Earlier on this site I described project management as an unceasing parade of details.
Others describe project management in more glowing terms:
“Project management is the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria at the specified time.”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
There are many type A individuals who wear project management as a hair shirt, embracing the effort because it yields accountability and rigor. What fun! Let’s break the project down into “work packages”. I’m giddy with anticipation already.
It is tempting to think that something, anything, can let us dispense with project management.
When creating a product or service characterized by complexity and uncertainty, I am reminded of this delicious and oft-mocked quote from 2002 by then US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld (pictured above):
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Project management adherents like certainty and are most comfortable with known knowns. In a pinch they’ll accept a few known unknowns, since they can be pursued before the project begins until they can be safely slotted back into the known known column. But unknown unknowns are the natural enemy of project managers.
An article examining the relationship between design thinking and project management stated the problem clearly (emphasis mine):
“The literature and professional guidance on project management have long remained rooted in a mechanistic paradigm of control, explicitly assuming that project management only begins once the requirements are defined.”
Contributions of design thinking to project management in an innovation context
In other words, project management is built around two phases: planning and implementation. With sufficient planning, everyone who contributes to the project is pinned down to their commitments, the money is made available and off we go – let’s build the thing the way we said we would the way our stakeholders said they wanted. If anybody should object to the project plan, speak now, or forever hold your peace.
If project management is like a marriage, then design thinking is living together first.
Design thinking explicitly embraces unknown unknowns, taking an experimental and curious approach to defining the problem under conditions that are strategically ambiguous. At the outset, the effort may not have specifications or even a customer. Design thinking allows for objectives to be reformulated along the way. This is anathema to project management.
Design thinking reduces uncertainty. In his book Design-driven Innovation, Roberto Verganti describes design as “making sense of things”. Design thinking, by involving stakeholders and iterating prototype designs, can convert unknown unknowns into known knowns.
Is that it?
So is that the answer, then? Instead of replacing project management, does design thinking inform project management?
That’s my current thinking. Implementation, if working from mostly known knowns, benefits from the rigor of project management. Project management predicts the time and cost of the project, and holds everybody accountable so that the project can be completed on time and on budget.
So where does lean startup fit into this? Design thinking embraces uncertainty while aiming to eliminate it. The lean startup approach embraces uncertainty as a constant.
I submit the principle difference is scale.
Before development begins, car manufacturers use design thinking: producing drawings, models, virtual reality walk throughs etc to gather stakeholder feedback and iterate the design. Once this effort is complete, engineering the car is a complex but understood task – a known known that suits project management.
The current eighth generation Toyota Camry is an utterly different construction from the first version produced back in the 1980s. That is eight iterations of design thinking and project management. Every generation of the Camry is a prototype for the next. Although the cadence is slower than a typical startup which will make several persist or perish decisions in a year, the fact is that car manufacturers are using the lean startup loop wherein the product is put before its intended users so that they may provide feedback that allows it to be improved.
So iterate faster
Wherever possible, a strategic goal is to reduce iteration time. Rather than waiting four or eight years to produce a new Camry, Toyota might be well advised to produce new iterations in smaller intervals. By producing a minimal viable product upgrade, they could gather feedback on changes more quickly than they do now.
I am sympathetic to the enormous costs of developing and then building new car designs. Increasing product cadence is an expensive goal, but desirable – and sometimes vital.
Honda found out the hard way when its 2012 Civic model was widely panned. It rushed out a redesign in 2013.
- Use design thinking to digest unknown unknowns.
- Use project management to implement the design efficiently.
- Use lean startup thinking to make iteration cadence a priority.
Design thinking invites us to plunge forward without knowing all the answers. It asks us to emphathize with our stakeholders, and apply our creativity to several iterations until the ideal path is revealed. In short, it’s a lot more fun than project management.
Design thinking is not a substitute for project management, but it does remind us that stakeholders, be they customers or participants in the creation of a product or service, are not chess pieces waiting for us to move them and staying put until we return. They, and the competitive landscape we inhabit, are likely to change in the course of any project.
The key lesson is to keep projects as brief as possible and gather feedback like its oxygen.