Project Management Institute

Get to the Root of the Problem

Design Thinking Provides Clarity by Putting People First

By Karen Smits

Design thinking is all the rage in the business world. An iterative problem-solving approach for designing products and services, it focuses on end-user needs and challenging assumptions. But oddly, I hear very little about design thinking in the project management world. Are we missing the boat?

Design thinking is good at addressing complex or ill-defined problems, because it's centered on how a product or service affects end users’ feelings and behavior. Similar to agile approaches, it engages users frequently to measure and modify potential solutions during prototyping and testing phases. Instead of decomposing a solution, design thinkers synthesize and generate new options.

Here are three areas where design thinking could enhance project management.


Projects characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity can create problems that design thinking is particularly well-suited to solve. Its iterative process encourages trial and error and can help to uncover better requirements and specifications.


Design thinking's end-user focus brings stakeholder engagement into its core. It's common during the problem-solving process to bring diverse groups together—engineers and designers on a project team, but also end users and a client, for example. This promotes rich interactions that turn competing perspectives into opportunities to explore, rather than obstacles to overcome. Ethnography and journey-mapping are a few design-thinking tactics to uncover stakeholder needs and expectations. These tools and many others offer powerful ways of provoking the mind and connecting to real-life stories.


By helping a team focus on the ultimate purpose and value of a project at its outset, design thinking can hone the strategy that lies behind it. For example, a design-thinking approach might redefine the problem to be solved, sparking entirely new project avenues to pursue that could deliver more strategic value.

It's important to remember that while design thinking offers specific hands-on techniques, it's also a mindset that requires big doses of empathy and humility. It's a way of thinking and working that establishes a collaborative environment and encourages insights from all stakeholders.

From where I sit, project leaders can and should leverage design thinking to better understand the implications of changing project conditions and envision better solutions. It just might power an organizational culture shift that leads to an abundance of innovative ideas. PM



img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Sydney, Australia. She can be reached at karen. [email protected].
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