When, which … Design Thinking, Lean, Design Sprint, Agile?

Confusion galore!

A lot of people are — understandably so — very confused when it comes to innovation methodologies, frameworks, and techniques. Questions like: “When should we use Design Thinking?”, “What is the purpose of a Design Sprint?”, “Is Lean Startup just for startups?”, “Where does Agile fit in?”, “What happens after the <some methodology> phase?” are all very common questions.

(How) does it all connect?

When browsing the Internet for answers, one notices quickly that others too are struggling to understand how it all works together.

Gartner (as well as numerous others) tried to visualise how methodologies like Design Thinking, Lean, Design Sprint and Agile flow nicely from one to the next. Most of these visualisations have a number of nicely coloured and connected circles, but for me they seem to miss the mark. The place where one methodology flows into the next is very debatable, because there are too many similar techniques and there is just too much overlap.

The innovation spectrum

It probably makes more sense to just look at Design Thinking, Lean, Design Sprint & Agile as a bunch of tools and techniques in one’s toolbox, rather than argue for one over the other, because they can all add value somewhere on the innovation spectrum.

Innovation initiatives can range from exploring an abstract problem space, to experimenting with a number of solutions, before continuously improving a very concrete solution in a specific market space.

Business model

An aspect which often seems to be omitted, is the business model maturity axis. For established products as well as adjacent ones (think McKinsey’s Horizon 1 and 2), the business models are often very well understood. For startups and disruptive innovations within an established business however, the business model will need to be validated through experiments.

Methodologies

Design Thinking

Design Thinking really shines when we need to better understand the problem space and identify the early adopters. There are various flavors of design thinking, but they all sort of follow the double-diamond flow. Simplistically the first diamond starts by diverging and gathering lots of insights through talking to our target stakeholders, followed by converging through clustering these insights and identifying key pain-points, problems or jobs to be done. The second diamond starts by a diverging exercise to ideate a large number of potential solutions before prototyping and testing the most promising ideas. Design Thinking is mainly focussed on qualitative rather than quantitative insights.

Lean Startup

The slight difference with Design Thinking is that the entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) often already has a good understanding of the problem space. Lean considers everything to be a hypothesis or assumption until validated …so even that good understanding of the problem space is just an assumption. Lean tends to starts by specifying your assumptions on a customer focussed (lean) canvas and then prioritizing and validating the assumptions according to highest risk for the entire product. The process to validate assumptions is creating an experiment (build), testing it (measure) and learn whether our assumption or hypothesis still stands. Lean uses qualitative insights early on but later forces you to define actionable quantitative data to measure how effective the solution addresses the problem and whether the growth strategy is on track. The “Get out of the building” phrase is often associated with Lean Startup, but the same principle of reaching out the customers obviously also counts for Design Thinking (… and Design Sprint … and Agile).

Design Sprint

It appears that the Google Venture-style Design Sprint method could have its roots from a technique described in the Lean UX book. The key strength of a Design Sprint is to share insights, ideate, prototype and test a concept all in a 5-day sprint. Given the short timeframe, Design Sprints only focus on part of the solution, but it's an excellent way to learn really quickly if you are on the right track or not.

Agile

Just like dealing with the uncertainty of our problem, solution and market assumptions, agile development is a great way to cope with uncertainty in product development. No need to specify every detail of a product up-front, because here too there are plenty of assumptions and uncertainty. Agile is a great way to build-measure-learn and validate assumptions whilst creating a Minimum Viable Product in Lean Startup parlance. We should define and prioritize a backlog of value to be delivered and work in short sprints, delivering and testing the value as part of each sprint.

Conclusion

Probably not really the answer you were looking for, but there is no clear rule on when to start where. There is also no obvious handover point because there is just too much overlap, and this significant overlap could be the explanation of why some people claim methodology <x> is better than <y>.

Anyhow, most innovation methodologies can add great value and it’s really up to the team to decide where to start and when to apply which methods and techniques. The common ground most can agree with, is to avoid falling in love with your own solution and listen to qualitative as well as quantitative customer feedback.

Innovation Spectrum

Some great books: Creative Confidence, Lean Startup, Running Lean, Sprint, Dual Transformation, Lean UX, Lean Enterprise, Scaling Lean … and a nice video on Innovation@50x

Update: minor update in the innovation canvas, moving the top axis of problem-solution-market to the side.


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