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Design Thinking for Project Improvement

Design Thinking

There is a culture shift required to operate effectively in a complex environment; to collaborate, to learn as you go, be curious and take risks, focus on high-value whilst still having a system or a framework.

Design Thinking can give us a process as well as a new approach to decision making/ problem-solving.  It can help to respond to this key challenge; that 41% of projects fail to deliver and capture optimum value for the organisation or in the marketplace*

You may be familiar with IDEO’s Design Thinking process, which has been around for many years. It is a strategy that encourages the use of imagination, intuition and systemic reasoning to explore new possibilities for solutions, typically products. But imagine taking that thinking into the project realm, and using imagination, intuition and systemic reasoning to explore new possibilities for solutions for not only products, but also projects, processes and systems.


“To realise its full value, design-thinking must be pushed beyond centres of innovation to everyone in the organisation, with the goal of improving all aspects of the enterprise – not just product development.”  How to Innovate Using Design Thinking


To build this way of problem-solving and innovation into our projects, processes and systems we need to leverage some IDEO design thinking methods, but also, innovation techniques and principles of new product development and Lean Startup.

In a previous post, I introduced you to the PSC Model (Perceiving, Sensemaking and Choreography) Take a look at Decision making in Turbulent Project-Based Environments). PSC has been found to be a powerful decision-making tool, a problem-solving method, a foundation design within projects, processes and systems:


By applying the PSC design thinking process to our strategic initiatives we can be more;

  • Lean (iterate or pivot) and nimble in dealing with a volatile strategy; which can be a big performance lift for those who lead project based work;
  • Responsive and resilient to shifts in the marketplace. This is about change responsiveness not about change management;
  • Adaptable; we’re about accelerating strategy to action so we look at the Minimum Viable Product or Project and adapt as we go.

 Perceiving, Sensemaking and Choreography (PSC): Design Thinking for Results

When we perceive we want to learn from our stakeholders what the problem is and what they really need. To do this well we need to proactively seek to see things differently and overcome our natural bias’ in order to understand complex contexts and uncover the real needs of our organisation, customers and stakeholders. We do this by;

  • Defining the Problem
  • Uncovering the Need
  • Framing the Challenge

Research conducted by Duke Corporate Education has despite our best attempts, concluded that it is impossible for humans to be completely objective when perceiving a context – an unfortunate, but verifiable reality. We suffer from bias from our pre-existing experiences. Leaders must consciously seek to see things differently  (A lot of design thinking comes from Ethnography) in order to understand complex contexts. We want to unlearn more than we learn to be able to move forward.

To define the problem we need to spend time gathering as much information as we can by spending time with our customers, so we know what’s really going on and what is needed. Once we understand the concept we can then begin to look at a problem in a non-traditional way and reframe the challenge ahead.

Sensemaking is about viewing the system/issue in a holistic sense to create an integrated picture from multiple perspectives to help bring viability. Collaboration is the key to innovation where we can grow our ideas and stress test them with others.

We do this by:

  • Generating Ideas
  • Innovating Concepts
  • Building a Business Model Canvas


Sensemaking involves the generation of ideas after we have gathered our data, ideating around them and then sharing and collaborating with others to test the ideas. And finally to see if it makes sense from a business perspective. For this we can use a business model canvas.

Design Thinking and ProjectsCertain elements of the canvas make up the market side on the right:

  • Different customer segments have different requirements, wants, and needs.
  • They turn to a particular company, product, or solution because it provides a value proposition that gives them the benefits they desire.
  • Value is communicated and delivered to customers through customer relationships and channels.
  • Value is captured from the customer through revenue streams.

Certain elements of the canvas make up the matrix side on the left:

  • Key resources are those assets which an organization uses to create and offer value.
  • Key activities are the actions which resources use to create and offer value.
  • Some resources and activities belong to the organisation, and some are acquired from/performed by
  • Creating value and revenue incurs costs. The cost structure of an organisation can be optimized to allow the value proposition to generate the most value for the organization while still paying attention to the channels, relationships and revenue streams that capture value in the first place.


In Choreography we need to take the soundest idea and find channels and vehicles that help us on our journey. We need to navigate informal networks and build collectives through:

  • Prototype and Pitch
  • Test and Learn
  • Iterate and Pivot

Choreography is an iterative loop. All of the steps of the PSC model up to the creation of the business model fall into the imagination/creative side of design thinking.

The business model is an inflexion point that gives you a solid ground to begin implementing an innovative offering through a test-and learn approach. Based on the findings of your test-and-learn approach to implementation, you re-enter the process in different spots.

Some feedback from a test may result in a positive finding that lets you iterate and try another test to prove/improve value, keeping that part of your offering in the implementation space.

Other feedback from a test may cause you to pivot and come up with a re-imagined offering, in part or in whole. You may refine part of the business model, or you may need to go as far back as redefining the design challenge (maybe you were solving for the wrong problem in the first place).

The Design Thinking Context

It’s important to validate whether or not you actually need your project, process or system. A way to do that is to consider 4 tensions that are at play. These four tensions that generally work to create a novel offering can be used to ensure we are on the right track with our product, process or system.

The ‘novelty’ can be an idea or solution which can be internal or external in the form of a project, system, process or product. Try to keep that in mind as we continue through.

 Design Thinking in Project Management


 The vertical axis is about customer desirability and business profitability. The offering must meet a legitimate felt need for the customer but must also be designed in such a way that the company captures adequate VALUE for delivering an offer that meets that felt need. Customer need vs will it make money.

The horizontal axis is about market competitiveness and organizational capability. The offering must be unique and differentiated enough to be difficult to imitate by the competition or it will just be copied; however, the organization must have the capability to deliver the offer in an efficient and effective manner.  Is it out there vs is it realistic?

It’s a good tool for the start and end of the design thinking process.  At the beginning, this helps us to check in on whether or not our idea is required and realistic, but it is also helpful later in the process it helps us to validate our idea when developing our pitches.

Design Thinking for Results

Design Thinking is not a new concept. But over the last several years, it has gained popularity*  among business leaders to help them think outside the box with their projects, processes and systems.

Find out more about Design Thinking with the three-day Design Thinking for Results course

Design Thinking for Results


Strategy Execution and Duke Corporate Education have partnered to create and deliver the Adaptive Strategic Execution Program. Strategy Execution’s proven expertise and business techniques combined with Duke Corporate Education’s cutting-edge university research and learning methodologies infuse the program with a unique combination of modern theory, practical frameworks and hands-on practice leaders need. Research shows that great innovation rarely comes from single eureka ideas, but rather from combining existing ideas in novel ways. This partnership has done just that. Together, we’ve combined the capabilities of two successful companies in a new way that provides innovative solutions for our clients. 




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About Alaina Burden

Alaina Burden
Alaina is the Director of Adaptive Execution, EMEA at Strategy Execution, her role focuses on adaptive leadership skills required in the business environment today. An Ambassador for the Adaptive Strategic Execution Programme, developed in conjunction with Duke Corporate Education. Alaina has extensive experience in projects, strategy and learning architecture which provides a critical differentiator for delivering Strategy Execution’s vision in both business development and solution delivery.

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