Avoid Project Failures with Design Thinking

Linh Tran, Friday 04 September 2015 | Reading time: unknown

Avoid Project Failures with Design Thinking

Photo by Pixabay User stux

When people hear ‘design’ they automatically associate it with the appearance of a product, but ‘Design Thinking’ goes much further than that. It’s not just about how the end product looks like, it focuses on the process of developing a product and places the human factor at the center. 

What is Design Thinking?

So what is Design Thinking exactly? Like Kaizen, this approach is more of a mindset rather than a strict methodology. The concept was first introduced in 1969 by psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Herbert A. Simon in his book “The Sciences of the Artificial” and later adapted as a business tool.

When we think of design, we think of creativity. Design Thinking strives to understand complex problems and find creative solutions to these problems. This approach also encourages teams to understand the world in a different way and, thus, facilitates (disruptive) innovations. Design Thinking is often used in product management, but project management can make use of this approach, too, because it addresses the problems that cause projects to fail. These problems are often non-technical issues such as miscommunication and a poor understanding of requirements. Design Thinking emphasizes the importance of diverse teams and helps them understand customer wishes and needs better. The ultimate goal of Design Thinking is to encourage teams to create more meaningful products that aim to enhance user experience instead of just focusing on improving sales.

The Design Thinking Principles


As the human factor is at the center of this approach, empathy is an important aspect. When developing a product or service, the project team needs to have empathy for the team as well as for the customers. What does that mean? It means that Design Thinking advocates an open and tolerant working environment that encourages collaboration and teamwork between teams, but also includes all project stakeholders and customers in the process of the project from the very beginning. This is important, because you can get immediate feedback from your customers on what they like and don’t like and can make changes and revisions along the way.


Design Thinking can help teams communicate better with each other and avoid misunderstandings that can cause project failure. One reason for poor communication in project management is that people often don’t really know what is expected of them and what the requirements of the project are. With all the plans and charts and meetings in project management, you’d think that it would make things clear, but the truth is that it doesn’t. Why? Because it’s all on paper, or rather theoretical. Something can mean one thing to one person, but be understood or interpreted completely differently by another. Here’s a very good example for this issue:

How to draw a sheep according to tumblr


To avoid these kinds of misunderstanding, it is better to use visualization, such as sketches, mind maps or physical models. 

Prototyping and Testing                                                   

Prototyping is often seen as costly and time-consuming, however it can be an extremely powerful tool. Building a prototype does not just provide a visualization, but it also provides you with data and metrics that you can analyze. This helps you spot bugs and problems and find solutions to fix them. You can avoid launching a product with bugs that might cause dissatisfied customers. Design Thinking also emphasizes the fact that design is a process of continuous improvements and redesigns. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you can look at it from a different angle and make it more efficient.


Design Thinking is at its core an iterative and multidisciplinary approach. Project managers often develop a project plan which outlines which tasks the team members have to do. Often there are risk analyses to anticipate unforeseen events, but ideally, the team should stick to the original plan as much as possible. Design Thinking on the other hand promotes ambiguity. That means that the problem is approached from several different perspectives and all alternative solutions are implemented to solve the problem. Most often than not, you will never find the right solution at one go anyway, so why not trying out all possibilities?  

Failure tolerance

You should not encourage failure, but you should encourage your team to take risks. When trying something new there is always the risk of failing, but Design Thinking helps teams realize that a setback does not always equal failure – it’s all about how you deal with it. Take Post-Its for example, it was sheer coincidence that they were invented, and all because one scientist at 3M failed to create a strong adhesive. (Source) Innovation and progress can only be achieved if there are people willing to experiment, test, fail – try again and do it better.

For further reading:

Using Lego Serious Play as a Design Thinking Tool

Design Thinking Tools: Reverse Brainstorming

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