The M-Powered team has extensive experience with social and educational projects. In many cases, we were the project managers of such initiatives, but there were also times when we ourselves were the intended beneficiaries of the project. This perspective gives us good insight into the various factors that affect success and failure in projects. As a team, we unanimously agree that the most important determining factor in a project’s success is how well it identifies the needs of the target group.

Failure to correctly identify the needs of your target group will, at best, be a major challenge to overcome in project delivery but, at worst, it can lead to a complete project failure. A lot of time and money has been dedicated by project teams who have created outputs that their target group just do not want or fail to engage with consistently, simply because it does not meet their needs or expectations.

This is why we are proponents of the Design Thinking Method when it comes to planning people-orientated projects. This method is especially useful in the very beginning of project development, when we are searching for direction and how we can best address the issues our target group are facing.

At a basic level, the Design Thinking Method consists of six integral phases. It begins with the identification of the needs of your target group and culminates in the testing of a prototype idea. This method if often used in businesses where there is a need to test products before investing in costly large scale production. By adapting the same method, we too can avoid investing too much in ideas that yield no real return.

Try out this method yourself using the following steps:

1. Empathy – understand the real needs of your target group.

The objective of this step is to really put yourself in the shoes of your target group. Spend some time imagining how they live, what they think and feel, what are their worries and struggles, and what influences them. You can do this in several ways, including:

  • Interviewing some members of the group. Remember that questions should be open in order to gather the best insight and that you should focus on listening first and foremost.
  • Observing their usual day, how they live, how they make decisions, how their emotions change and why.

Together with interviewing and/or observing, you should study reports and other materials that will widen, verify and develop your knowledge. Statistics do have some uses! 

2. Define – design a meaningful objective for your project.

Now you can start the real fun of planning! Invite your team, maybe some other colleagues, and some representatives of your target group. The more varied insights you have, the better the outcome will be. Present the results of your empathy phase and together with all the meeting participants, make a story about  a “Persona”, a fictional person you create that reflects the needs of your target group, based on the real life insights you gathered during the empathy phase. Think about how the particular project you are planning will be relevant to this Persona and what impact it will have on them. Make a list of the Persona’s needs and choose which are the most important to address through this project. Meeting these identified needs will become the objective of your project.

3. Ideate – be open minded!

As a team, spend at least 20 minutes brainstorming ideas that would meet the needs you identified for your Persona. Focus on things that would help solve problems, overcome challenges, or fill gaps. Focus on quantity over quality at this point and encourage your team to note down everything and anything that comes to mind. There is no judgment, no wrong answers and no bad ideas at this point. Your goal is to get people’s creativity and ideas flowing.

After collecting all of the ideas, group them under relevant themes. Some of the ideas will inevitably be similar, some will complement others, and there may be others you end up combining into one idea. In order to move on to the next phase, you need to decide on a single idea to prototype. Think about your options from as many different perspectives as possible: Which is the most innovative? The most practical? The riskiest? If you plan on applying for funding, you should have funding guidelines there to help steer you. Try to find the best balance between meeting your own objectives and the objectives of the funder.

4. Prototype – create the specific project outcomes before it starts.

In this phase, you will have the opportunity to test if your idea works in reality without undertaking the risk of large scale investment of time or money. Gather your team again in a meeting space and ask them to plan out, step-by-step, how your project will work and what your final outputs will look like. For social and educational projects, the best way to prototype is to design a “client journey”. This is a visual storytelling technique that follows a member of your target group – perhaps the Persona you created in phase one – and shows how they will engage with the project. How will they hear about it? How will you involve them in the process? What outcomes will be achieved as a result?

5. Test – check how your vision is perceived by your target group.

Now present your prototype to potential beneficiaries. Ask them for honest feedback. Don’t be offended if they criticise it. Be grateful that you are hearing this opinion now at an early stage when you haven’t invested too much time or money! Their feedback will be invaluable to ultimately shaping a successful project. Getting feedback that surprises you is a good thing! It widens your insight and will help you know better for next time.

Note down all comments and review your prototype again, making changes where necessary. Do not skim over this step! It is the most important one to ultimately creating an impactful and relevant project that addresses real needs.

6. Verify the prototype and develop the project.

Once you have implemented relevant feedback from the previous phase, test your idea again. Remember, you don’t have to take on board all of the suggestions that you received. There will always be individual variables and you can never produce something that pleases everyone. Instead, focus on addressing as many of the common concerns and ideas as possible. And don’t lose sight of what makes your project innovative or interesting! Sometimes this is what will set you apart from everyone else.

I wish you the best of luck with your project planning! Let’s hope together we can build meaningful projects that make a positive impact on people’s lives.

You can find out more about the Design Thinking Method in this blog post about engaging stakeholders and this post about Design Thinking in education. You can also participate in our course “Creative Problem Solving in Education”, which we run in both Ireland and Poland and which you can attend for free with funding from the Erasmus+ programme. Check out our latest course catalogue for more details.