Between 2011 and 2018 I conducted research in various companies that were integrating design thinking into their process landscape.
I realized that several conflicts seemed to appear again and again — in large and in small companies. This happened in a company that develops software as well as in a company that builds machine components.
Design thinking is an interesting example of an agile approach. Teams are agile because they run a process of exploring user needs and building prototypes for new solutions in small iterations.
The concept of design thinking allows teams to act and respond to many signals — from customers, but also from within the team and corporate stakeholders. Ideas are being expressed in rudimentary sketches in order to quickly receive feedback and go from there.
This way, teams learn fast by making decisions and immediately experiencing their effects; a quality found in various agile approaches — and often coined experience-based learning.
My dissertation mainly focused on team members’ and project managers’ individual experiences. But the research data also revealed a procedural perspective on what happens when companies incorporate an agile team approach such as design thinking into a process landscape that is less agile and somewhat/largely linear in design: conflicts arise. And these conflicts have a major impact on project managers.
Project managers are close enough to teams to feel the heat of agile teamwork — they see the daily uncertainties and excitement when teams are on the lookout for hidden insights about their customers. But project managers also receive direct responses from upper management that expects results on time and in budget. Not only that, but upper management also expects details on a project’s progress and its direct impact on strategic goals.
As it turns out, agile teamwork in general — and design thinking in particular — does not reveal itself as an easy-to-handle-approach. And project managers are often the first ones inside a company that truly understand the implications of agile teamwork in otherwise non-agile organizations.