If you work as a project professional and have noticed projects seem to be becoming more complex, you’re not alone.

According to the 2020 Annual AIPM/KPMG Project Management Survey 67% of project managers feel the complexity of projects and programs has increased over the past decade and 53% also feel their organisation does not do enough to improve project and program management skills and capability.

With projects increasing in complexity, ensuring you have a broad range of skills as a project manager is essential. In this article innovation and transformation specialist, Chandana Shekar, MAIPM explores the topic of design thinking and how it is an absolute must in a project manager’s toolkit.

What is design thinking?

A lot of us would have heard this term being thrown around on numerous occasions – “Let’s use design thinking to solve this problem” or “Design thinking is the new approach to infusing innovation.” But what exactly is design thinking and is it really worth the hype?

Let’s start at the very beginning. Design thinking can be attributed to the modern movement in the mid-20th century, where people were fuelled with the desire to produce works of art and design based on objectivity and rationality.

The term itself was coined by Tim Brown from IDEO (the world’s pioneer organisations specialising in the domain) and it became universally known through that buzzword.

IDEO defines design thinking as a:

“Human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirement for business success.”


It is also described as a style of thinking by German businessman, Hasso Plattner:

“It is generally considered the ability to combine empathy, creativity, and rationality in analysing and fitting solutions to context.”


Simply put, design thinking is a way to solve problems through a structured approach to creativity. Often Design Thinking is used by advanced practitioners alongside other design and development methods such as Agile and lean.

Design thinking in project management

So that is an explanation of what design thinking is, but how can you use the method/concept in your project management efforts? Here are some examples to get you started:

1. Consider the end-users

Take a human-centred approach by designing project management methods and tools that are intuitive to non-project managers and seem less like an overhead.

To empathise with these end-users, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and Centre of Excellence bodies can look to iteratively test and design tools and templates. Doing this will also enable greater stickiness of new project management processes, tools and templates across the organisation.

2. Keep the purpose or goal in mind

Often when teams are in the throes of a project, it is common to forget the ultimate purpose or goal being fulfilled by the mundane activities being carried out every day.

Having a regular forum and implementing design thinking methods and linking back every activity to the ultimate customer outcome, will re-invigorate the team and encourage self-adjustment to overarching project goals. It could also possibly be a great opportunity for the team to interact with end-users, building their empathy of the problem first-hand.

3. Create unique solutions to problems

Two of Albert Einstein’s famous quotes are apt in the context of Design Thinking:

  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
  • “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Both of these quotes allude to unleashing creativity to develop new ideas, find new patterns and innovate.

While it is important to draw inspiration from seemingly unrelated subjects to develop a unique solution to a problem, boundaries should be set to avoid going off on an endless tangent without solutions.

4. Be a facilitator of conversations

Another key technique is adopting a collaborative working style to accommodate complex ecosystems of stakeholders that are now common on most projects. This style requires the project manager to play a neutral role and facilitate conversations across interdisciplinary teams, thus:

  • Bringing together different perspectives and schools of thought. Seeing the same problem but from different viewpoints helps to find new opportunities.
  • Tapping into creative tensions between stakeholders to challenge norms and reframe the problem. Here it is important that as a neutral facilitator, the project manager demonstrates the skill and aptitude to ascertain when and where to find a harmonious balance without allowing the situation to escalate into a conflict.
  • Being comfortable and tolerant to a certain level of ambiguity, trusting that the open collaborative process will culminate in creative solutions. When dealing with so many stakeholders, their competing priorities and egos, a mindset of openness, active listening and cautious optimism will help in bringing alignment.

This article has only just scratched the surface of design thinking and its intersection with modern project management methods. To explore this topic further visit the IDEO website as well as the Stanford d.school which can provide practical tools to leverage design thinking on projects.