Design thinking

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Due to the global financial and economic crisis, Design Thinking is seen as a key competitive competency for companies to compete in markets. The challenge is to become more innovative in products, services, processes and business management. [1] Nowadays, Design Thinking as the idea itself is not new anymore, but the significance of a novel process in Project Management is consistently growing. It is understood as an approach to implement creativity into problem-solving areas and develop new ideas. To address problems, a combination of creative techniques and the consideration of business factors such as the inclusion of stakeholders and the conversion capability of the idea into the company are used. [2] Known companies such as Apple[3] BMW, SAP and Google apply this method within their processes. The three main attributes of Design Thinking are Empathy, Invention and Iteration. [4]

Figure 1: Goal and Method Matrix by J.R. Turner and R.A. Cochrane (1993)[5]

Compared to the traditional approach of Project Management which is characterized by a rational and analytical mindset, Design Thinking is a more flexible and agile process. [6] Figure 1 shows the 'Goal and Method Matrix' created by J.R. Turner and R.A. Cochrane which demonstrates the four types of project. The traditional approach would be placed into the first category whereas Design Thinking Projects are in the fourth category. The matrix is not going to be further discussed, it is just used to illustrate the differences between the two Project Management approaches.[5] In case of traditional Project Management, goals and the way of achievements are already defined at the beginning of each project, to adhere requirements within budget, time, scope and quality.[7] Nevertheless, for certain types of projects it is useful to apply the approach of Design Thinking. Within these projects, the goals and methods are not determined at the beginning and it is aimed for a common aspired end value, which is the maximization of the users' value. This approach is especially useful to contribute uncertain projects, where little information is available, projects with a stong relation to human needs, Innovation Projects, improvment of exploration, and strategy formation.[6] The link between Design Thinking and Project Management is exactly illuminated in chapter 3 'Design Thinking within Project Management'.

The implementation of Design Thinking supports project managers with necessary tools and prevent project failures. The difficulty for project managers is to uncover the real customer needs. He needs to receive a better understanding of how the customer thinks, experiences and interacts with products or services to define the right goals and to reach them efficiently within his project. Including Design as a soft skill into management processes involves the customer early into the process and therefore improves the ability of project managers to follow the right idea and to target the right customers.[4]

The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the basic concepts of Design Thinking and its use within Project Management. Furthermore, it will indicate the opportunities and threats of the creative approach.

The Design Thinking Process

Figure 2: Design Thinking Process [8] Last access 15.02.2018

1969, Herbert A. Simon first brought up the idea of design as a way of thinking in his book with the title ‘Sciences of the Artificial’ and laid the basis within a 7-step process. 1990 the process of Design Thinking was developed by the design school of Stanford based on the primary one and the design and innovation company IDEO was established to communicate it to the market. [9] This approach consists of 5-coordinated phases where the focus is on customers' benefit, well-being and needs.[10]

The basic principles of Design Thinking:

  • Interdisciplinary Collaboration
  • Empathy
  • High Creativity
  • Abductive Thinking
  • Iterative Process

The basis is built by an interdisciplinary team. By means of interdisciplinary collaboration, the real problems of the situation can be recognized and solved prolifically by watching them from different perspectives. Project Managers can contribute to the success of the project by selecting a team out of individuals due to their professional experiences and by their personal characteristics. He should select members out of different fields, departments and hierarchical levels which differs in their experiences, backgrounds, and point of views. However, particular characteristics such as well developed empathy to realize particular features within the environment, optimism and experimentalism also help to boost Design Thinking. Moreover, creativity as the ability to find a unique and novel solution also in consideration of many, sometimes also inconsistent variables plays a major role. [11]

Abductive thinking is the way of thinking during the project which means that the problem will be answered based on the findings of observations. The main point is to not focus on a specific solution after stating the problem. The solution needs to be developed around newest discoveries. Team members are asked to challenge themselves with thinking outside the box and to expand their range of thoughts continiously.[12]

An other special feature is given by the iterative nature of Design Thinking. The process is more flexible and does not need to be passed sequentially which allows constant interaction and learning. Usually, the next step can only be determined as soon as the outcomes of the previous step are available. In order to gain the deepest insights into customer's behaviour, needs and requirements, it might be helpful in many cases to use the outcomes of later stages for an earlier one. Therefore, it is allowed to jump between the phases, run them simultaneously and repeat them.[9]


This step is the basis of a human-centred process. It is divided into reframing, exploratory and desk research. After this phase, the project scope and its boundaries, as well as the user profile and stakeholders that need to be addressed, are agreed. The on-site observation is used to gain a deep understanding of the problem and the people. It is essential to analyze their behaviours and interacting with them to build up empathy and to gain insights of how they experience things and the environment. Supported by a research of current trends in this or familiar fields, the designer can come across new ideas and fields of action which he did not have on scope before.It might be challenging for designers to look over the process from an untouched perspective which is fundamental to find new innovations. [10] [12] The three main methods to get in touch with customers, regarding the purpose and the depth of knowledge, can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Overview Techniques of the Empathize phase [12]


The outcome is the formulation of the problem statement based on the discoveries of the previous phase combined with team member's point of view as a unique design vision. It gives the project a design frame, a guideline for the innovation effort and captures people which are involved in the project. This is the decisive phase to identify the right problem. Therefore, it is important to critically scrutinize and evaluate the defined customer need which the solution needs to satisfy.[10]


At this stage, the user's needs are understood and the human-centered problem statement is defined. Next step is to think 'outside the box' and generate ideas to solve the problem. At the beginning, it is important to find as many ideas as possible with a varied range: any idea which first seems to be absurd needs to be reflected. The tool which is often used to collect ideas, is the Brainstorming.[9] There are also several other methods but the crucial criterion is that the collection and the evaluation of ideas need to be separated from each other. The widening of mindset can be enhanced by working with an interdisciplinary team of workers that have lots of ideas in mind and that are willing to build upon an other's idea. This increases the innovation potential of the collection of the solution.[10]


The aim of this phase is to bring the developed ideas at an early stage into a physical form to make them more tangible and to see if the theory can work in reality. Uncovering a failure of an idea at an early stage saves valuable resources. IDECO recommends, for instance, a wall of post-it notes, a role-play, an object, or also a storyboard as potential prototypes. The prototype itself changes during the project time. At the beginning, it is simply designed to allow the creation of multiple prototypes. With the growth of the idea over the time period, the prototype becomes more detailed. However, the prototype should represent the situation to receive feedback from future customers and stakeholders as well as to uncover possible weaknesses of the ideas, reduce risks and decrease the range of possible solutions. Other than testing, it is also used to gain empathy for the customer's point of view, to explore alternative options for solutions and to inspire people for the idea.[10]


Testing is understood as the evaluation of the best solutions found within the prototyping. As well as during the previous phases, the future customer shall be included. Although if its the last stage, it is an iterative process meaning the result does not necessarily need to be the final product. The outcome can be refinements of the solution by including the feedback of the customer or even to redefine the problem if the wrong goal was reached.[10]

Design Thinking within Project Management

Design Thinking brings a relatively new philosophy into Project Management to deal with new challenges on the market. Generally, including Design Thinking especially during the problem definition phase as well as in synthesizing new solutions is beneficial. This implies the concept stage of the project life-cycle together with preliminary design and planning activities.[6] The three main fields can be identified: exploration, stakeholder involvement and strategizing.

Design Thinking perfectly suits projects with high uncertainty and ambiguity due to its characteristics. At the beginning of the project, the final solution is not known. First, the situation needs to be analyzed and a problem statement needs to be defined. Then, many solutions are collected and the project manager can test selected ones effectively. The project manager and the project team learn continuously about the situation by moving iteratively between the several steps.[13]

Design Thinking as a user-centred process contributes to Stakeholder Management.[13] Stakeholder Management is a key challenge in Project Management and covers the identification people and groups which are affected by the project, defining their needs and requirements as well as their degree of involvement.[7] To move the user in the fore, followed by other stakeholders, he is involved at an early stage and frequently interacting with the project during the process. In combination with a multidisciplinary project team, the process allows a better understanding of human needs, behaviour and preferences.[13]

Design thinking encourages project strategy orientation and formulation. The deep development of the problem directly at the beginning of the process illustrates this. Furthermore, the process takes a large scope of possible solutions into account which is an efficient way to identify a strategy formulation. Also, the gained knowledge after a phase can be implemented immediately due to the process' iterative characteristic.[13]

Advantages, Limitations and Challenges


There are numerous advantages associated with Design Thinking. The process is easy comprehensive and applicable. It comprises a holistic approach from the problem definition to suitable solutions. The progress of the project can be traced at any time by means of the prototypes and discovered errors can directly be implemented. Besides these advantages regarding the process itself, there are also positive influences by bringing the idea of Design Thinking into the company.

Within strategic management, there is a huge debate going on. As Roger L. Martin a professor in strategic management at the University of Toronto, who is one of the well-known supporters of Design Thinking, said in an interview that the era of shareholder capitalism is overtaken by the customer capitalism. He states that if a company wants to satisfy its shareholders they first need to start with putting effort into maximizing customers' happiness. By doing so, it needs Design Thinking. This strategic orientation also positively effects the corporate level. It leads to an inspired working environment with a higher motivation of employees. Employees know precisely for whom the product is designed. Customers are more feasible in contrast to shareholders which can change from day today.[1]

Moreover, Design Thinking is needed to compete in markets with short product-life-cycles. The fundamental competitive advantage is to develop a completely new product or service within the shortest time frame compared to others. With its human-centered approach, valuable knowledge about key elements that conduct to customer satisfaction can be created as a competitive advantage. The process also supports the development of creative and innovative solutions. [1]

Current researches of the School of Engineering and Technology at the Central Queensland University have demonstrated that project managers acquire soft skills such as empathy, collaboration, creativity, and non-linear problem solving by using Design thinking within their work. The topic of adapting the curriculum of Project Management Education to the changing environment was already placed during a Global Working Party organized by the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in 1999. In contrast to traditional project manager competencies, the ability to cultivate empathy for customers cannot be learned. But empathy is an important element which influences the project's success. It is mentioned that 51% lessons learned from project failures refer to the planning phase, communication, resource planning and control. The core problems within the project start result from a misunderstanding of the customers and the stakeholders as well as missing empathy. Using Design Thinking allows to decrease project failures. [4]

Limitations and Challenges

In general Design Thinking is a methodology to compete with major challenges in the market. Until now, not so many researchers are mad regarding limitations on how to implement Design Thinking within an organization.[14] Nevertheless, some difficulties of Design Thinking can be defined.

Design thinking can be used in many different projects but it is recommended to keep the level of group members limited up to a maximum of 8. To work successfully, it is important to strengthen relationships between the project team and to encourage interactive discussions. This fact limits the size of processing projects. However, Design Thinking can still be implemented into particular project phases. It might be extremely useful to set up a team at the beginning of the project which works with Design Thinking methods to define the right problem statement. Additionally, the technique can be used to evaluate the project if the right goal was followed by receiving feedback from users.

The Design Thinking approach is also not efficiently applicable if the methods, goals and directions for possible solutions are already known or defined. It contradicts the basic idea of Design Thinking. At the starting point of a project, it is important to have an unbiased view of the situation and to free yourself from previous ideas to expand creative working with the customer in the focus.

The process does not include other necessary steps after the product development. Consideration of the market launch or the marketing is not made. It is not only about being creative and trying to find an innovative product/ service, it is equally important to find a strategy how to sell the product/ service on the market. The newest and best innovation does not add value to the company if nobody is willing to buy it. The idea of design needs to be further integrated into business strategies.

Even the Mission of an organization plays a mayor role in the success for the implementation of Design thinking. Thus, the idea of Design Thinking might be in conflict with the mission of an organization. As a result, conservative structured companies are not willing or they are not aware of the need for change within their company. They might not have the courage openness to include a new Project Management method within their processes. In this case, more effort is necessary to convince the top management to strike a new part and to support during the implementation. Although if they understood the need for Design Thinking, the chance is hight that they tend to over-define the process and Design Thinking adopts the characteristics of a linear and slow process.[14]

Annotated Bibliography

  • Plattner, H., bootcamp bootleg; Institute of Design at Stanford: It's a guide of how to practice Design Thinking without an organization made by the creators of the 5-steps Design Thinking process.
  • Dijksterhuis, E.; Silvius, G. (2016): The Design Thinking Approach To Projects; PM World Journal
Vol. V, Issue VI:
The paper is written by two University students from the Netherlands that analysed the research question on how the Design :Thinking approach in project management differs from the Rational Analytic approach. As a research method the systematic :literature review methodology is used to give an overview of the current status of research. In the end, the paper shows : the conceptual framework is presented to compare both approaches.
  • Leavy, B. (2011): Roger Martin explores three big ideas: customer capitalism, integrative thinking and design: thinking; Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 39 Issue: 4: The article is about an Interview with Martin Roger. He is dean of :the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, where he is also a professor of strategic management. The : the interview is interessting because his primary research interests are integrative thinking, business design, corporate : social responsibility and country competitiveness. He is reflecting the big idea of Design thinking and explains why it is : a method for the future.
  • Ewin, N.; Luck, J. Chugh, R.; Jarvis, J. (2017): Rethinking Project Management Education: A Humanistic Approach based on:Design Thinking Approach based on Design Thinking; Procedia Computer Science 121: The authors are from Central :Queensland University in Australia. This paper is about the importance of Design Thinking as novel concept in Project :Management. It further reviews its influence on project failures. The conclusion is that Project Management Educations :needs to be redesigned.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Leavy, B. (2011):Roger Martin explores three big ideas: customer capitalism, integrative thinking and design thinking", Strategy & Leadership (Vol. 39 Issue: 4, pp.19-26)
  2. Johansson-Sköldberg, U.; Woodilla, J.; Çetinkaya, M.(2013): Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures.
  3. Thomke, S.H.; Feinberg, B. (2009):Design Thinking and Innovation at Apple. Harvard Business School Case 609-066
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Ewin, N.; Luck, J. Chugh, R.; Jarvis, J. (2017): Rethinking Project Management Education: A Humanistic Approach based on Design Thinking.; Procedia Computer Science 121
  5. 5.0 5.1 Payne, J.H.; J.R. Turner (1999):Company-wide project management: the planning and control of programmes of projects of different type;International Journal of Project Management Vol. 17, No. 1
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Dijksterhuis, E.; Silvius, G. (2016):The Design Thinking Approach to Projects.; PM WorldJournal; Vol. V, Issue VI
  7. 7.0 7.1 Project Management Institute (2013):’’A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge’’
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Design Thinking: Get a Quick Overview of the History website of International Design Foundation. Last access on 5.Feb
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Plattner, H., bootcamp bootleg; Institute of Design at Stanford
  11. Brown, T. (2008): Design Thinking,Harvard Business Review
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Vianna, M.; Vianna, Y.; Adler, I.K.; Lucena, B.; Russo, B.(2012)Design Thinking - Business Innovation
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Ben Mahmoud-Jouini, S.; Midler, C.; Silberzahn, P. (2016): ‘’Contributions of design thinking to project management in an innovation context.’’ Project Management Journal, 47(2)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Carlgren, L.; Elmquist, M.; Rauth, I. (2016):The Challenges of Using Design Thinking in Industry – Experiences from Five Large Firms; Creativity and Innovation, Volume 25, Issue 3
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