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Design thinking is a process made famous by Stanford’s d.school. Design thinking techniques stimulate innovation by drawing on methods from engineering and design and combining them with ideas from the arts, social sciences, and the business world. The process is highly effective and can be used to tackle complex projects. In this blog, I talk about four contributions from design thinking.

Projects are a decidedly human endeavor.

In a world that seems increasingly filled with talk about artificial intelligence and robots replacing humans, projects are a decidedly human endeavor – at least for now. Traditional project management uses the term stakeholder management to mean the process of managing the people on the project. I don’t like the term.

I believe that replacing the term management with serving, hence, serving the people, will move us in a better direction. Yes, project managers need to manage budgets, risks, issues, and a host of other project aspects. But rarely do I believe that trying to control or manage people is the appropriate approach.

That is not to say that we don’t need some people management. But if we set up the right project processes and controls, and hire the right people, the rest will often fall in place. So, here are a few recommended processes and controls:

  • Ensure that every person on the team understands why you are doing the project.
  • Ensure that every activity leader understands why each activity is necessary.
  • Understand why every person on the project wants to work on that project.
  • Allow as much self-management on the team as is feasible.
  • Use standing meetings to build accountability on the team.
  • Write fair and hopefully positive performance appraisals at the end of every project. If you are on a long project, do it twice – but do the same thing for everyone on the team.

Everyone on the team should practice empathy for a deeper understanding.

One of the key principles in design thinking is the practice of empathy – the ability to walk in the shoes of your customers and understand what will make them happy.

I believe we can take this further than just understanding the needs of your customers. What about understanding the needs and concerns of the other people on your team? And how about understanding the hearts and minds of your executive team?

How do you build empathy? Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you find your mind wandering at team meetings, try paying extra attention to the body language of people on the team. Who is disengaged? Can you figure out why?
  • While you are exercising your curiosity about others, don’t forget to listen with an open mind. It can be powerful when you can set aside your own perspective and try to understand someone else’s viewpoint.
  • Are you doing a customer demo? Try having one person film it, and then, watch the video later as a team. Do you see anything in the video that suggests a ‘wow’ factor in that new feature that you just built? Do you see energy or lethargy in the other people? Sometimes things seem better than they are. Watching the video later may be quite insightful.

Test assumptions.

One principle behind design thinking is the notion of prototyping. Regardless of whether you build a prototype or not, part of the reason for this process is to test assumptions. The mind makes mistakes. Some would say that we are wired with cognitive biases. Early in a project, trained project managers document the assumptions. Assumptions can be dangerous. Test assumptions, just as you might test out a hypothesis.

Design thinking suggests that there is a place for ‘exploration projects.’

Clearly, there are projects that need heavy levels of planning and control, and there are projects that need a more Agile approach. And then, there are various gradations of levels of control or varieties of Agile. Somewhere at one end of the spectrum are projects that are efforts to explore complex ideas. Should organizations have exploration projects with no boundaries? That seems to redefine scope creep, but then, if we have no defined scope, can we have scope creep?

Exploration projects can be a great idea, provided everyone understands the rules. Here are some suggestions:

  • Set a budget, and manage to that budget.
  • Understand the overall vision for the project.
  • Write user stories for a group of activities that you know are warranted. If you don’t know what they are, check out the discussion of user stories in this blog.
  • Use time blocks and reprioritize the activities that you have defined.
  • Keep an inventory of lessons learned. If you are spending this money, you’d better be learning something.

What do you think of ‘exploration projects?’ Share your comments.

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