Companies looking for more customer-centric innovation strategies often land on one of two concepts: agile methodology or design thinking. Both of these strategies have similar philosophies: gathering feedback from customers and taking an iterative approach to design that will inspire ideas, help teams avoid mistakes, and result in better, faster, and more glorious products.
However, these two strategies are not interchangeable.
What is Agile?
Agile is a project management method that relies on gathering fast feedback, producing iterative releases, and being able to rapidly adapt the design plan to best meet the needs of users. The fundamentals of agile are outlined in the Agile Manifesto, which emerged in the early 2000s as a way for project managers to combat the high rate of failure in software design by being more responsive, and less burdened by paperwork and pre-defined specs.
It gave developers a new project management environment where they had the freedom to test new ideas, gauge user response, and pivot the project plan in response to their feedback — while it was still easy and cheap to do.
Sound familiar? It should.
The fundamentals of agile project management come from the same theories and practices that define design thinking. Consider the first of the 12 principals defined in the agile manifesto: “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”
Replace the word “software” with whatever problem you are trying to solve, and you’ve got the foundation for any good design thinking project.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a method for uncovering real problems that need solving, then brainstorming better, more innovative solutions to directly solve for that need. It follows a six step process (see below), that gives users a framework for engaging with customers, driving creativity, and iterating solutions to get to the best result.
Like agile, design thinking is built around treating customers as collaborators, gathering their feedback throughout the design process, and allowing that feedback to drive the next iteration — especially when users tell you that what you’ve built to date isn’t working.
The Two Methods Differ in Important Ways
Agile is a method to solve predefined problems, while design thinking focuses on finding the right problems to solve. This is an important distinction, as design thinking provides users with a way to make better choices about the journeys they should follow, not just how best to get there.
Agile is a project management method used to build better software, whereas design thinking can be used by anyone to solve any big complex problem that has no clear solution.
Agile requires user engagement, but design thinking actually shows you how to do it. Any good design thinking workshop will teach you how to listen to customers and observe their behavior so you can empathize with their needs and identify the problems that require solving. This is one of the most important differences between the two methods, and a main reason why design thinking was voted the best framework for helping companies create innovative products — beating out agile, lean and other frameworks. Agile teams can talk to end users on a daily basis, but if they don’t have the skills to listen and respond to their needs that interaction won’t add the value they seek.
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose one over the other. These two methods complement each other nicely, and can be part of a broader effort to be more customer centric and innovative.
When software developers learn to use design thinking when they talk to customers, they do a better job of gathering feedback and responding to the right information. In turn, design thinkers can benefit from adopting agile strategies and terminology like daily stand-ups and sprints, to drive better collaboration and communication on their teams.
Together these two methods can transform your organization, and ensure every project delivers value to the business, your customers, and your own bottom-line.
Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations.