Integrating Design Thinking into your projects Bruce Gay PMP - Blog

Integrating Design Thinking into your projects Bruce Gay PMP

Following my recent PMI UK webinar Integrating Design Thinking on Your Projects, I would like to share some thoughts on Design Thinking that could be useful to project leaders when considering deploying the methodology within their teams.

In today's business environment, project leaders must look beyond the foundational knowledge of managing projects and embrace more innovative practices and methodologies. Design Thinking has gained prominence amongst innovative organisations as a powerful technique for delivering innovative solutions that delight their customers. It is another method that can be added to a project leader's toolbox to help manage risk, customer expectations, and to ensure stakeholder alignment.

But what exactly is Design Thinking?

Most project leaders are not at all familiar with the methods and practices of user-centred design and Design Thinking. At the start of the recent webinar, I polled attendees and only 9% responded with being 'very familiar' with Design Thinking. The majority of the attendees were 'slightly' or 'not at all familiar' with the methodology.

So, if you want to learn more about design thinking - you are not alone!

You will find many ways to define the concept of Design Thinking in public discourse. Some individuals focus on the process or methodology, while others highlight the so-called unique mindset needed to be successful at Design Thinking.

The summary that I prefer to share with project leaders and business analysts is as follows:

Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach that keeps the user at the centre of the focus and embraces trial and error through iterative testing of prototypes.

Stanford Design School (Stanford 5-Stage Model

The most common Design Thinking model to use with your teams is the Stanford Design School 5-Stage Model. (Tip: The Stanford provides free materials and resources on their website to get you started). Understanding these five stages will empower your team to apply the Design Thinking methods to solve complex problems.

The five stages of Design Thinking, according to, are as follows:

  • Empathise - This means immersing in the user's environment to conduct user research, with the goal to better understand the needs and constraints of your users.
  • Define (the problem) - This is where your team will analyse user observations and synthesise the research data to define the core problems. Your team should formalise a 'problem statement' that will guide activities in the later stages.
  • Ideate - The goal of this stage is to 'go wide' and generate a range of possible and creative solutions to the problem. Your team will begin to down-select solutions that will be tested with users in later stages.
  • Prototype - The team should build a small number of real, tangible representations of features or products that they can use to investigate the problem solutions generated in the previous stage. By the end of this stage, your team should have a better idea of the constraints inherent to the product and the problems that are present.
  • Test - The fifth stage is returning to users with the prototypes for feedback and validation. Feedback is then incorporated into feature or solution development, or it may lead to further exploration and research. 

Figure 1 –Design Thinking 5-Stage Model 

In practice, Design Thinking is not as linear as laid about above in figure 1. It is carried out in a flexible, non-linear, and iterative fashion. As you may intuit, the exploratory and iterative nature of Design Thinking makes tracking and monitoring progress difficult. When I was junior project manager, it was difficult for me to understand how to manage teams conducting user research and iterative prototype testing. Over time, I learned to 'time bound' key activities and set milestones for the teams to achieve deliverables.

I also learned that the methodology can be deployed as a pre-development, waterfall-like process, or woven into a scrum agile development project. Design Thinking works well with both traditional and agile project methodologies.

Visual communication is key to Design Thinking

A key learning from the webinar was for attendees to discover first-hand how using visualisation helps to enhance their communications with their teams and stakeholders. By being visual, you can be more precise in communicating the concepts or ideas that you have in your head.

I led the attendees through a 60-second 'Speed Sketching' exercise to draw simple pictures of several common words. The words were chosen so that they would have different meanings depending on the situation. We polled the attendees for each of the sketches as shown in figure 2 and variation in meanings lined up with what would be expected of a northern European culture. 

  Figure 2 – Example drawings from the "Speed Sketching" exercise

In the end, the attendees learned how simple drawings which represent people or things symbolically, rather than accurately, can lead you to communicate more effectively. Visual communication allows for more accurate communication and misunderstandings are quickly highlighted.


Design Thinking is another tool that project leaders should use to manage risk and customer expectations and to ensure stakeholder alignment. It will help you lead your teams to deliver greater customer satisfaction.

You may already be using components and elements of Design Thinking in your everyday work. If you are interested learning more, consider joining the PMI UK Chapter Virtual Workshop 'Design Thinking for Projects'on 29 June 2021. You can register here

  About the Author

Bruce Gay PMP helps individuals improve their project management skills, become better leaders, and achieve professional greatness. In his current role, Bruce manages a PMO and is responsible for operational and delivery excellence for a R&D organisation within a large regional hospital system.

Bruce is an active volunteer with the PMI Pittsburgh chapter and is their Director of Corporate Sponsorship.

In April 2021, Bruce provided a PMI UK Chapter lunch-and-learn webinar titled "Integrating Design Thinking on Your Projects". The recording, presentation and Mentimeter results can be found here

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Mr. Andrew Peters, PMP
Sunday, 25 February 2024