The Design Thinking Approach to Projects


Eva Dijksterhuis,
HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht

Gilbert Silvius,
LOI University of Applied Sciences

The Netherlands



Project success is one of the most studied topics in project management. Notwithstanding this vast literature base, project results continue to disappoint stakeholders. Turner and Cochrane (1993) argued that the traditional measure of success, completing the project on time and within budget, is based on the assumption that in projects both the goals and the method of achieving them are well understood at the start of the project. For some projects however, the objectives and/or the methods are not clearly defined. These projects, so-called type-4 projects, are only successful if they achieve a unitary, beneficial change with value for users.

A domain that has great experience in dealing with these type of problems, where only the aspired end value is known, not the goals and methods, is Design Thinking. In project management literature, however, little mention is made of Design Thinking. The aim of this paper is to contribute to the missing link between project management and Design Thinking and to give project managers insight in the application of Design Thinking in their approach to projects

The paper reports a conceptual analysis of the concept of Design Thinking and its application in Project Management. The research question of this study was formulated as: How does the Design Thinking approach to project management differ from the Rational Analytic approach? Based on a study of the literature, the study developed a conceptual framework of the differences between the Rational Analytic approach and the Design Thinking approach to projects.

Keywords: Project management, Success, Design thinking, Agile.

JEL code: M1


Project success is one of the most researched topics in project management (Joslin & Müller, 2015). Research focuses on identifying critical factors for success (Cooke-Davies, 2002) or on the definition of success (Joslin & Müller, 2015). In these studies, different criteria for success are used. Most early research on project success seems to emphasize the three traditional dimensions (Silvius & Schipper, 2015): (within) time, (within) budget and (within) specification, also known as the known ‘iron triangle’ of time, budget and quality, “despite the fact that this method is currently subject to widespread criticism” (Bakker et al., 2010). More recently, Turner and Zolin (2012) expand project performance factors beyond the standard consideration of time, cost, and quality, and suggest inclusion of measures of user appreciation. Aspects of sustainability can also be introduced into the definition of project success (Silvius & Schipper, 2015). Project success, both the determination and the achievement, is a widely discussed subject. Literature seems to agree on one thing: whether a project is considered a success depends on the perspective taken to judge it (Koops et al., 2015). In spite of these well-known research results and despite column-miles of words that have been written about project management, project results continue to disappoint stakeholders (Cooke-Davies, 2002).

Some research focuses on the definition of projects and it’s relation to project success. Turner and Cochrane (1993) propose a new definition of projects. They argue that traditional definitions of projects are based on the assumption that in projects both the goals and the method of achieving them are well understood at the start of the project. These objectives become part of the definition of success, and the project manager is said to be successful if they deliver them on time and within budget. For some projects however, the objectives and/or the methods of achieving them are not clearly defined. These two parameters – how well defined are the goals, and how well defined are the methods – result in a 2 x 2 matrix that Turner and Cochrane have named the “goals-and-methods matrix”. What should be clear in any project is the fact that a project is only successful if it “achieves a unitary, beneficial change” (Turner & Cochrane, 1993). This beneficial change is also described as “purpose” or “value for users”.

A domain that has great experience in creating value for users is the domain of design. Designers and engineers often create products where at the start of the problem solving ONLY the aspired end value is known, NOT the goals and methods (Dorst, 2011). In research literature, the term ‘Design Thinking’ has emerged as a way of thinking which leads to transformation, evolution and innovation, to new forms of living and to new ways of managing business (Tschimmel, 2012). The term Design Thinking has been part of the collective consciousness of design researchers since Peter G. Rowe used it as the title of his 1987 book “Design Thinking” (1987). It has gained popularity and is widely seen as an exciting new paradigm for dealing with problems in sectors as far afield as IT, Business, Education and Medicine (Dorst, 2011). It has become a label for the awareness that any kind of business and organization can benefit from designers’ way of thinking and working (Tschimmel, 2012). Studying the way designers work and adopting some ‘designerly’ practices could be interesting to organizations, because designers have been dealing with open, complex problems for many years (Dorst, 2011).

Problem solving where only the aspired value is known, not the goals and methods, can be related to Type-4 projects, as described in the goals-and-methods matrix (Turner & Cochrane, 1993). Figure 1 presents this matrix.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally presented at the 5th Scientific Conference on Project Management in the Baltic States, University of Latvia, April 2016. It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

About the Authors

Eva Dijksterhuis

Utrecht, The Netherlands


Eva Dijksterhuis
(1965) is a project manager at HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht in the Netherlands (HU). With her thesis “The Design Thinking Approach to Project Management”, she hopes to earn her Master’s Degree in Project Management at the HU in May 2016.

Eva started her career as a professional music teacher, with 10 years of experience teaching music and arts education at the HU. The last 15 years she has worked as a manager and project manager, both in the higher education and the cultural sector (Rosa Ensemble). Eva can be contacted at [email protected]


Gilbert Silvius

Utrecht, The Netherlands



Dr. Gilbert Silvius  (1963) is professor of project and programme management at LOI University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He initiated and developed the first MSc in Project Management program in the Netherlands and is considered a leading expert in the field of project management. Gilbert has published over a 100 academic papers and several books. He holds a PhD degree in information sciences from Utrecht University and masters’ degrees in economics and business administration.

As a practitioner, Gilbert has over 20 years experience in organizational change and IT projects. He is principal consultant at Van Aetsveld, project and change management, and is a member of the international enable2change network of project management experts.

Gilbert can be contacted at [email protected]