Understanding how Design Thinking, Lean and Agile Work Together

The ideas of agile are great. It’s the way it has been codified into rituals and certifications and rolled out mindlessly that misses the point.
Design Thinking is held high as the new magic trick of design facilitators.
That’s three mindsets corrupted by the unthinking masses, who’ve grabbed onto a tantalising promise of something better and followed the steps without really thinking it through.
Design Thinking is how we explore and solve problems; Lean is our framework for testing our beliefs and learning our way to the right outcomes; Agile is how we adapt to changing conditions with software. Design Thinking is about ability and learning.
Lean started out as a response to scientific management practices in manufacturing. Organisations sought efficiency through processes, rules, and procedures and management was mostly about control. But in modern business, control is a falsehood. Lean says be adaptive, not predictive.
Agile is related to Lean. The differences are mostly about what these mindsets are applied to, and how. In conditions of high uncertainty, Agile offers ways to build software that is dynamic and can adapt to change. This isn’t just about pivoting. It’s also about scaling and evolving solutions over time. If we accept that today’s solution will be different from tomorrow’s, then we should focus on meeting our immediate needs in a way that doesn’t constrain our ability to respond when things change later. The heart of Agile is adapting gracefully to changing needs with software.

Lean contrasted with Agile

The real benefit comes when we bring all three mindsets together. Too often, the question is “Lean or Agile?”. The answer is “and,” not “or”: it’s Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile.
Here are some lessons learned from applying Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile in the wild.

Purpose, alignment, and autonomy

“Be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details.”
—Jeff Bezos

Measure things that matter

“If a measurement matters at all, it is because it must have some conceivable effect on decisions and behavior.”
—Douglas W. Hubbard

Make decisions based on learning

“Don’t look for facts or answers — look for better questions. It’s the questions we ask, and the meaning we explore, that will generate the insights most useful to strategy.”
—Dr. Jason Fox

Many mindsets, one team

Most important of all, it’s about working together and achieving together. Learning is a team sport, and collaboration is key if we’re going to find our way to the place we want to be. There is no one correct way, nor is one single mindset enough. But all together, elements of each mindset help us to find our way forward.

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