Design your project to succeed

The human imagination is a magical project machine. But the sense I get from some project managers is that imagination is best left out of projects, that it gets in the way.

Nevertheless, we’re constantly thinking up amazing new projects: bridges, buildings, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs…  We invent marvelous ways of achieving our project goals; we come up with the steps and their order; we imagine the resources we’ll need along the way and who’ll help us get there.

Project management is fundamentally a process of harnessing the power of our imaginations – individually and collectively – not rejecting it.

So with each project’s unpredictable and unique circumstances, how do we surf this tidal wave of imagination to get the best project outcomes?

Enter experience-centred design

It’s a humanistic approach which offers knowledge and techniques for understanding how people act and what they do; a reliable guide to channeling the power of imagination so that it can benefit your projects rather than hinder them.

Experience-centred designers work to understand your thoughts (for example, about using a website, playground, hospital, etc.) so that – to paraphrase usability expert Steve Krug – you don’t have to think when you’re using it.

How does experience-centred design work for project management? Take ‘project scope’.

Scope is slippery. You can spend a lot of time nailing it down and it can change in an instant. It can make or break a project; adding to the scope can lead to time and budget blow-out. Everyone’s heard of ‘scope creep’ being the deathknell of a project.

The scope of a project in one person’s imagination can be wildly different to another’s version; it needs boundaries and agreement.

Here you can use a simple experience-centred design technique called ‘card sorting’ to focus and get agreement from stakeholders about what’s in scope.

I have a set of cards I’ve developed and used to successfully manage web projects. On each card is a practical hands-on task to be done in order to deliver a website, such as ‘write content’ and ‘create information architecture’. They’re not product ‘requirements’ which I will have dealt with in a previous discussion with stakeholders. They’re practical tasks because ultimately they have to be achieved as part of the project plan.

I ask people involved in the project – for example, stakeholders, developers and graphic designers – to sort through the cards and discard any tasks they don’t think are necessary. Each card can be discussed: do we include as part of the project or not? People are caught in the act of doing – they have to either physically discard or include the task. A transparent consensus is formed – everyone sees what’s in and out.

The power of this technique is that I start to hear how people are thinking about the tasks – knowledge which becomes invaluable as I deliver the project.

This is just one of a set of experience-centred design techniques that I apply successfully to project management. I’ll write about others in future posts.

The beauty is that, rather than seeing ‘imagination’ as a problem for your project, you can start to  harness it’s amazing power.