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Design Thinking and Agile - Is it same-same but different?

By Martijn Veldkamp (m.veldkamp@quintgroup.com), Senior Consultant Architecture & Innovation @ Quint Wellington Redwood

Design ThinkingHow do we determine which frameworks, organizational models and activities will get us from the products and services of today to those of tomorrow? I believe Design Thinking and Agile are both compelling theories but for different pieces of the puzzle. Innovation is no longer just about new technology per se. It is about new models of organization. Design is no longer just about form anymore but is a method of thinking that can let you to see around corners. And the high-tech breakthroughs that do count today are not about speed and performance but about collaboration, conversation and co-creation. (Bruce Nussbaum)

Design Thinking is applied strategically by using ‘design methods’ to find the right question and begin to answer it. Agile is mostly used operationally, usually when building software, where once a question is asked, teams iterate towards a solution. With some experimenting and some guidance by an outside consultant it must be possible to blend the two approaches given that both Design Thinking and Agile emphasize people over process.

Design Thinking and Agile are similar, different and intertwined

Design Thinking vs Agile

Today, most organizations utilize many technologies in order to source, process, transport and deliver products and services. All of these technologies, as well as most – if not all – the business processes that are still performed manually, are underpinned by information technology. As Microsoft’s Bill Gates said: Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without talking about the other. Change is now occurring in both the business and IT environments at a far more rapid pace than ever before. The rate of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. If anything, competition and new technology will probably speed up even more in the next few decades in most industries. Due to this extensive use of technology in a rapidly changing competitive environment, the need to continually align an organization’s technology, products and services with its business direction has therefore become increasingly urgent and increasingly difficult. This has led to the rise of methods like Design Thinking and Agile. Both are converging on the challenges outlined above but they have quite different backgrounds.

Characteristics of Design Thinking methodology

Design Thinking is applied strategically by using design methods to find the right question and begin to answer it. It is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. (Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO) Historically, the methodology has been applied by designers during their designing processes, but can be used by everyone to solve everyday problems in a creative manner.

Characteristics of Agile methodologies

Agile refers to a sort of group of software development methodologies based on iterative software development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration. Agile methods generally promote a disciplined project management process that encourages frequent inspection and adaptation, teamwork, self-organization and accountability and a business approach that aligns software development with customer needs and company goals.

What are the similarities between the methodologies?

Both methodologies use input from outside the team that is doing the work. Designers perform user research, gather business needs and discuss technology possibilities. For Agile, this translates into creating backlogs, writing user stories and determining success metrics. Another similarity is iteration. Both methodologies embrace iteration as part of the process and therefore establish ongoing refinement to optimize the business value. Perhaps the most interesting similarity is that in both methodologies employees (people) are the focal point for creating value. This is stimulated by organizing employees in cross-functional teams which stimulate cross-functional solutions for a product, service or software. 

What differences can be identified?

There are also some differences. In general, Agile doesn’t have a ‘synthesis’ stage. Usually, the results from the last iteration are the direct input for the next iteration. It is common for requirements to be updated and prioritized before work recommences. Design Thinking takes a step back and tries to gather learning and then identify patterns to make an informed leap to something new. Another difference involves the stages of product development. The legacy of Design means that we often still think in terms of projects with product development that has a beginning, middle and end. At the end, the final product will be delivered. In between, semi-manufactures are deployed and tested. Agile definitely has stage gates of deployment (alpha, beta, launch) but has the ability to deploy a solution which can be seen as a finished product at any point in time. The design process of a product or service perhaps needs these points to force a coherent output or avoid high investment in unused product and/or service developments, whereas the software design process does not have these hurdles. Perhaps the most interesting difference is in the range of tools to get the job done. From simple things (like pens and paper) to more complex tools (like the Business Model Canvas), Design Thinking can be as simple as taping some things together.

Blurring or intertwining

Design Thinking PrototypePerhaps the biggest cause of blurring lies within the teams themselves and their use of shared software in all stages of both Agile and Design Thinking. It’s now common to find design teams with software engineers and software teams with designers. When diverse teams bring their processes together, blurring is inevitable. The same laptops and the same software are used and it is increasingly easy for non-technical people to carry out software engineering or modeling tasks. The new software frameworks of today mean that with their first mockups designers are actually developing very advanced software. Equally, design patterns and libraries like Google’s Material Design or Apple’s Design Bible make it easier for developers to produce advanced visual interfaces. The difference between a high-resolution prototype and production-ready code is now, in some cases, zero.

Conclusion

Design Thinking and Agile are similar, different and intertwined. Whereas Design Thinking is applied strategically by using design methods to find the right question and begin to answer it, Agile is mostly used operationally, usually when building software, where once a question is asked, teams iterate towards a solution. There is now the term ‘post-Agilism’ that has its own manifesto and is delightfully to the point. Here’s the core:

If it works, do it.

If it doesn’t, don’t.

Both methods and their application seem to be developing into a new term: ‘growth hacking’ – but that is for another blog.

Design Thinking Agile

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