The difference between design thinking, lean and agile

“Each mindset brings value to a different stage of the product life cycle and, when used together, can drive better decision-making and improved ways of working.”

Agile, Lean and Desing Thinking

“Instead of trying to prioritize one over the others, it is better to view them as a powerful trio”

In modern software development, you’ll often hear the terms design thinking, lean, and agile. While people may have different interpretations of what these concepts mean and how to apply them, they all share the common goal of helping organizations develop new skills and abilities to adapt to the modern world. Each mindset brings value to a different stage of the product life cycle and, when used together, can drive better decision-making and improved ways of working.

I can’t remember where I picked it up but my favourite way of summarizing the difference is with the following three sentences:

  • Design thinking is about exploring problems in a better way
  • Lean is about building the right thing
  • Agile is about building the thing right

If you take anything out of this article these three sentences would be it. But let’s scratch that surface just a little bit more.

Design thinking at a distance (Explore problems better)

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that utilizes techniques and practices from the design field to overcome the limitations of traditional brainstorming. It focuses on empathy and the continual reframing of problems and potential solutions from the perspective of the people involved. Design thinking is not limited to design and can be applied to any domain that would benefit from a flexible and human-centred approach.

Lean thinking at a distance (Build the right thing)

Lean thinking is a management philosophy that originated with the Toyota Production System and its creator Taiichi Ohno. It involves applying scientific thinking to strategic decisions related to the execution of work in an organizational value stream. Lean recognizes the importance of addressing constraints and focuses improvement efforts on creating value. It also emphasizes the use of deliberate practice to develop habits that enable a highly responsive and outcomes-focused organization.

Agile thinking at a distance (Build the thing right)

Agile is an adjective that describes a way of working that is adaptable to changing needs. It involves deferring decision-making until the last responsible moment when you have the most information to make the right decision. Agile thinking focuses on constantly creating value through short, iterative cycles of focused work that can be applied to almost any domain. Quality is not a goal, but an integrated part of daily work.

So which one of the three is the most important?

It is difficult to compare the importance of the three concepts discussed in the previous paragraphs because their strengths are applicable in different situations. Instead of trying to prioritize one over the others, it is better to view them as a powerful trio that can achieve great things when used together. In programming terms, this is not a logical “or” (||) but a logical “and” (&&).


So what should an “agile” software architect be doing?

“As architects, you have the opportunity to create spaces that inspire, uplift, and bring people together.”

Agile Architect in his natural habitat.jpg

“An agile architect in his natural habitat dancing in a field of complexity…”

I recently wrote a blog on whether software architects matter. The blog was written quickly and without much consideration, which sparked discussions among my professional network, particularly among architects. Many of these discussions focused on the role of an “agile” software architect. My suggestion that most design decisions be made by the team appeared to be the trigger point for these discussions. In light of this, I have compiled a list of things that I believe “agile” software architects should be doing:

Be part of the development team – You are there to inform, motivate, and influence the team without expending social capital by forcing your decisions. Being removed from the actual development effort and simply flinging architectural documents (that probably don’t reflect actual system code) at developers is not good enough anymore.

Adapt to the team’s way of working – Not the other way around. In order to build high-performance teams, you need to create space for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The autonomy boundary can be constrained, but each team’s sweet spot in terms of their way of working will differ slightly. Standardizing your approach will simply lack the flexibility and variability that modern teams need and require.

Your job is to accelerate the project, not to slow it down – Your goal is to keep the project moving forward and avoid slowing it down. Be flexible and willing to change priorities, discard unnecessary requirements, and experiment with new ideas. Above all, keep the flow of value creation going. Don’t get stuck trying to understand or gain consensus on every detail. Instead, defer decision-making as long as possible and focus on the high-risk areas that could derail your design. This will help you avoid becoming a bottleneck in the development process

Your job is primarily about communication; do it often and early – Keep the lines of communication open and start early. It can be difficult to achieve a shared understanding among all project stakeholders, but transparency and simplicity can help. Avoid complicated diagrams and strive to provide context and understanding. Repeat key points until a common understanding is reached and people start taking initiative. Then, simply curate and ensure accuracy without stifling people’s attempts to contextualize the information.

Focus on the essence of the problem, the simpler the better – Stop creating artefacts, documents, and stuff that nobody can contextualize. Even if you have to explain things over and over again, this will refine the concept in your head and provide extra insights. Look at initiatives like C4 diagrams to get your drawings more in line with the actual thing being built.

Test your architecture – Prototypes and POCs are single-handedly the best way to validate parts of your architecture. But in too many organizations, this is seen as a waste of time and money. Change the way you fund projects and cater for this activity. While you are at it, always add slack for testing the non-functionals of your architecture (scalability, performance, and robustness).

Question standard practices and seek out new ideas – Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and seek out new ideas and approaches. The world of software development is constantly evolving, and it is important for architects to stay current and adapt to new methodologies and technologies. This will help you to stay relevant and effective in your role.

In conclusion, the role of the agile architect is to be an active and influential member of the development team, adapt to the team’s way of working, accelerate the project, communicate effectively, focus on the essence of the problem, test the architecture, and seek out new ideas. By following these principles, you can help your team to build better software and achieve greater success.

Developing a Culture of Meaning for Software Teams

“This means having a clear and compelling vision that speaks to the hearts and minds of potential team members. This vision needs to be real and have integrity.”

The lonely road of vision of leadership

“To truly land the best talent in the industry, you need to have a cause or idea that people can rally behind.”

Building a successful software development team is a challenging task. Not only do you need to find individuals who are skilled in their craft, but they also need to have a certain mindset and approach to their work. They need to be idealistic and creative, but also able to think critically and pragmatically. They need to see their careers as a calling, not just a job.

Finding these kinds of people is difficult, and they are often in high demand. They regularly receive offers from recruiters and have a wide range of opportunities to choose from. As a result, to attract the best talent, you need to offer something that they can truly believe in.

This means having a clear and compelling vision that speaks to the hearts and minds of potential team members. This vision needs to be real and have integrity, and should be backed by a leader who is not just a salesperson, but someone who genuinely cares about the people who choose to follow that vision.

Many organizations try to attract talent by talking a big game and manufacturing unauthentic ideals, values, and visions. They try to show how “cool” they are by engaging in imitation innovation. But this kind of behavior can only fool people for so long if it is not truly part of the organization’s DNA.

To truly land the best talent in the industry, you need to have a cause or idea that people can rally behind. And you need to create a culture that aligns with the way that technology professionals want to be treated. This means moving away from traditional command-and-control structures and towards a flatter, networked organization that is in line with the modern knowledge economy.

Software has and continues to drive the modern industrial revolution, and as a result, it is at the forefront of shaping modern organizational culture. Instead of trying to fit technology professionals into existing corporate structures, organizations should strive to create cultures that align with the values and goals of the people who work in technology.

To do this, organizations need to prioritize autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their culture. They need to trust and empower their team members to use their skills and experience to build great things. They need to provide opportunities for growth and development, and create an environment where people can learn from each other and push the boundaries of what is possible.

Of course, creating this kind of culture is not easy. It requires a commitment to change and a willingness to challenge the status quo. It requires leaders who are willing to listen and learn from their team members, and who are willing to adapt and evolve in response to feedback.

But the payoff is worth it. A culture that aligns with the values and goals of technology professionals will attract the best talent in the industry. It will foster innovation and collaboration, and it will enable your team to build great things together. And in the end, that is what truly makes a software development team successful.