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Creative Project and Design Management

Asking “why?” at every step of the design process

If you could name the key reason for most project delays during the design phase, what would it be? 

In my experience as a design manager, it’s the changes in direction that happen without a clear link back to the project’s core goal — the confusion around the project’s Why. 

Wait, but why? 

Usually the project and design management process embeds a set series of steps in the timeline needed to complete a project. These steps often reflect the agendas of those who pay for, decide on, and commit to a project — and who also happen to be the people expecting a certain output. 

Unfortunately, this approach has various limitations. What if basing the creative process on the linear and binary model of “input → output” is too simplistic, or simply wrong?

So what if, instead of obsessing over the output, we dedicated more attention to consistent decision-making, which is necessary for a project to progress coherently? What if we created a more sustainable path by establishing more moments for all stakeholders and team members to align on the Why of a project?

How many works programs actually plan for these kinds of decisions in their critical path? None. It’s equally rare to see works programs giving sufficient time to the initial phase of the design phase. It takes time to develop a clear brief that crystallizes the project’s Why. 

I’d like to share a solution I use to help my clients bypass costly delays and untangle the gridlock of confusion stalling their decision-making. 

Sharing the vision means sharing choices  

Taking the courageous step to facilitate shared choices is every design manager’s first responsibility. At the very start, we set up a dedicated path to follow up vision-building and vision review with a shared choice, so that everyone — client, stakeholders, and team — feels like they are invested in the success of the outcome. 

Then, we set up checkpoints along the way to see if everyone is sticking to the initial vision, by asking Why? It’s a great way to find out if someone’s gotten lost. I like to think that any team member can participate, addressing the Why in their design choices by sharing their motivation with us.

What if we established more moments for all stakeholders and team members to align on the Why of a project?

Shared choices obviously include a check-in on budget and timing, but more importantly, a courageous agreement on whether the vision is relevant, whether the time and money allocated are aligned with the aspiration and the ambitions, whether the project still makes sense, and whether the final users are being sufficiently considered.

“Why?” will keep your project on course 

Managing a design process is difficult because you cannot predict all the components or variables. Because it’s hard to pin down emotions by solely using technical or economical parameters.

Because it’s a process where divergence happens regularly and requires time to resolve, and any change in direction or incoherent proceeding away from the initial agreed vision only leads to wasted money. With no point on the horizon to aim towards, more time is spent doing and redoing. 

That’s why prior to kicking off a project with my clients, testing how strongly they believe in what they do is key. Even if it takes asking/answering the question “Why?” 10 times. Afterwards, a decision-making process can be created which follows the time path from day one — all of this before we start work on the project itself.

9 steps to finding your why

Here are a number of exercises that will help you find and stay grounded in a core vision for your project.

  1. Step into the client’s head by asking yourself, “What choices were already made before the project started?”
  2. Become a confident expert on who the project’s end user will be. 
  3. Explore the future experience the project is intended to provide.
  4. Think openly about the impulses you wish your design to create in its surroundings.
  5. Forget static objects and artifacts, imagine the intangible feeling you want your design to evoke.
  6. Trust your team as a valuable resource in helping you define your Why. 
  7. Use your client’s organization as a medium to enable design research (their short-term investment will lead to better investment outcomes). 
  8. Move forward by imagining the future. Try to use the past only as a way to provoke innovation.
  9. Discuss, brainstorm, and repeat. 

Ultimately, successful design management is the ability to sift through the indecisiveness and uncertainties your team may field from clients and project stakeholders, and the ability to help them answer the question “Why are we doing this?” again and again. 

And again. 

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Images by Jon Tyson and Shane Rounce

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