Design Thinking and Agile Working: which one to best fit new business opportunities

The market has grown so much over the past few decades. What was once a pretty streamlined and straightforward set of business practices has since developed into something wider-reaching, accessible, and almost all-encompassing in terms of capability. Some may chalk this up to technological developments, such as how the internet has provided access to so much for so many.

But much of the developments with strategy and management can be attributed to the ingenuity and progress that were seen in how people think and approach work in general. Simple frameworks designed to better manage one type of business have been concurrently developed and used for different industries altogether, slowly changing the landscape of how we understand and manage our work.

In this article, we will discuss two particularly independent working frameworks that, when used concurrently, create a distinctive system that allows for critical thinking, creative ideation, and dynamic workflows. We will talk about design thinking and agile working.

Adapting to New Working Styles

Much has changed with the dynamics of how work is supposed to be done. In the 20th century, managers and workers alike began understanding that there needs to be better ways to go about their daily operations as well as developing new ideas for execution. It was here that companies began to try new innovative practices to better cater to an equally fast-moving target market.

Toyota began the movements towards agile work methods by introducing concepts like the Kanban system as well as more worker-focused strategies. The company hypothesized that those on the floor and nearest to the work occurring should have the autonomy to manage and better operationalize their work. After integrating a standardized process in which coloured cards and quick pull chains were used to signal restocks and assembly floor control, Toyota began seeing spikes in productivity and, in turn, became a much larger player in the US automobile industry. This development served as the catalyst for agile working styles to begin developing.

Design thinking, on the other hand, had a much more academic origin. Foundations of a new school of thought around design came about in the pre-1960s, with different studies being conducted on psychology around creativity and how it can be a further developed skill. It was then in the post-1960s and 1970s world that strategic experts across different industries began to explore how these prototype design thinking frameworks can be applied to their businesses.

Design theorist Horst Rittel developed the concept of the “wicked problem” during this era, expanding the scope of what was once a focus of single disciplinary problems to a wider-reaching multidisciplinary task that would require frequent collaboration across specialty teams. Today, design thinking has evolved within and beyond the confines of the academe, starting with Standford’s d.school and being better recognized in business strategies as integral to fostering true innovations.

Agile Work: Keeping Fast and Dynamic

Agile work is likely one of the most common terms you’ll hear in your workplace when discussing ways to be more efficient and productive with your work. Agile is a versatile task management system with a speedy, iterative method for product development, project management, and general administrative processing. 

When practicing and implementing agile techniques in your business, your team will essentially be running iterative versions or prototypes to accumulate feedback and discover unanticipated consumer needs, which is a common thing to see during development phases in the tech industry. The aim is to construct and supply a product incrementally, primarily based totally on consumer comments, in place of seeking to supply the entire answer all at once.

Agile Working Principles

There are numerous styles of agile frameworks, with Scrum, Dynamic Systems Development Method, and we previously mentioned Kanban system, all being part of the same general agile ecosystem. Each method follows the principle ideas of Agile, together with a focal point on several different teams working together in collaboration and moving fast around testing and implementation.

A key guideline of powerful agile improvement is looking for common feedback from end-customers to iterate to the proper outcomes. Early on, this includes items such as organizing the overall project goal, observing stakeholder feedback, as well as generating recorded logs of past events for team review moving forward. 

Throughout the agile process, teams run small demos to acquire comments, and feedback, and find unanticipated needs. Related stakeholders to the business must be capable of posting issues, suggestions, and thoughts via the best appropriate channel, each throughout improvement and as they enter into final production. Ideally, there's a closed loop that brings remarks immediately into the production schedule, permitting ongoing iteration.

“Lean” is a big principle that remains foundational to how agile work is done, which is essentially a manufacturing technique within a production system meant to assist corporations to lessen waste, boom innovation, and optimize processes. For example, when it involves software program improvement, Agile follows most closely with the concepts of Lean techniques, including rapid and collaborative iterative improvement, brief comments loops/sprints, and consistent refinement of processes based on development.

Design Thinking: Innovation through Ideation

With agile work being the essential framework for tackling projects and jobs in the most efficient way possible, design thinking is about identifying and refining the types of projects and jobs that are to be tackled in the first place. While the phrase “problem finding” might be a bit reductive in this sense, design thinking does require a deep understanding of customer usage of the product and an iterative procedure of growing new ideas. This means combing through some deep-seated assumptions and redefining problems to have a broader scope beyond what was initially in view.

The purpose of layout questioning is to become aware of opportunity answers that won't always be apparent. ​​This means checking in with stakeholders that might not be in the primary view as well as truly encapsulating the usage of your product across all the different contexts and scenarios it might be in.

Design Thinking Principles

Similarly to agile work, design thinking follows key processes and principles that are aimed at better understanding and anticipating  new problems (and opportunities) that your team can encounter.

Empathy is the first and, admittedly, largely overlooked aspect of the design thinking framework. This requires you and your team to truly try and understand people, their behaviors, and their motivation as these are often unrecognizable at first glance or aren’t exactly articulated explicitly. By understanding through empathy, you can begin viewing customers and their behaviors in different contexts and become better aware of patterns, and possible questions, as well as hypothesize any ways to move forward.

After laying the groundwork by spending time to properly assess whether you and your team understand and empathize with the relevant stakeholders, it’s time to better define their problems. Take an actionable problem to flesh out the outline of the proper task to deal with. Then, based on the organization, express the goals which are critical to satisfying at first. 

You’ll then need to focus on the ideation aspect of your business, leveraging strategies such as brainstorming, mind mapping, whiteboards, and even sketching. All of this will better supply your plan for how you will develop the prototype for an answer to the problems you and your team have begun to properly define.

Ideation is the starting step that ultimately leads to a key facet of design thinking, which is the actual prototype and experimentation stage of the framework. Similar to agile work, developing quick and small-scale prototypes in an effort to get something usable for your stakeholders and customers can be incredibly useful in collecting feedback and comments for further iterations down the line.

It’s here that evaluation plays a large part, especially when you begin developing the base product that you plan to go to market with, sometimes called the “minimum viable product” or MVP. Like any good framework, you might find yourself jumping through the different principles in not exactly the same order. This is expected as design thinking does rely on your team being flexible enough and understanding how they will operate, the goal they’re trying to reach, as well as the key metrics you’ll be monitoring to ensure you are all on track.

How Design Thinking and Agile Work Come Hand-in-Hand

Design thinking and agile working, if it doesn’t seem so apparent yet, work together in a great supportive aspect of defining new and innovative opportunities with the most efficient processes to test out solutions in solving them. These two frameworks cover a user-focused landscape where frequent different iterations and rapid testing of products with the customer in mind are meant to reach the best outcomes in the most efficient manner.

The essential goal of design thinking and agile working coming together hand-in-hand is to build a stronger focus around more complex issues while developing incremental solutions to these issues in a way that remains focused on the end-user. While this does mean frequent back-and-forth, the project team will eventually benefit from the avoidance of any large shifts in product design due to an overlooked aspect of their development process.

This is why it’s absolutely key that teams utilize both frameworks to better develop and continue maintaining their products in the market. Competitors will continue to innovate faster and faster, and if your business doesn’t have customers at the top of their minds they risk losing out to their rivals who do. Your product development team is then better tasked to create both short-term and long-term solutions to get at the root issues customers are facing.  According to a study by Marketing Sherpa, a review of satisfied customers showed that 61 percent are “very likely to make another purchase,” which has driven design-focused companies to beat out their competitors in the last decade.

Naturally, the balance between finding the problem through design thinking and delivering on that through agile work is a challenge fit for even the most efficient of managers. But, like both design thinking and agile work suggest, the integration of these two frameworks will require a smooth and incremental approach to develop a properly shared workflow that efficiently joins the two processes. The earlier you begin this process the better, as teams can begin to focus in on getting real-world feedback for their initiatives which can help you keep the product focused on the customer, improving satisfaction and reducing error risk in the future. In a study conducted by Forrester Consulting for IBM, these frameworks can help reduce time for development and testing by almost 33% over the duration of the entire project.

Best Practices for Design and Agility

In better connecting the aspects of design thinking and agile working, your team’s focus needs to be on the essential outcomes for the customers instead of just outcomes for outcomes’ sake. This means focusing less on standard business metrics such as time to production or error rate percentage and instead designing key performance indicators (KPIs) around customer experience with your product.

It can also be extremely useful for teams that are starting to integrate design thinking and agile working into their operations to have an agreement between related groups. This can come in the form of a “team contract” or even be part of the culture of the company in general. The main goal for this is to have an understanding between key leaders and experts that the organization is attempting a multidisciplinary approach to work and will be better benefited from active collaboration across team members.

If you do fall into the category of first-time users of both design thinking and agile working, there are a few simple steps to help you get better started:

  1. Ensure Cross-functional Leverage: As we mentioned previously, input from a variety of multidisciplinary team members can be extremely helpful in developing design thinking alongside agile working. Using people with different backgrounds and experiences can help widen the scope of your problem hunting as well as provide new efficiencies with how you approach the work.
  2. Start Small but Focused: It’s important to properly manage the capacity of your team when transitioning to a new working style. Utilize high-value and/or low-risk opportunities to gain some exposure to design thinking and agile working in tandem while you work towards bigger and more substantial projects.
  3. Find the Balance Between Planning and Execution: With design thinking and agile work being similar but largely focused on separate outcomes, it’s important that you find the balanced system that works best for your team. As important external feedback is to your project, it’s also integral to the success of design and agility to gather feedback from your internal team as well. Always be ready to share the value of both frameworks as well as adjust aspects of the same frameworks to better work with the team you’re in now. 

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