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Design thinking, lean and agile are finally converging

Design, lean and agile have different modus operandi. With software releases now required by the hour, they need to be brought together to bring out the best in people..

The pace of software releases at the average company keeps accelerating, from month by month, to week by week, now day by day or even hour by hour. Delivering constant updates and continuous improvements calls for new ways of thinking and collaborating. Now, people want artificial intelligence built in.

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Photo: HubSpot

In a recent post, Jonny Schneider, a consultant with ThoughtWorks, did something that should have been done ages ago: he connected the dots between agile, lean and design thinking, three modes of continuous deployment and continuous improvement that each has its own constituencies, and modus operandi.

But these modes of thinking overlap considerably, and one flows into the other. Schneider describes the distinctions:

"Design thinking is how we explore and solve problems; Lean is our framework for testing our beliefs and learning our way to the right outcomes; Agile is how we adapt to changing conditions with software."

So, what does it take to get moving in the right direction? We'll look at the observations of three practitioners within each realm. Design thinking is the start of the flow, and is the problem-solving phase. To gain perspective on promoting design thinking within an organization, a presentation delivered by Steven Ray, chief creative officer for Dialexa, nicely covers this ground. Approach problems with an open mind, he advises, and always keep the user in mind. "Use observational research to get a more well-rounded perspective of users,: Ray states. The challenge is to overcome siloed thinking and processes. "Design needs to be a strategic partner with the business, working closely with each group to align the product vision." In addition, he adds, "continually validate your assumptions so you know you're building something that meets the vision."

He adds this tidbit: "when people realize that design thinking is a fairly simple process, they start to question how powerful it can really be. However, the right implementation can affect everything from strategy to the development of specific features."

Once a suitable solution is established and designed, its time to introduce lean thinking into the process. Lean thinking means transforming the thinking of your people, according to Frederico Tarrago, innovation and process Specialist, Hospital Moinhos de Vento in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in a recent interview. "Lean is a way of thinking and acting and not just a set of tools and that embracing the methodology means to continuously pursue perfection -- though it will often feel like you will never attain it." Here too, the challenge is overcoming departmental silos. "Nobody can effectively control all areas at all times. Therefore, in my mind, the success of a transformation is intrinsically linked to our ability to communicate and collaborate effectively across silos," Tarrago states.

Tarrago says lean thinking requires user education. "Those involved in the journey are often not familiar with lean," he says. "They will lose interest if they don't see quick results coming from the lean initiative. So, it is important to do everything we can to help them believe in change, because without them there can be no transformation. Quick gains will also help top management engaged, which is critical to ensure buy-in."

Then we get to agile thinking, which promotes the notion that that business and IT work collaboratively to deliver incremental improvements in software or products. This, too, needs to break out of silos and deliver on an enterprise scale. "While it is completely OK to start the agile transformation within, say, a small part of the organization, it is important not to stop there and to treat it as a strategic priority for the enterprise," state Christopher Handscomb and a team of fellow McKinsey consultants point out in a recent report: "Taking agile beyond small experiments is where the real benefits arise."

The McKinsey team relates the example of a large company seeking to encourage agile methodologies tied to a 1,000-person technology organization. "Every time business executives were asked about agile, they had a limited understanding and simply referred to it as 'that project the technology team is trying to implement--we know nothing about it,': they relate. "The impact was limited, until 18 months into execution, when a massive change came about because one of the senior vice presidents started to take interest, understand, adopt, and make changes to his business practices to match the more agile technology organization. This led to an enterprise-wide transformation, with agile being identified as one of the top five enterprise priorities.

See the common denominators between agile thinking, lean thinking and design thinking? It's about breaking down silos, making people intimate parts of the processes, and leveraging their thinking and contributions toward continuous delivery and continuous improvement. Each phase is critical to meeting the demands of today's enterprises for rapid and constant software delivery.