How can Einstein teach us about IT Project Management?

Einstein said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” This is actually the core of the Design Thinking approach, an approach we think you will find valuable. In this article we explain how Design Thinking can help you deliver more successful IT projects.


Design Thinking is a subject that I have been fascinated with for a long time. I first came across the topic when I was studying innovation techniques as we developed our own innovation process at Daysha.

Although possible to define, it is something that you only really understand and appreciate when you experience it. Probably one of the canonical demonstrations of Design Thinking comes from IDEO – the Shopping Cart Project. Shot by ABC Nightline TV programme, it shows how the design firm IDEO applied Design Thinking to rapidly redesign the supermarket shopping trolley in 5 days. It’s well worth viewing. Another excellent video on Design Thinking is the “Design + Thinking” feature length documentary.

Why should we care?

Try this test: ask your IT project managers to articulate specific business outcomes that users expect. If the answers are murky or unclear, then perhaps it’s time to consider what Design Thinking has to offer.

Design Thinking is a maturing field that is impacting every area of business. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of Change By Design, in this seminal article said

“Moreover, the principles of design thinking turn out to be applicable to a wide range of organizations, not just to companies in search of new products. A competent designer can always improve upon last year’s new widget, but an interdisciplinary team of skilled design thinkers is in a position to tackle more complex problems. From pediatric obesity and crime prevention to climate change, design thinking is now being applied to a range of challenges that bear little resemblance to the covetable objects still filling the pages of today’s coffee-table publications.”

At Daysha we see Design Thinking as a valuable tool which helps us avoid project failures. Many of the reasons for IT Project Failures in particular can be traced back to a lack of understanding of the original problem and business objectives. How can we expect projects to deliver good solutions without first understanding the problem?
So Design Thinking, with its emphasis on understanding the problem first, should be a great tool for any project manager to have.

Get Started with Design Thinking

Design Thinking, in my view, is really a mindset or philosophy which provides guidelines as to how a team should go about understanding a problem and developing solutions. The process is one which emphasizes empathy for the users and the problems they experience, and combines analytical and creative thinking to come up with unique perspectives and generate ideas that can be developed into solutions.

The following are just some of the techniques we use at Daysha, particularly when using our Pathfinder process.

  1. ASK: the first tool is simple ASK. No this is not an acronym. Too often we get caught up in trying to apply tools and systems and forget that simply asking questions can reveal a lot. Design thinking is a humanistic approach, putting the user or client at the centre of the discussion. The 5 Whys is a great tool to guide your conversation. Another tool is the 9 Boxes. Both of these help structure a conversation so that you can get a deep understanding of the problem.
  2. Ethnography: Using this technique we observe the problem domain in action. For example, we might sit with users of a system and observe how they use it. This independent observation, unencumbered by the organizations culture or history, can be used to great effect to see the problem from a new perspective.
  3. 4 Lenses: The 4 Lenses is a tool that is based on the idea that all great innovations have come from people looking at a problem from a fresh perspective. This perspective is the lens, and there are 4 types of lenses; Challenging Orthodoxies, Harnessing Trends, Leveraging Resources, and Understanding Needs. By applying these lenses to a problem we can gain greater insight into the issue, deepen our understanding, and develop valuable solutions.
  4. Journey Mapping: Visualizing the problem area is one of the core tools of design thinking. A journey map shows the various stages of a users’ or object’s journey through a process, all the interaction points, the decisions, and the outcomes. Journey maps allow us to focus in on bottlenecks and other problem areas. They allow us to ask why a stage or process exists and to test alternatives. Some great examples of journey maps can be found here. It is also very simple to produce low-res versions using butcher paper and post-its.
  5. Sketching and Prototyping:  Often projects produce a lot of dry documents that are difficult to read, let alone understand and evaluate. The late Bill Moggridge, director of Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, made an important point when he said “I think that’s where design has a fresh opportunity to be influential because, as designers, we know how to create a prototype of some example that illustrates that change. We can show something. We can show an experience. We can show a design solution, and that’s much more real to the management who are receiving the input than the realistically dry report.” Sketching and Prototyping are tools that can help bring your ideas to life. They are quick to produce, low cost, and easy to understand.

Example – European Space Agency

Concurrent Design facilityIn 2012 we were invited by the European Space Agency to work with them to help figure out how best to make use of a collaborative working facility. This facility, the CDF, had been purpose built to support concurrent design during mission feasibility studies. You can read more about it here. ESA wanted to find ways to make use of the facility for other kinds of work, particularly Project Reviews, Anomaly Investigations, and Distributed Design Sessions.

design thinking processWe used a design thinking process to help us to understand the needs of the people involved in these processes, and to discover solutions that would allow them to use the CDF to make these processes more effective.

The process started with the Inspire phase. In this phase we started with an analysis of existing information and documentation. We also gathered inputs to inspire and inform good ideas that we would need later on. We looked both outside ESA for this inspiration. For example, we looked at how similar processes were used in FEMA, Intel, and NASA. We also observed (Ethnography) a live working session in the CDF. Then we conducted a series of interviews (ASK) with 14 stakeholders with various roles related to the CDF and the target processes.

We organized the resulting collection of inputs, and developed some Journey Maps to describe the project review, anomaly investigation, and distributed design processes. Using these we were able to choose areas to focus our attention. Options were generated using brainstorming for a range of solutions, and then voted to narrow down the options to those that met user needs in a technically feasible way.

Following this high priority concept elements were sketched and prototyped in order to test their usefulness. We conducted a number of workshops with the same interviewees In these workshops we verified our understanding of the problem space using the journey maps. We also proposed a number of solutions/features that could be built and then asked participants to rank these according to desirability and necessity. In subsequent workshops we concentrated on sketching and prototyping the highest ranked features so that we could get feedback on their usability and fit.

Finally, we received user, business and technical feedback on the concepts which was used to create and refine the use cases and requirements definitions. These would be used by the solution developers to construct software tools to support the additional activities in the CDF.

Robin Biesbrock, Programme Manager as ESA, commented that “I was impressed with the process and the final deliverables. Daysha managed to quickly and thoroughly capture all of our requirements and visualize a range of solutions. We were very happy with the results”

The Design Thinking approach works, and differs from traditional requirements and systems modelling approaches, because it puts the human at the centre of the action. We design around the human needs. We challenge assumptions that may have become ingrained in the organization but are no longer valid. Our outside-in perspective allows us to reframe the problem and generate innovative solutions.

Bring out the Designer in You

Are you initiating any projects in your organization in the near future? Are you concerned that the objectives are unclear, that there is insufficient support, or that your team is not fully prepared? If so then your project is at risk of failure.

The Design Thinking approach can improve the chances of project success because it starts by really questioning the purpose of the project right from the outset. This sets a great foundation that provides the team with a deep understanding of the problem domain. You can witness this in the IDEO shopping cart video mentioned earlier. During the course of the video the multi-disciplinary team including psychologists, engineers, and biologists were all contributing and understanding the issues at hand.

In IT Project Management we know that the project kick-off is the most crucial stage of the project. Do this right, get the team motivated, the stakeholders engaged, everyone collaborating, and then you have a good chance of success. Design Thinking can help you do this.

“Today, designers are the key in a company and its future. Their role is a strategic one, and their technological prowess, business savvy, and proven track record fuel projects that “make sense” well before making “cents” and being technologically possible.” -Christian Guellerin, The Highs and Lows of “Design Thinking”

Design Thinking can bring out the designer in all of us.

What do you think? Please let us know in the comments section below.

If you want to know more about how Design Thinking can help you to successfully deliver IT projects, please download our white paper “Pathfinder – Designing Projects to Succeed”.

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