How We Make Design Thinking, Lean and Agile Work Together

Identify the problem using Design Thinking – value discovery
Build a POC – the Lean way – value validation
Keep up with the market changes – the Agile way – value delivery


We all want our businesses to generate and execute new ideas, new revenue streams, to keep up with the customer demands, to adapt to the fast changing markets around us. We all face problems/challenges. But we frequently get lost in how to solve them. We find ourselves without a map to guide us through this process.


Many books and articles have been written about business agility and the problem solving skills required to respond to the ever-changing markets. Three of the most popular problem solving methodologies are Design Thinking, Lean and Agile. In this article we take a look at how you can use them together to make user-centricity and adaptability the cornerstones of your organisation’s success.


The Common Steps Of Any Problem Solving Process

Problem Solving Process - Living with Technology, published back in 1993 by M. Hacker & B. Barden

Whatever the problem you have at hand – whatever the methodology you choose, problem solving always goes through the same steps. In their book called Living with Technology, published back in 1993 M. Hacker and B. Barden describe these steps, summarised in the adjacent image. 

Design Thinking, Lean and Agile all revolve around helping you have structure and clarity around the 6 steps bellow. And they are not alone in doing this. There are other methodologies, like SCRUM, which you can look at. However in this article we’ll look into how you can make these three methodologies work together for your benefit and that of the end user.


  1. Understand the problem.
  2. Identify a solution to the problem.
  3. Build a Proof-Of-Concept (POC) to test the solution
  4. Test the POC, gather the results
  5. Refine the POC based on the results 
  6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 until you either 
    (a) solve the problem
    (b) find out that the POC is not leading to a solution

What Does Each Methodology Bring To The Table?


Design Thinking, Lean and Agile all help you find clarity when facing a problem and in efficiently finding a proper solution that gives the desired results. Each of them is focuses on tackling this process in a different way.


Let’s first take a brief individual look at each one of the three methodologies before looking at how they can work together.


Design Thinking 

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO defines Design Thinking as a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. Design Thinking was invented by designers to solve common design problems, so they chose design methods as their tools of choice.  Design Thinking focuses on value discovery. That is, deciphering what people actually want. It can help you in the process of building UI mockup and sketches.


Design Thinking is an iterative process where people try and understand the user’s pain, redefine problems, challenge assumptions in order to come up with new solutions and strategies. This is a human-centric approach that integrates the needs of the people, the requirements to achieve the overall objectives, and the multiple possibilities of technologies. 


Lean (Startup) 

Lean was invented by entrepreneurs to solve risky business problems. Lean focuses on value validation. That is, determining if there is a market for your idea i.e rapidly discovering if a proposed solution is viable through shorter product development cycles.


This is achieved by adopting a combination of iterative product releases, business-hypothesis driven experimentation, and validated learning. Startups (and even established companies) often fail due to market-match failure, because they make products/services no one wants or needs. Lean provides an approach to get the desired product delivered to the customer.



Agile knows its origin in software development. Agile was invented by software engineers to solve typical engineering problems. Because of this it favours building working software.  It focuses on value delivery. That is, building a working product that customers can use and gain benefit from immediately.

It deals with high-value features instead of focusing on a set of features. When things are highly uncertain, agile can build a solution that can adapt to change quickly and is thus dynamic. It is all about producing working results, scaling, and evolving solutions following each iteration. Agile thrives on the ability to adapt gracefully to changing needs.


The Garner Diagram Combining The Three

If there is one company and one diagram that managed to capture the essence of having Design Thinking, Lean and Agile work together it is definitely Gartner. The diagram you can see on top starts by Design Thinking on the left, moved into Lean in the middle and finishes with Agile on the right. This creates a flow ideation on the left to execution and delivery on the right. It creates a continuous cyclical flux between Abstract and Concrete as well as between Problem and Solution.


Three Methodologies – One Flow


As Andriy Strogan very well explained by in his article on Medium named “Don’t Choose Between Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile When Focusing on Customer Value”, each of the three methodologies bring a different value to the table. The following diagram from the article clearly explains this value.

Design Thinking - value discovery - Lean - value validation - Agile - value delivery

Identify the problem using Design Thinkingvalue discovery

The first step towards getting a unified view of the three approaches is to acknowledge that every product that you build is a solution to one or more problems. There would be no product without a problem. You can use Design Thinking as the underlying framework to empathise or explore the problem contextually, define or identify the loopholes that are causing the problem and ideate or streamline your understanding into an actionable problem statement. This will inevitably bring out the possibility of specific solutions to resolve the problem. 


Build a POC – the Lean wayvalue validation

Now that the problem is identified and defined, you take the first step in solving it – using the Lean approach to quickly and cheaply create a Prototype or Proof-Of-Concept of the product/service to test whether the end users sees it as fitting solution or not. The Lean approach will help you navigate through the clutter of uncertainty while you taking to market a solutions that work. As you iterate you learn to build a better solution, to measure success and to pivot where necessary.


Keep up with the market changes – the Agile wayvalue delivery

Your work is not over the minute your take the product/service to market, actually this is when the fun starts. Whether you want it or not the market will keep changing fast. To keep up with the market and the end user needs you can adapt the Agile way – by continuously issuing improved versions of the product/service to match the market needs.

It Is Not A Choice Of One From The Three

Many who look at Design Thinking, Lean and Agile “from the outside” think that one must choose one of the three. And then focus all the efforts around this decision – getting the organisation to embrace the one chosen. This is NOT the case. The worst advice we could give you is that of telling you that one of the three is the holy grail that will solve all the problems.


By The Book Will Not Work


Many others have the impression that adopting one or all from Design Thinking, Lean and Agile means getting an innovation consultant, or hiring an experienced practitioner and then follow the methodology by the letter – whatever the book says.


It is NOT the case. Adopting Design Thinking, Lean and Agile depends more on the skills and experience your have around you, the particular situation at hand and what you are planning to achieve. It is good to know in detail what the books says but ultimately you must choose what works for you and your business. Mix-and-match – trial and error – until you find the right mix of tools and, processes methods that work for your and your teams. It is already risky to solve the problem at hand – you should not increase that risk by forcing the adoption of new took by the book, and without having the skills and experience available.


Start Small

Adopting Design Thinking, Lean and Agile should not be a big project – so big that you cannot have a taste of the benefits before many years pass. Start small, apply part of a methodology to an upcoming small project and get an immediate feel of the benefits. Then sharpen the adoption process, and do it again on a bigger project. Keep iterating this until the toolbox that Design Thinking, Lean and Agile provide become so day-to-day in your organisation, that your staff starts using them seamlessly – without an incentives, external help or training. 


A Culture Of Continuous Innovation – A Winning Formula


Design Thinking, Lean and Agile provide you with a map – with a process to follow – so that you can focus on the iterations towards the solution your customers need.


End users would be given the opportunity to get a feel of the end product/service early on. They feel included and thus give early and timely feedback.


This will foster a culture of continuous innovation. Irrespective of the size of your business, your company culture would be characterised by a startup mindset.


Once your team learns to improve with each iteration results will start showing. You would have sown the seeds of an organisations culture that sees things from the customer’s perspective. Success follows.

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