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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Project Management Meets Design Thinking

The practice of Design Thinking has received accolades for transforming the way organizations solve problems.

At the core, Design Thinking is about driving decision making from the human perspective, where business, organizational and technological solutions evolve from a human-centered exploration.

Design Thinking practices offered by Stanford’s, IDEO, IBM, GE and others are characterized by reimagining exercises, wide collaboration, rapid iteration, prototyping and testing cycles and a tolerance for failure. So, what happens when traditional project management meets Design Thinking?

In the following case, we will journey along with a project manager as he explores what an executive-mandated Design Thinking initiative means to his job. We’ll discover what he has to change to ensure the identified problems are addressed and the targeted solutions are delivered successfully, with Design Thinking as a key element of that process. Project management meets Design Thinking.

Thanks to G.A.D. for the details on this story.

The Situation

The Marketing Vice President for this North American retailer had a problem. While sales in the bricks and mortar locations were doing well, sales on the company’s web site were languishing. That was especially troubling because their competitors were showing significant, double digit sales growth through their internet offerings.

The company had over a hundred thousand customers using their loyalty card. They ran weekly email promotions to that base. They ran weekly print and online sales promotions as well. All the material featured their web site and the ease of online shopping. But it wasn’t increasing web site traffic and sales.

The Marketing VP had tried changes to their web site interfaces and functionality. He had sponsored the development of an application for customers to run on their smart phones, tablets and PCs. He had even offered discounts for first time online purchasers. But it wasn’t increasing web site traffic and sales.

Out of frustration, the Marketing VP decided to try something completely different. He had read a number of articles about a practice called Design Thinking and its ability to transform corporate performance by focusing on the customer. So he contracted with a firm that had a solid track record on Design Thinking engagements to help his organization rethink its approach to online marketing and service.

But, the Marketing VP knew this undertaking could be a sizeable project. So, he brought in an experienced Project Manager to oversee the venture. The selected PM had no experience with Design Thinking but he was a capable, trusted manager with over ten years of successful delivery and satisfied clients inside the company.

The Goal

The Marketing VP named his new project “Project Resonate” and set three specific targets:

  1. Increase online sales activity by 30% annually by the end of year one
  2. Deliver the solution within nine months
  3. Spend no more than $1.5 million. That amount would allow the company to break even on the investment within one year.

The Project

The new project manager, let’s call him Robert, had heard the term Design Thinking and had scanned recent articles on the subject but had no in-depth understanding. So he went to work, reading, researching and discussing the subject and his role in managing a Design Thinking initiative. He met with the Design

Thinking Facilitator (DTF) assigned to Project Resonate by the contractor and was thrilled with her level of expertise and her thoughts on how their roles would operate. They agreed to the following:

Robert, as overall Project manager, would be accountable for:

  • Managing the relationships with the project sponsor (the Marketing VP) and other key stakeholders.
  • Defining, implementing and running the governance practices reflecting the company’s current dictates, including appropriate processes and practices. On this project, Design Thinking would be one of those.
  • Developing and managing the change management plan.
  • Developing and managing an overall project management plan.
  • Planning and tracking project financials.
  • Reporting on project status to all interested parties.
  • Identifying and supplying needed resources and facilities.
  • Developing and managing the risk plan.
  • Developing and operating change and issue management processes.
  • Developing and running the communication plan.
  • Identifying and socializing lessons learned.

The DTF, as the primary Design Thinking resource, would be on the hook to

  • Articulate the objectives for the Design Thinking effort and the problems that are being addressed.
  • Design and plan the group processes.
  • Select the tools that best help the group progress towards the desired outcome.
  • Guide and control the group process to ensure that:
    • There is effective participation,
    • Participants’ boundaries are challenged,
    • Participants realize a level of mutual understanding,
    • Participants’ contributions are considered and included in the ideas, solutions and decisions that evolve,
    • Participants take shared responsibility for the outcome.
  • Ensure that outcomes, actions and questions are properly recorded and actioned, and appropriately dealt with afterwards.

With their respective roles and responsibilities out of the way, Robert and the DTF worked together to develop the approach and plan for the Design Thinking stage. The DTF used a five step approach to elicit and prove potential solutions, with opportunities to iterate at each step as often as needed.

They identified the participants who would be needed, including actual customers and representatives from the business and technology units affected. They drafted a message for the Marketing VP to send to the target participants explaining the challenge the company was facing (in customer terms) and asking for their assistance. They planned the initial workshop – a four day affair. They mapped out the timeframe for the first cycle and booked the facilities to accommodate the workshops and reviews. They also agreed to limit the scope in the first session to three high level goals (Epics in Agile parlance).

Davison 021317 Design Thinking Process

And so the work got underway. Early on, Robert experienced an aha moment. As he watched the Design Thinking efforts unfold, he realized Design Thinking was just another set of skills and practices that could be leveraged to help solve a problem and deliver a successful outcome. Of course, it was a vital practice because it set the stage for everything that would follow. But, in reality, from a project management perspective, it was no different from any number of other essential skills and practices, including agile software development, lean/Six Sigma and other business analysis and design approaches, data management, technology architecture, programming and testing in all their forms, change management practices, and so on. They were all best practice based learnings that could deliver amazing value, depending on the nature of the project. They all deserved a place in the project manager’s tool box.

The Results

The Design Thinking effort on this project produced three high level goals and a number of prototypes over six weeks. Three of the prototypes went on to be developed and released into production in three sequential releases.

The project was completed in a little over five months at a cost of $650,000. After twelve months, web site hits had more than doubled and sales had increased by over 50%. Not bad for a Design Thinking first try!

Perhaps the most significant benefit from the project was a lasting passion for the process. The customers involved were truly excited by their experience. The company capitalized on that excitement in their advertising and promotion, with their customers’ approval of course. The company’s participants, business and technical staff alike, loved the energy and excitement of the problem solving and creative processes and demanded the same experience in follow-on projects. The Marketing VP insisted on Design Thinking front and center in his future endeavours. Others in the executive suite took notice. Design Thinking became a company obsession.

How a Great Leader Embraced Design Thinking

In most “traditional” projects, the target solution is known. The challenge is to figure out how best to deliver and get it done on time and budget. In a Design Thinking world, the challenge is different. Of course there will be some thoughts about the possible “solution”. But the real emphasis is on collaborative exploration leading to rapid prototyping and human-centered testing. It is a voyage of discovery, marrying customer, business and technology perspectives to deliver a solution that satisfies.

Robert’s early realization that Design Thinking was just another essential tool to add to his tool box was a breakthrough. It made the inclusion of the Design Thinking effort in his project just a normal part of his PM job – always select the best tools available for the task at hand and adapt them as needed. The experience also cemented in Robert’s mind his top eight beliefs – for serving his clients well and getting maximum enjoyment out of every assignment:

  1. Understand the customer’s point of view
  2. Collaborate with all stakeholders
  3. Emphasize the journey, not the destination
  4. Ensure the people, tools, services and resources are equal to the task
  5. Be adaptable
  6. Embrace risk, accept ambiguity, learn from failure
  7. Iterate
  8. Rapid delivery is essential.

So, be a Great Leader and put these points on your checklist of things to consider so you too can achieve great results. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group (including the key stakeholder roles), the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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