and you understand the needs of your users. Now it’s time for action. Brainstorm multiple potential solutions to the problem at hand that serves the defined users. Encourage creativity to garner a wide variety of possible outcomes. Fostering innovation through ideation is key to effective project management.

4. Prototype

Once you’ve established the most effective solution, put your theories into practice with some form of prototyping. Depending on the problem, the prototyping may resemble story boards or sketches, or closer resemble the finished product in the form of a 3D model. The goal of prototyping is to test your solution, so be sure to keep your problem statement in mind throughout the design of your prototype.

5. Test

Testing is a key component to effective project management through design thinking. To accurately measure the success of a project and make sure the product or service is ready to go to market, testing must be conducted to ensure it provides a solution to the problem at hand, in addition to a flawless user-experience. Test with actual end-users to see that it achieves their goals. If the testing phase is unsuccessful, the team must revert to an earlier stage and continue the process until the problem statement is solved with a desirable outcome.

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Implementing Design Thinking Methodologies in Effective Project Management

Understanding the stages of design thinking provides a strong base for effective project management, but how do we go about implementing design thinking into our daily practice?  

Deploying design thinking in your organization’s operations will not always look the same. In fact, there are several different methods of design thinking that a project manager can use to improve their workflow and exceed expectations.

Here are a few common design thinking methodologies used within project design:

Concept Poster

Largely used to pitch solutions, a concept poster is a useful tool to summarize an idea through graphics, summaries, sketches, and timelines. It can communicate to stakeholders why a project is needed, how it’s intended to be completed, and why it matters to the end-user.

User Journey Map

Understanding a user’s journey can be challenging. Deploying a user journey map acts as a step-by-step visual representation of the user’s experience with a product or service. With a visual illustration of the user’s flow, one can easily identify and address specific pain points within the journey. 

Affinity Clustering

Through a visual diagram, affinity clustering can sort items by similarities. Sorting is frequently executed using sticky notes, white boards, or chalkboards. In design thinking, affinity clustering can assist in identifying common patterns and help in identifying major problems that need to be addressed to improve the customer experience.

Importance/Difficulty Complex

This quad chart helps project managers and their team establish priorities and make thoughtful decisions. By plotting priorities based on their importance and difficulty, you can effectively develop an action plan based on the weighted value of each task. 

Think Aloud Testing

Think aloud testing is an effective design thinking tool to identify gaps within processes. Through think aloud testing, users are asked to describe what they’re doing, thinking, and feeling as they perform the task, which imparts insight for project managers on user expectations and issues within the user’s journey.

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Start Leveraging Design Thinking Today

Want to learn how to implement techniques for defining market fit and growth of your business? 

Enroll in Simplilearn’s Post Graduate Program in Project Management or the Design Thinking Certification Training Course, which teaches you how to master the concepts of design thinking, a robust problem-solving process that involves a deep understanding of customer needs. Boost your understanding of business strategy to drive innovation and a design thinking culture in your organization.

About the Author


Simplilearn is one of the world’s leading providers of online training for Digital Marketing, Cloud Computing, Project Management, Data Science, IT, Software Development, and many other emerging technologies.

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