Using design thinking to change up your project planning. How can we apply design thinking principles to help our users commit to our project delivery and make use of the end result?
Throughout most of human history, we have used design thinking in one form or another to improve the form and function of physical objects. Along the way, designers have taken great steps forward to change the design of objects that have allowed our society to leap forward.
Fred Wolf designed the electric refrigerator. David Kelley designed the Apple computer mouse. Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses. Henry Ford designed consumer motor cars.
Over time, as we’ve seen design thinking drive countless household changes, companies have started using design centred thinking in many other contexts. We’ve seen the concepts of design thinking move further away from strictly product development and towards holistic concepts that arise from the product > product functionality, user experience, systems processing, strategic planning, release planning, process workflows and so on.
These progressive evolutions in thinking have built on each other and led to the development of design thinking as a new discipline.
The exciting thing about bringing a new discipline to the table, is seeing how it can help improve our widget development and change outcomes.
As we bring design thinking into our widget development approach, we bump into an immediate challenge. How do we make sure that our end users embrace and accept the final product? Can we help our users to adopt our widget (whether it’s a product, user experience, strategy, process flow, system design or whatever else we have produced) and use it the way it was intended, rather than just leaving it to gather dust?
As project managers, we should ask ourselves a critical question.
How do we make sure that our widget is embraced by the end users and drives the tangible value outcomes that sit in the Business Case?
One way to approach this project challenge is to split out the delivery into two simultaneous and parallel streams:
- Design, production and delivery of the project widget
- Design and delivery of the user intervention
Designing the user intervention can cover two areas of the project planning effort
- Developing an agreed project strategy
- Planning the change management effort
Let’s look briefly at both of these.
Developing a Project Strategy
If we think about the use of rapid prototyping, we use product iterations as a way to predict and respond to user reactions to a new widget. We engage with users early, provide low-res prototypes to get early feedback, then repeat the process in short cycles, steadily improving the product until the user accepts the end result.
This rapid prototyping approach not only provides a product that the user is more likely to accept, but it can also be used to help bring organisational funding and commitment to the table.
We do this by working iteratively with the decision makers to define the problem and develop a solution, through several short, sharp cycles, to make sure that we have executive buy-in – early and often.
Let’s start with a few simple questions that we can use to frame the strategy discussion.
Problem statement > We think this is the problem that we need the project to solve. To what extent does this match your view?
Solution options > Based on our problem definition, we want the project to explore these opportunities. To what extent do these line up with your expectations? Are there any opportunities that we have missed? Are there any opportunities that you would like to remove at the beginning?
Detailed design > Based on the list of opportunities, we want to do deeper analysis on these particular opportunities. Are these the analyses that you expect? Are there any that we are missing?
We would typically develop this strategy during the initial Ideation / Initiation Project Phase – so that we have the executive support for our Project Plan, as early as possible. We would then keep iterating this at each project Gateway/Checkpoint, so that we can quickly identify and respond to any changes in executive priorities.
Planning the Change Management effort
Project managers are often so fixated on building and delivering their widgets that they do not spend time up-front, preparing the organisational change management effort. Too often, we send out a few emails to tell people that something new is coming, we run some quick user acceptance testing and then drop the change on our end users.
By missing out on a properly planned and executed Change Management process, we set ourselves up for failure – while we may deliver our widgets on time and under budget, we will not engage and retain the end users’ commitment to the widget.
The good news is that we can use a similar rapid prototyping-style of approach to map out the organisational change impacts – from the earliest stages of conception and preparation, through implementation and, finally, to resolution.
Let’s think of the change process as being dynamic and unfolding in stages, as we move through five general steps in the Change Management process:
- Prepare the Organisation for Change
- Craft a Vision and Plan for Change
- Implement the Changes
- Embed the Changes within the Company Culture and Practices
- Review Progress and Assess the Results
The challenge for the Project Manager is to plan out the Change Management process and engage the responsible executives and stakeholders early and often. We can use the “iterative prototype” design approach, to help map this out.
Again, let’s look at a few simple questions that we can use to frame an iterative change management planning discussion.
Preparing for Change > We think these are the key challenges or problems facing the organisation that are acting as change drivers, and are leading you to look for new opportunities. To what extent does this match your view?
Craft a Vision and Plan for Change >
- Strategic Goals > What are the key goals that you want to reach from this change? Can we agree on your most important priorities that are driving you towards this change?
- Key Performance Indicators > We think that these are the most effective measures for change success. They are targeted, accountable and measurable. To what extent do you agree with them? Are there any that we have missed that you would like to include?
- Most important stakeholders > We think that these are the people within your organisation who will need to be involved in the change effort. They will need to help own and drive the change, oversee tasks, sign off at each critical stage and be responsible for outcomes. Do you agree? Are there any change owners whom we have missed?
Implement the Changes >
- Communication > We think this is the most effective way to communicate the change impacts to all affected users across your organisation. To what extent do you support these communication methods? Are there any other methods you would use? Who will be responsible for owning the message to users?
- Roadblocks > We cannot predict everything with certainty and there are likely to be roadblocks that will test our resolve. These are the potential roadblocks that we see, and these are the mitigation strategies that we recommend locking down. How do these resonate with you? Are there any roadblocks and strategies that you identify with? Are there any that we have missed and need to include?
Again, we will usually develop this Change Management strategy during the initial Ideation / Initiation Project Phase – so that we have the general change framework in place and agreed as early as possible. We would then keep iterating this at each project Gateway/Checkpoint, so that we can quickly jump in and respond to any changes in executive priorities.
Bringing it All Together
We can easily pull these parallel streams of work together into a generic, high level Project Plan.
In the simple diagram below, I have overlaid a generic 5-phase Project Lifecycle with rapid prototype design approaches to developing the Project Strategy and Change Strategy. The key drivers here are:
- Using a design centred approach, to make sure that the business owners’ voices and interests are captured and reiterated early and often
- Engagement with responsible executives is loaded at the front of the project, so that we focus on getting early agreement, ownership and commitment.
- Use of regular, iterative checkpoints and gateways, to review the status quo and identify any changes needed, as early as possible.
- Locking down the two Strategy documents during the Initiation and Definition Phases – we should not commit resources and effort to the Build work until we have agreement and ownership.
- Flexibility – this approach is about early and iterative engagement, with regular checkpoints to review and respond to roadblocks and changes in priorities
The principles of this approach are clear and consistent.
Planning the intervention is critical to our ability to engage users and help them change processes and behaviours, so that our widgets are used often and help to drive business value. Without this planning, we will deliver widgets but cannot be sure that the users will adopt and use them as we hope.
Intervention is a multistep process – consisting of many small and regular steps, rather than a few large ones. By starting early, engaging often and including the user voice in the design process, we can quickly weed out bad designs and build user confidence – before the widget is delivered.
Design thinking began as a way to improve the form and function of tangible products. However as this way of thinking has matured, we can see design thinking principles have a role to play in helping improve intangible widgets – governance, processes, systems etc – and in turn, helping users to adapt to change and create value opportunities.