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Design Thinking: Fight Complexity and Failure

Projects fail all the time, usually resulting in one department blaming another, who then ends up blaming a vendor, who then usually blames the software. After the dust from the blame game settles, everyone goes back to work on a new project without examining the project management process and management that caused the failure – so they fail again.

To help fight this vicious circle, there is design thinking. I came across a blog post from ZDNet by Michael Krigsman that talks about how design thinking can help break this cycle of fail, blame, restart.

What is Design Thinking?

While there is no one definition of design thinking, it’s a mindset of values that applies both analytical and creative thinking towards solving a specific problem. It’s about how you think, not what you know. Despite the ambiguous nature of design thinking, Krigsman outlines six principles to help guide this thought process and help stop project failures.

Six Principles of Design Thinking

1. Put a multi-disciplinary team in charge

Multidisciplinary teams champion the user, the business, and the technology aspect of a project in a more comprehensive manner than otherwise possible. Usually, IT teams talk to business stakeholders who then talk to end-users. This normally creates delays, communication gaps and inefficiencies. Creating a single team that includes participants from all these areas will help eliminate any of these issues.

Krigsman suggests when creating these teams, to try to staff them with what he refers to as “T-shaped” people. These are the individuals who not only possess a broad understanding and empathy for IT functions, but also have a deep understanding in one domain to champion that perspective. This approach helps ensure your solution is economically viable, technically feasible and delights end users. Having a more balanced team also humanizes the project; however as you construct these teams remember; as your group gets bigger, other people tell you what to do and team members feel less connected to their work as it relates to the outcome.

2. Prepare for failure in the beginning

Krigsman suggests kicking off projects with a workshop where you visualize all the things that could go wrong by imagining that the project your about to embark on has failed. He states that this gives the team an opportunity to proactively look at risks and prepare to prevent and mitigate them.

3. Be both vision and task driven

Design thinking emphasizes storytelling, shared vision, and empathy towards all stakeholders involved in a project. On many projects, participants focus exclusively on their own individual tasks, thus becoming disconnected from the big picture. In Agile development, everyone is assigned a task without understanding the larger picture, vision or even seeing the connection between his or her task with final outcome. In this scenario, a project can fail and people may not understand their role, thinking they failed due to someone else’s work. If team members fail to realize their tasks contributed to a failure, they won’t try to learn and change.

On the other hand, vision-driven approaches are very powerful. People perform their tasks, but the story and vision persist throughout the project. All the tasks have a bigger purpose beyond their successful execution. Even good project managers miss this point. It’s important at a review meeting to evaluate what the team did right and also revisit the vision to examine how recent outcomes fit into the overall story.

4. Fail and correct, then fail again

Design thinking contradicts other methodologies that focus only on success. In design thinking, failing is not necessarily a bad idea. The key to design thinking is to fail early and often, and then correct the course. One of the challenges with traditional project management is the need to pick one alternative and run with it. Krigsman suggests that it’s far better to iterate on a number of alternative as fast as you can before deciding which one will work.

5. Make tangible prototypes

One of the characteristics of design thinking is to prototype everything. It allows you to create a tangible artifact and learn from it. It helps people focus on “what I want to know” instead of “what I want to say”. One of the biggest misconceptions of prototypes is that people perceive them as too complex to construct and are a waste of time. This isn’t the case. Prototypes can be a simple as a sketch or as complex as a fully functional product. The fidelity of a prototype is based on what kind of questions you want answered. People tend to fill in the gaps with less polished prototypes, whereas more completed prototypes can be too complex to solicit meaningful feedback. Most importantly, prototypes also make the conversation product-centric and not people-centric and help get team members on the same page with a shared vision.

6. Embrace ambiguity

One of the problems with traditional project management methodologies is that they tend to spend more time on executing the solution and less on defining the problem. Design thinking encourages people to stay in the problem space as long as they can. This behavior results in ambiguity, which is good.

Ambiguity fosters a mindset that allows people to explore what is probable with limited information without the concerns of proving or concluding that it actually works. It helps people define a problem in many different ways, letting them get to the right problem that they should focus on.

Final Remarks

While it is important to be product-centric, remember that real people work on every project. The best methodologies have to take the human aspect into consideration and help participants anticipate the likely causes of failure. Visualizing failure at a project’s onset is an excellent way to help prevent it from occurring. Design thinking can make potential failure a learning tool and not a final outcome.

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