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” (&&).

The Silent Devastation Caused by “Ideas People”

“Generating ideas is not a special talent reserved for a select few people who have been blessed with some kind of mystical ability to predict the future.”

In the software industry you often come across so called ‘ideas-people’

Behold the unicorn ideas person. Full of ideas and low on execution.

In the software industry, you often come across individuals who are referred to as “ideas people.” These are people who are always talking about the big ideas they are “working” on. They might even insinuate how groundbreaking their idea is and how it’s going to change the world. These individuals often have a seemingly endless supply of ideas and can quickly switch between them, talking about each one with equal enthusiasm. If someone else in the industry has had success with an idea that resembles one of theirs, they may lament the fact that they didn’t pursue it and blame external circumstances for their failure. They may hold onto these ideas for years, waiting for the perfect moment to put them into action.

The worst part is that their passion for their ideas is often mistaken for genuine vision. Some people may be fooled into thinking that these individuals are true visionaries, and they may even receive funding from investors who are taken in by their rhetoric. When these ideas fail (which is most of the time), the ideas people typically blame external factors for the failure. They may say that the market wasn’t ready for their product or that the investor funds ran out just before they were about to make a breakthrough. If they are not technically inclined, they may blame the developers for being too slow, too expensive, or too inexperienced. It’s rare for them to take responsibility for the failure of their ideas or to admit that their ideas were flawed. To do so would damage their egos, which are often the only things they hold dear.

In reality, there is nothing more useless in this world than an “ideas person.” Not only is it frustrating to deal with their egos and their misplaced protection of their ideas, but anyone can come up with ideas. Generating ideas is not a special talent reserved for a select few people who have been blessed with some kind of mystical ability to predict the future. In fact, if you look closely at the ideas that ideas people come up with, you will realize that they are often nothing more than imitations of innovation, with concepts copied from the successes of others.

True visionaries are not just dreamers, they are also doers. Dreaming is an important part of being a visionary, but you also need to be able to follow through and make things happen. Ideas without execution are meaningless and a waste of everyone’s time. Execution is king.

The devastation caused by ideas people is particularly pronounced in the corporate world, where these individuals can operate with minimal risk to their livelihoods or reputations. If their half-baked ideas fail in a corporate environment, it’s virtually impossible to determine the cause of the failure because there are so many factors that could have contributed to it. As a result, ideas people can often escape blame for the failure of their ideas.

In contrast, the startup world does a better job of separating the doers from the ideas people. In startups, execution is everything. There is no room for ideas without action. If you can’t build something that is useful to humanity and that people want to use, you’re done. It’s a brutal environment that rewards true visionaries who can execute their ideas and destroys those who are just in it for the sound of their own voices.

The difficult part is that you want to encourage innovation and experimentation in corporate environments to help the company evolve and grow. However, the people who are typically tasked with coming up with these strategies and product ideas are often not well-suited to executing them.