Why combine design thinking with project management?  We believe the answer is that while project management creates a proven structure for successfully implementing change design thinking allows for adaptation.  Conversely, design thinking is a proven method for generating effective user-driven solutions; however, impediments and roadblocks such as: scalability, bureaucracy, cultural resistance, procurement issues, and market readiness can derail the process (Conway et al., 2017, p. 12).  Conway et al.  (2017) create a compelling metaphor for the resistance created by a system to avoid change; it is an immune response rejecting innovation the same way a body would resist a hostile bacteria or virus.  Project management can be the tool to overcome the resistance, employing techniques which are part of the system (Conway et al., 2017, p. 14).

Change management theorists, Al-Haddad & Kotnour (2015) posit that alignment of change-types and change models can predict positive change outcomes.  While project management differs from change management, both are organizational processes requiring leadership and the involvement of stakeholders to achieve the goal.  We offer this toolkit to allow for the alignment of a project-type (instead of a change-type) with more nuanced project management model (as opposed to a change model) and theorize the use of this tool may positively impact the success of a project.  A one-size fits all approach to project management may not be appropriate in today’s dynamic, digitally mediated environments.  A project management model which explicitly incorporates elements of design thinking into the planning stage can ensure that leaders adopt a collaborative mind-set.  The goal of this tool is to enable leaders to identify project challenges, and fully engage employees in the creation and implementation.  We have chosen elements of project management and design thinking which best meets those goals.  The result is a seven-step project guide; design thinking meets project management.

In project planning the goal is to foster discussions, develop ideas, and devise a plan.  This toolkit provides a comprehensive package containing a brainstorming approach, conversation starters, and a presentation template to support the preparation and development of the kickoff stage with team members.  Utilizing the model of design thinking with project management creates a dynamic approach to implementing and championing for change within digital learning environments.

Design Thinking Meets Project Management

  1. Project Initiation
  2. Project Planning (ask questions and listen)
    • Empathize
    • Define
    • Ideate and prototype
  3. Establish buy-in of stakeholders
  4. Test
  5. Project execution
  6. Project Monitoring and Control
  7. Review and revise (remembering that the improvement process is continual)

The entire process listed above requires a thorough discussion to fully understand the intricacies, rationale, and merits of an integrated approach.  The scope of this paper and toolkit are not to do so exhaustively.  Rather, we amplify and explicate the planning stage, as it lends itself particularly well to an integrated approach, and incorporates the following three elements of design thinking:

    1. Empathize,
    2. Define,
    3. Ideate and prototype.


Watt underlines the importance of emotional intelligence and empathy in project management, particularly when overseeing the creation of complex projects (Watt, 2014, Chapter 11, “Working With Individuals”).  To create a successful project, designers must have a solid understanding of the needs of the project team, as well as the end user.  To gather this information, Goga-Cooke et al. (2015) assert that the most effective means is not quantitative research, but a process of learning about a user’s emotional experience; “organizations that “get” design use emotional language (words that concern desires, aspirations, engagement, and experience) to describe products and users.  Team members discuss the emotional resonance of a value proposition as much as they discuss utility and product requirements (Goga-Cooke et al, 2015, “Focus on Users…”).  To that end, we have created a tool, which probes for these responses.  In the context of change management, Weiner (2009) explores the many prerequisites of readiness for change in an organization; they are situational and require a detailed understanding of the dynamics of the organization and individuals.  This is achieved through a planning process which includes ongoing communication and direct interaction in order to foster a greater understanding of and empathy with stakeholders.

Figure 1

Empathize Tool

According to Dam and Teo (2020), in a human-centered design process, incorporating empathy allows leaders “to set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs” (para. 2).  Basing this toolkit on Leung’s “Collaborating for Change” (2020) process, incorporating empathy during project planning can encourage open dialogue and help develop rapport with people  who are vital to the project.  These steps were adapted from Leung’s (2020) work.


During the process of gaining empathy and coming to understand the perspectives of the various stakeholders, specific problems or needs will begin to emerge.  These are not stand-alone problems, but rather components that require consideration and attention within the context of the larger project or initiative.  Clearly defining and addressing these nuances can preemptively identify potential barriers to the project’s overall success and scalability.  Conway & Masters (2017) describe how identifying the needs and problems of a design, and then creating subsequent solutions will be useful when the right people are involved in the process.  They posit that by considering implications to an entire system (rather than only the task at hand), and specifically including relevant stakeholders in the planning process to define the problem, solutions will adopt better into real, lasting change within an organization (Conway & Masters, 2017).  Some solutions never come to fruition due to barriers, resistance, and various other “reasons why not” (Conway & Masters, 2017, p. 13) that stakeholders will voice at this stage.  By reflecting on themes identified during the empathy stage, and imploring stakeholders to consider those themes as they more precisely define a problem, project managers can capture and integrate stakeholder perspectives into the final project before completion.  Having a compositionally diverse and representative group participate in the planning stage, may lessen the opposition that can emerge towards the end of a project, and increase the chance of a scalable, useable, organizational solution.

Define Tool

This stage pulls together the qualitative information gathered during the empathize stage.  It is important to analyze observations and synthesize in order to adequately define the identified core problems (Dam and Teo, 2020).

The American Society for Quality (2020), promotes the use of the Fishbone tool as a brainstorming approach to identify causes for problems.  Please click here for the template and steps to go through when conducting this team exercise.

Ideate and Prototype

After defining specific problems or needs relevant to the larger project, participants will begin to draw solutions of how to address those problems in their minds.  As a manager guiding this project, it is important to strike a balance between capturing and valuing these ideas while meeting the overarching project outcomes.  Problems or projects situated in dynamic, digitally mediated environments require the guidance of responsive and adaptive leaders.  Framing a collaborative project planning session as a design challenge allows a project manager to epitomize characteristics of an adaptive or reflective leader, and therefore realize the intrinsic value that such a leadership approach is capable of eliciting.  Adaptive leaders value collaboration and seek contributions from their team; which in turn can leave teams feeling useful, and valued (Kahn, 2017).  Involving stakeholders in the ideate/prototype phase invites them to be agents of change and may even motivate them to champion for the project or initiative and then disseminate the merits of their project to their colleagues.  However, it is important to keep designers focused, and ensure newly identified needs are considered in balance with the larger project at hand.  Setting up the challenge before-hand can help accomplish this task.  Crichton & Carter (2014) offered a useful tool for how to set up a design challenge for students based on Stanford Universities’ design thinking model (An Introduction, n.d.).  We have adapted elements of this tool into a guide that a project manager could use to set up a design challenge in an organizational context.  By thoughtfully incorporating design challenge elements into the project planning meeting, project managers can ensure that when stakeholders begin to ideate and prototype their solutions, they remain focused on both needs and problems identified by specific stakeholders, while sufficiently addressing the overarching project outcomes.

Ideate and Prototype Tool

We have developed this presentation template to help you plan your project kick-off meeting.  It is a slide deck that can help you incorporate the design elements of empathy, define, ideate, and prototype into your initial project planning meeting.  It includes a reference to these worksheets to use during your meeting, which have been adapted from “An Introduction to Design Thinking” (n.d.).  These worksheets can help to guide participants through the ideate and prototype phases.

For Future Discussions

We have outlined how incorporating elements of design thinking into a project management approach may lead to more positive project outcomes.  We have amplified the planning phase of project management and offered tools that project managers can use to plan and develop their initial project planning meeting.  Design thinking may also align with other steps of project management (e.g., execution, implementation, etc.).  This is an area for further discussion and exploration.  This discussion is warranted and should be forefront in the minds of project managers; especially those who wish to implement projects or changes in dynamic, digitally mediated learning environments.

Click to view the Design Thinking meets Project Management video



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American Society for Quality.  What is a Fishbone Diagram? Ishikawa Cause & Effect Diagram.  ASQ.  (2020).  Retrieved March 15, 2020, from

An Introduction to Design Thinking: Gift Giving Edition.  (n.d.).  Retrieved from

Crichton, S.  & Carter, D.  (2017).  Taking Making into Classrooms Toolkit.  Open School/ITA.

Conway, R., Masters, J., & Thorold, J.  (2017).  From design thinking to systems change: How to invest in innovation for social impact.  Retrieved from

Dam, R.F., & Teo, Y.U.  (2020, March 7).  5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process | Interaction Design Foundation [Blog Post].  Retrieved from
Goga-Cooke, Juliana, Topalian, Alan, Kolko, Jon, Sokan, Rachelle.  Design Thinking Infuses Corporations: Interaction.  Harvard Business Review, 00178012, (Nov, 2015) Vol.  93, Issue 11

Khan, N.  (2017).  Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A Brief Comparison.  The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(3).

Leung, E.  (2020, February 25).  Assignment #1 – Collaborating for Change [Blog Post].  Retrieved from

Watts, A.  (2014).  Project Management.  Victoria, B.C.: BCcampus.  Retrieved from

Weiner, B.J.  A theory of organizational readiness for change.  Implementation Sci 4, 67 (2009).