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How design thinking made me a better project manager

Empathy is a journey, not a destination.

When I was in high school, I moved around a lot to pursue educational opportunities not provided in my home country. My constant in those years was playing ice hockey. Looking back at those years, hockey challenged me and subsequently taught me how to respond and manage multiple team dynamics for one end goal. It was also my first taste in design thinking.

Fast forward to today, as a project manager I’ve led and managed projects from a large merger and acquisition to a nationwide launch of vein management clinics. Like hockey, design thinking has been my constant companion in navigating sticky situations from miscommunication to personality clashes. Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process that puts people at the center of the problem and solution. What’s most important about design thinking for me is that it harnesses the power of co-creation with teams to learn and adapt.

What’s most important about design thinking for me is that it harnesses the power of co-creation with teams to learn and adapt.

There are five key processes in design thinking from empathy, problem definition, ideation, prototype, and testing. Here’s how practicing it every day made me and continues to make me a better and stronger project manager.


1. Embrace curiosity

As humans, we all have different stories to tell because we have different world views. Our conclusions about something whether it’s a project, product, or opinion often reflect our self-interest. I’ve seen it too often in projects that either a manager or a team member holds their view as the only truth, creating friction.

This is where empathy comes in.

Empathy has challenged me to understand others’ stories and to embrace both stories, even though I might not agree with it. It has taught me to move away from a place of certainty to a place of curiosity.

If one thing that design thinking remains a core to my business practice is that empathy is a long-term journey. It’s not a destination.

It[Empathy] has taught me to move away from a place of certainty to a place of curiosity.

2. Express feelings

It took me a very a long time to learn how to express my feelings in a business setting without fear of judgment. This has been the longest and hardest lesson I’ve had to learn, both professionally and personally. You might wonder why bother expressing emotions when business should remain strictly business, purely logical.

What I’ve learned managing distributed and complex cross-functional teams is that unexpressed feelings subsequently block a team’s capacity to actively listen. And listening is a function of being curious about the other person and their story.

Learning about a person’s intentions, assumptions, and feelings are central elements to creating a successful customer journey mapping, a key artifact in design thinking. With projects and clients, sharing and listening to feelings while acknowledging theirs has allowed me to find an opportunity to solve the problem we have at hand.

Blame breeds judgment, while contribution nurtures understanding.

3. Learn the contribution system

A common theme I’ve seen in managing any project, regardless of size and scope is the blame game. It’s often one of these scenarios: a team member didn’t deliver, so they must be slacking. A team member didn’t attend an important meeting, so they must be ignoring us. In these situations, we enter an all or nothing syndrome - that it must be them to blame for these mistakes. Blame breeds judgment, while contribution nurtures understanding.

Design thinking teaches us the opposite. It taught me to define the problem from both ends and how we both contribute to the challenge at hand. An example that mirrors this is that product design differentiates between human errors and design errors.

In any opportunity that presents blame, I pause to understand my team’s insights from a third-party perspective and engage in a role reversal scenario. This is the first step to empathy.

4. Solve together

Every project I’ve worked on presented unique insights and its own challenges. A common idea is that Project Managers are tasked to herd cats and fix all possible issues in a project for the team. I learned through design thinking that co-creating solutions for my project teams always resulted in better outcomes for the project and for the team.

My experiences have taught me that when we solve problems together as, we are more likely to foster innovation and create a healthy environment of open discussions.

I find that teams are less likely to be defensive when they problem-solve as part of a learning opportunity. This is because learning invites options, keeps communication open, and reduces blame.

5. Test, pause, and reflect

Julie Zhuo, Product Design VP at Facebook once said that: “Management isn’t some skill like drawing where you can just practice in isolation for hours and hours on end. You need to have the opportunity to be stretched in certain situations in order to learn and grow.” Project management as a practice is difficult. There’s a juxtaposition in that the hard skills like budget and schedule management are easy, yet the soft skills are hard. I usually ask myself this question every quarter to measure my growth: Has every project gone perfectly according to plan? 99% of the time, it’s no.

You need to have the opportunity to be stretched in certain situations in order to learn and grow.

I struggled with the concept of perfection for a while, way back as a junior PM: “If only these people would stop messing with my project, everything would be perfect!” The epiphany came when I figured out that adjusting to these imperfections, without negatively affecting the project and the team, is the job.

That’s what design thinking teaches you that when designing a product or a service, perfection isn’t the end goal. Learning and continuously improving is.

We are dependent on a continuous process of iteration and experimentation in order to grow and be the best versions of ourselves.