How Design Thinking can Improve Your Work as a Project Manager
Design thinking is a bit of a buzzphrase in professional circles these days. Trendy. Perhaps even a fad, from the perspective of well-seasoned workers with a deeply ingrained cynism for new workflow concepts.
But there are reasons why “design thinking,” is more than just the current Atkins of professional product development and collaboration. It’s a customer-centric approach to getting things done. One with a proven track record for success that can’t be ignored.
In this article, we take a look at why project managers in industries from finance to tech (and more!) should seriously consider the merits of a “design thinking,” approach. Read on to learn more!
First, What is Design Thinking?
It’s so simple, you might laugh. Are you ready? Design thinking is all about designing products and processes by starting with the customer’s needs, and working your way back.
What, you didn’t laugh? Everyone is a critic.
It does sound almost intuitive though, doesn’t it? However, this concept does change the typical workflow in ways that many professionals may not be comfortable with. Two things you should understand about “design thinking,” in terms of its practical execution:
- It’s iterative: Basically, this means that you work in drafts, smoothing the finished product out based on feedback. This open-ended approach can make it harder to attain closure on a project, but it does allow for a higher degree of refinement than other workflow structures encourage.
- It’s nonlinear: Like Christopher Nolan’s flicks from the turn of the century, design thinking is also nonlinear. This means that task completion is prioritized based on what makes the most sense to the finished product on that specific day.
For some people, this approach may be a little bit beyond their typical comfort level. However, it is a process with a proven track record for success— one that helps thousands of professional teams all over the world achieve their goals.
As a project manager, you are perched on a rather precarious edge. On the one hand, you are working very closely with the creative team to get— well, whatever— done. On the other hand, you are also beholden to the stakeholders. The people who will be using the finished product, or profiting from its eventual development.
The “design thinking,” approach is well-suited for balancing these dual responsibilities. Because design thinking implements an iterative approach to the workflow, stakeholders are kept constantly in the loop, making it very easy for them to weigh in early on the direction of the project.
This is also beneficial to your team, who can be sure that they are working toward something that will ultimately be well-received.
Well-suited for Problem-Solving
As a project manager, “problem solving,” is a significant aspect of your job description. One of the nice things about design thinking is that, because of the non-linear, iterative conditions of its implementation, there aren’t a lot of dead ends.
With a traditional workflow, it is very possible that you can spend months on a project that will be flatly rejected upon delivery.
With the design thinking workflow, issues are caught early on, allowing you to eliminate snags before they become significant issues.
You Make Better Stuff
That’s the job at the end of the day, isn’t it?
Earlier you said that the job was problem solving.
Very good. Someone clearly isn’t just skimming this article while they use the bathroom. The responsibilities of a project manager are multifaceted, and, at least on an experiential level, endless.
But the reason you have the job in the first place is to eventually deliver a high-quality, polished final product. When you put the user at the forefront of all of your considerations, you backward engineer something that is plainly better and easier to use than what you would have gotten by taking another approach.
Design thinking also emphasizes collaboration that places a high value on cross-functional collaboration. As a project manager, you can use a design thinking-based workflow to bring out the best of multiple skill sets at every stage of the development process.
Because the work is non-linear, skill diversification is spread more evenly throughout the entire project. A team member who may have only been brought in at the end of a project in a traditional workflow may be utilized from day one using design thinking.
Innovation is the ultimate goal of design thinking. By using empathy and highly communicative collaboration, project managers are able to push boundaries and truly innovate. Creativity and risk reduction allow teams to reach new heights.
It’s important to keep in mind that failure is an expected part of the design thinking workflow. In the same way a novelist doesn’t publish their first draft, design thinking development teams expect their initial efforts to be used only as a stepping stone toward an eventual polished product.
This combination of factors allows design thinking to maximize the potential of any finished product.
It’s perfect! Revolutionary! It’s—
It’s not for everyone.
That’s what I was going to say.
Right. Design thinking does have many strengths, but there are also aspects of the process that don’t sit well with everyone. The main issue is how open-ended the process can be. To work with design thinking, you need to be very comfortable with the idea that projects will never feel quite complete.
You’ll stop working on projects, of course, but because of all the revisions and edits, they may never feel fully done.
The process also has to complement the overall goals of the company. Design thinking projects produce great results, but they also tend to operate slower than more traditional workflows. As a project manager, it will be up to you to make sure that everyone is satisfied not just with the finished product, but also with the delivery timeline.
Finally, design thinking requires total adherence. If the stakeholders aren’t interested in being involved in the early stages of the workflow, you won’t be able to make it work.
It’s a great process, but to successfully adopt it, you need to make sure you understand it from every angle.