Design Thinking, Agile and Lean. What's the Difference?

Think 5 mins read 9th Jul 2019

We are passionate about using Design Thinking as an engine for innovation. However, Design Thinking is not an island. Agile and Lean are also high rotation words in the innovation space and we use facets of these approaches in our programs. So, what are they? And what is the difference? To understand the principles, strengths and pitfalls of each discipline, let’s take a closer look:

Design Thinking

Key concept: Uses human-centred design methods to explore and understand problems from the user’s perspective.

Slowly evolving since the 60s, design thinking originated from designers’ approach to product development. Used to dealing with ambiguity, iteration and empathetic learning, designers framed problems from the user’s point of view, using experimentation to explore potential solutions.

When these problem-focused and human-centered principles from the design world were applied to strategy and innovation (by companies like Apple, Coca-Cola and IBM), innovation success rates improved dramatically.

Now recognised as a process for innovation, Design Thinking is about exploring and understanding the problems and challenges of the end user, from their point of view. Identifying the problem that needs to be solved, not the problem you think it might be.

Design Thinkers use insight and empathy, to look at how people think and feel as well as what they say and do. This knowledge is combined with tools to stimulate creative thinking to develop ideas which are prototyped and tested in fast and affordable ways.

Design Thinking is a non-linear process, stages are revisited, ideas continually improved with the understanding that as with all improvements, the process is never complete.

Pitfalls: There is a danger with Design Thinking of ‘paralysis by analysis’ in the Discovery stage. When digging into problems and seeking opportunities to add value and delight end users you can get trapped in the constant seeking and analysis of insight and data. The more you look, the more you will find.

To combat this, we use the mindset and skills of Agile such as speed and time-boxing to drive forward momentum. We combine this with Lean’s iterative learning to invoke action and data discovery through test and learn cycles.

We then take the ‘Working Assumptions’ supported and validated by data and insight, progressing on the understanding that this is assumed to be correct until proven differently in development and testing stages.


Key concepts: Continuous improvement, maximum value delivery and minimum waste.

Lean methodology originates from the Toyota Production System developed by the Japanese to meet post-war resource restrictions. Building on elements from American product and quality control techniques, the ultimate goal of lean manufacturing processes was to reduce waste (anything that doesn’t add value to the customer) by improving material handling, inventory, quality and customer satisfaction.

You can see why this works, creating products, processes or services that require less human effort, less space, less capital and less time to deliver products that cost less and have fewer defects.

Lean also focusses on empowering individual workers to achieve their full potential by continuously improving their work to make the greatest possible contribution. Continually striving to optimise processes to allow everyone to deliver the most value.

Pitfalls: There is a danger to only look at existing, products, services and systems to improve efficiencies. This can drive an internal focus on ‘What’ you do and ‘How’ you do it, but innovation often comes from ‘Why’ you do it.

By looking at your ‘Why’ you might discover that your ‘What’ and ‘How’ are no longer relevant to your users. The danger is the assumption that by focusing on optimisation and efficiencies all problems are solved.

This can be avoided by using a Design-Thinking lens to explore and challenge the ‘What & How.’ The user-centricity of Design Thinking extends beyond the business to how trends and global influences affect them, to empathic observation techniques, and inquisitive and personalised lines of questioning.


Key concepts: Responding quickly and efficiently to opportunity and risk. Using time-boxed activities to speed components of the project to launch rather than wait for the whole project.

Agile is a project-management approach initially developed by software developers. It focusses on the power of iteration to quickly learn and develop key components of products and services.

Activities are time-boxed with a commitment to creating incremental solutions to launch them quick, test them and continually improve. By testing and iterating quickly, the agile mindset is resilient to failure and launch focussed.

An Agile business responds quickly and efficiently to opportunity and risk. It’s Agile’s strengths in project visualisation as well as the iterative Development and Delivery stages that we often adopt in our innovation programs.

Pitfalls – Agile’s danger lies in its speed. Built around fast and effective delivery methodologies, it can engulf its teams in focusing on building the thing right, but not on actually asking what is the right thing to build.

By relying on user feedback during the test phase you can be influenced by false positives. Users may feed back that they like what you have built, but they may prefer an alternative that addresses the real problem. As soon as that comes along, the Agile team’s product or service risks becoming obsolete.

Having a process for innovation allows businesses to be dynamic, always improving and evolving to meet the changing needs of their user. If we stick to only one method, we risk missing opportunities for greater growth and efficacy. Fortunately, Design Thinking is adaptable and can adopt the strengths of other disciplines to bring more rigour to the innovation journey.

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