Combining Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile Development – Everyone Misses the Point of Continuous Innovation

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Don’t be fooled by complicated diagrams. The Innovation Vortex is neither complicated nor linear. It is complex, simple, and dynamic.

People like diagrams; they like colors, and they like making things complicated. But sometimes, we go too far complicating reality with colorful pictures. Consultants seem to be most prone to this kind of behavior. Sometimes, I wonder if they are paid for the number of circles and arrows they produce.

Take iterative processes, for example. The idea of developing solutions to problems in an iterative manner has been around for ages. One of the first diagrams that explained continuous improvement was Deming & Shewhart’s PDCA cycle. Later, we saw the OODA loop, the IDEAL model, the DMAIC model, the Spiral model, and of course, the Inspect & Adapt cycle of Agile Development.

Improvement cycle - Shiftup


Many variants of the improvement cycle


There are probably hundreds of such models. Are they all different? To some extent, yes. They emerged in various problem domains, and they place their emphasis on different perspectives and activities. But they are all the same in recognizing that solving problems and improving work is best done iteratively

Just because some languages have 300 words relating to snow doesn’t mean that you could enjoy 300 consecutive days with different types of snow. Snow is snow. There are just 300 different ways of talking about it. Likewise, there are not hundreds of improvement cycles for you to implement. There is only one improvement cycle, presented in different flavors.

I see this misunderstanding popping up when people offer diagrams explaining “how to combine” Design Thinking, Lean Startup, Business Modeling, Growth Hacking, Lean UX, and Agile Development. What consultants typically do (maybe because they are paid per circle and arrow) is that they draw different cycles in a row with arrows between them — one iteration cycle for Design Thinking, one for Lean Startup, one for Agile Development, etc. The result is a sequence of circles that looks suspiciously like a waterfall process.

Gartner Innovation - Shiftup

A linear sequence of circles



Snow is snow. Yes, under a microscope, snowflakes are all different from each other, but from a small distance, it’s all the same. The white, fluffy stuff can come down in different ways, and there are different ways of walking through the snow and removing the stuff from our cars and lawns, but from any practical perspective, it is all snow. Likewise, iterations are iterations. The various models and methods have different ways of talking about iterations and dealing with them, with different perspectives and activities, but practically, it is the same continuous improvement cycle.

In Design Thinking, because the methods emerged in the design community, the emphasis is on design activities and the discovery of customer needs. Design thinkers understand that you cannot design anything useful without creating it, testing it, and delivering it. And they know this is best done in cross-functional teams. It’s just that they have the most experience with the design part. It is true that a lot of design is needed in the early stages of a new product. But design activities never end! You still need to empathize with clients late in a product’s lifetime. Design only ends when the product stops evolving and improving.


Innovation cycle - Shiftup

Another linear sequence of circles


The Lean Startup version of the iterative cycle emerged in the startup scene. Startup teams have a lot of experience doing crazy stuff and trying things out. Lean Startup places less emphasis on design and more on creating hypotheses and validating experiments. Obviously, you cannot be a startup without designing stuff and developing things. Sure, the model looks at continuous improvement from a startup team’s perspective. But guess what? Even mature products evolve and require the validation of hypotheses before expensive new features are developed!

Agile Development came from a bunch of software guys whose primary experience was building software products for large clients. They indeed recognized that you shouldn’t develop software without considering design and hypotheses. And these developers definitely promoted the importance of cross-functional teams. But they were developers, so they focused mostly on the development practices, while they understood that agile development is relevant from the day a new product is conceived to the day it is phased out.


Innovation cycle - Shiftup

And yet another linear sequence of circles


As far as I’m concerned, Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile Development (and Lean UX and Business Modeling and Growth Hacking) all talk about the same thing: iterative discovery, delivery, and improvement. They just look at it in different domains, with diverse backgrounds and different practices. Sometimes, the emphasis is more on design; sometimes, the focus is on validating hypotheses, and sometimes, the goal is to get stuff developed and delivered. But they are NOT a linear sequence of separate circles, like a waterfall of phases.

Continuous discovery, delivery, and improvement is ONE circle.

Continuous discovery, delivery, and improvement is ONE circle. It’s one vortex representing the messy, non-linear, dynamic process that we call innovation. Don’t be fooled by complicated diagrams. The Innovation Vortex is neither complicated nor linear. It is complex, simple, and dynamic.

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