How to incorporate Design Thinking in project execution?

The connotation of “design” is all-encompassing, it can be sophisticated interior design, logo design, typeface, or package design, or an intangible set of working methods. The origin of ‘design thinking’ began in the 1980s when human-centered design arose in popularity among various fields and industries. Professor Peter Rowe first cited the concept of design thinking in his book, which provided designers with a practical and systematic foundation for problem-solving. Later on, the concept of ‘design thinking’ grew into five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Famous American inventor, Thomas Edison demonstrated ‘design thinking’ early on in his working method. Edison was not a prophet, but he understood that light bulbs were useless without a complete power system. Hence, when he developed electric power generation, he fully examined the user’s needs with a human-centered approach. This did not only made him a great inventor but a design thinker.

Think like a designer 

To incorporate ‘design thinking’ in project execution, you have to start with thinking like a designer. Managers apply ‘design thinking’ to help businesses in transforming products, refine operational processes, and implement marketing strategies to cope with the rapidly changing business environment. From this, we can see the concept of ‘design thinking’ is not patented by the designers, it has gradually become a mode of thinking that affects personal behavior and business operation. More and more managers are applying ‘design thinking’ to execute projects for inspiration on the one hand, and for the improvement of work efficiency on the other.  For instance, Uber, which started out as a ride-hailing app, applied design thinking to good use in Uber Eats, its new food distribution service.  The Uber Eats team believes that empathy is crucial in the food distribution project. “In order to understand all different markets and how our products adapt to the environmental and physical conditions of each city, we constantly immerse ourselves in the places where our customers live, work and eat.” After all, white-collar workers sitting in skyscrapers in Hong Kong or New York can’t really get a real experience in Bangkok or London. So the team members flew to the local area to experience the food and culture, try to track orders, visit local restaurants and delivery partners. They vividly called these actions the “Walkabout Program”.
After obtaining an in-depth understanding of the users, the Uber Eats team defined the problem as to how to improve the app so that people can better use it to find the food they want. Then it quickly responded and optimized the Uber Eats app. For example, in the new version of the app, they learned in the survey that customers usually care about “where our food has been delivered” and “how long will it be delivered” so they added order tracking. Follow by new prototype testing, including the field test of following the rider to deliver food in the wind and snow, and the A / B test which requires a large number of samples and comparative analysis. This is a typical process of using ‘design thinking’ in project implementation. Uber Eats team takes inspiration and ideas from their “Walkabout Program”, and then applies them to product iteration. The update iteration and test link, greatly improve the work efficiency, to a large extent avoiding duplication of labor and useless effort.  As a top player of ‘design thinking’, IDEO summed up the meaning for us: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”  

Using mind maps to help creativity take root

We have to mention mind maps when it comes to ‘design thinking’. For professionals, a  mind map is not an unfamiliar tool. Which PowerPoint expert hasn’t used a mind map? The process of making a mind map is like planting a tree. Start with the core theme, plant a seed of creativity, and then as your brainstorming takes root, it sprouts and finally grows into a tree of creativity. There are a variety of tools to cultivate the “tree of ideas”, including the well-known MindMaster, Xmind, GitMind, etc., from web version to PC application to mobile APP. But all changes are inseparable from their ancestors, so let’s go back to pen and paper and take a simple look at the 4 steps to using mind maps in project execution. Step 1: Write down and circle our central topic or challenge in the center of a large blank sheet of paper. It can be the subject of our project, or it can be a problem that needs to be solved. Step 2: Start from the center, capture inspiration in brainstorming, and write down the inspiration related to our central theme. If we think this idea may lead to a new cluster, we should draw a rectangle or ellipse around it to emphasize that it is also a hub. Step 3: Use every connection to generate new ideas. Step 4: When we fill up the paper or run out of ideas, we’re done. If you feel like this is just a warm-up and the brainstorming is far from over, we can try to reorganize the central theme and do another mind map to get a new perspective. If you agree that our mind map is complete, then you can start thinking about what ideas we want to advance. Sometimes, the first level branch of the “tree of ideas” is full of obvious and banal ideas, which are only “so so”. That’s because these concepts already exist in our minds, just waiting for us to capture them with pen and paper. However, with the development of the mind map, our minds will open up and we may find some crazy, divergent, and unpredictable ideas. The most obvious advantage of the mind map is to help us overcome the fear of blank space. When you don’t know where to start with a project, a mind map gives us a place to hold. Secondly, in the era of information bombing, mind maps can integrate all kinds of fragmentary information, reduce the cost of obtaining information and improve the efficiency of decision-making. Moreover, the mind map is a record of the evolution of ideas, which helps us trace the source of inspiration. When we need to exchange ideas with others, we can use it to lead them through the road of inspiration collision again. For project managers, time is money, and a mind map can give them a hand in using their time productively and strategically. The multifaceted nature of the mind map has many applications: scheduling, planning, brainstorming meetings, team management, project scope, and anything related to performance and project results. In addition, mind maps can also be used to arrange meetings and assign tasks. The division of labor of each team member and the classification of project responsibilities can be drawn, which is conducive to verifying whether such work arrangement is properly assigned. Some people may say that the use of to-do lists in project management is more simple and clear. All the work we need to do is neatly stacked on a checklist, waiting to be broken down one by one. Actually, it would be better to have a “strong alliance” mind map with lists and use them together. Tom Kelley points out in his book Creative Confidence that when we use to-do lists, we have assumed that we know what to put on the list, but at the beginning of the mind map, we have no idea where it will lead us to. Mind maps are very useful in the early stage of a project, which is conducive to divergent thinking and non-traditional thinking. At the same time, it can also become a beautiful visual display of inspiration. The to-do list is more suitable when you want to capture the ideas that have been generated and find the best solution. When you’re trying to create something new, it would be a good idea to use a mind map to generate ideas and capture the best thoughts. The combination of these two tools can be very powerful for project execution.


The application of ‘design thinking’ in various fields is the cultivation of people’s confidence in creativity. And this confidence can inspire thousands of people to learn and use ‘design thinking’, and apply it to the challenges they face. Project managers might also try to think like designers, sow their inspiration and let creativity take root. References: