Design Thinking, Lean Startup, Agile? There is a Bigger Thing Happening

(This is a guest post by Alejandra Gonzalez, a seasoned business model strategist, product owner, and innovation coach.
In this post, Alejandra shares her perspectives on when and how to incorporate lean, agile, and design thinking into your product lifecycle.

As a product design manager and portfolio owner, I have endlessly defended why it takes nine months to design and launch a product with no guarantee of success. That was far too long and risky for the company where I worked.

I have been applying design-led strategies that combine agile and lean for almost ten years, and while they work, they need to provide more solid evidence for decision-making. There is certainly one thing they have in common: the goal of de-risking the process.

This article is about how to know you are de-risking it.

For this article, I will use the terms: Product, service, and solution synonymously to mean “something that creates, delivers, and captures value.”

When customers and product managers ask about the difference between Strategic Design (or Design Thinking), Agile, and Lean Startup, I have found there is a general belief that

  • Design Thinking’s main purpose is to produce the right solutions,
  • Agile’s main purpose is to develop the right solutions, and
  • Lean Startup’s main purpose is to generate great businesses.

They are often lined up consecutively:

  • Design thinking is designed to go from problems to concepts of solutions,
  • Agile is to develop solutions, and
  • Lean Startup is designed to go from solutions to businesses.

Going through all these consecutive stages and iterating not only takes time but prioritizes certain "catalyzers" above others at each stage like

  • creativity over traction during concept solution design,
  • speed over creativity during Agile development, and
  • efficiency over creativity during business making.

And still, none of them bulletproofs your product.

The ultimate goal of product and business design is not developing a solution or designing the solution right but generating repeatable growth.

The mission is to design a business model as a system that creates, grows, and scales.

The process of business innovation is to go from unsolved problems (unmet needs or aspirations) to solutions that provide value (solves a relevant problem or need) which leads to business growth.

I have seen many entrepreneurs and company leaders over the years who, supposedly working with a human-centric approach, still start with an internal problem (i.e., we need to grow) and, from there, jump to solutions and not problems to be solved (or needs to be met).

For business innovation to be successful, I believe it needs equal doses of five catalyzers during all stages:

  1. creativity,
  2. speed of learning,
  3. efficiency,
  4. the right culture, and
  5. proof of traction.

To be creative, the process needs to start with problems and aspirations using a design-led process that allows diverging and converging with a true focus on the users and space for the team to share ideas in a judgment-free environment.

Speed of learning comes from reflective practice. It's great to show the speed of development and progress, but if there is no scientific approach to testing and measuring what happens after a certain trial, experiment or launch, there is no learning. And, the de-risking process won't happen.

To be efficient, the process is power. Suppose you want to build a repeatable source of income. In that case, there needs to be a lean, agile and iterative process based on solid principles and proven methodologies that consistently bring actionable outcomes.

Efficiency and creativity happen within a healthy collaboration culture to promote high-performance habits that escape Hippo’s (highest paid person’s opinion) and group thinking. The goal is to be critical, unbiased, and able to ask difficult questions. Then build individually and collectively from there.

And what is traction? This is the core message I want to share with all product designers, portfolio owners, business leaders, founders, and product managers: Don’t waste the precious time I wasted because I didn’t have a way to make evidence-based decisions along the way of designing businesses.

Proof of traction is knowing you are on the right track when building a product. And it is the most reliable way to prioritize ideas and next actions. I have seen many models, canvases, and team dynamics to help companies decide on which ideas to work on, and whiteboarding doesn’t get you very far.

What does is Time-boxed experiments prioritized by your top constraints.

I felt I had made a great discovery when I found a more effective way to design and test products with the Continuous Innovation Framework by LEANSTACK.

First, it’s a framework and not a methodology. Second, it embeds the wisdom of design thinking, lean startup, product marketing tactics, systems thinking, theory of constraints, Jobs to be done, a stoicism approach, and agile methodologies — to name a few of the key ones.

The question isn’t which (Design Thinking, Agile or Lean Startup) is the best. The answer is not when to use each but understanding how to apply all the existing methods to foster creativity, speed of learning, efficiency, collaboration, and early traction at every stage.

One of the central tenets of this framework is “right action-right time.”

LEANSTACK and its founder, Ash Maurya, are better known for inventing the Lean Canvas - a popular 1-page business modeling tool. But to me, there is so much more that I will try to summarize below:

To follow IDEO’s nice example of sea turtle babies (business ideas):

“Design thinking is the approach for discovering which of your eggs has the best chances of survival. Once that baby sea turtle has made it into the ocean, the Lean Startup methodology can improve its chances of successfully reaching adulthood.”

I would add:

Continuous Innovation would be the evolutionary intelligence that helps turtles learn how to experience which eggs to pick (problems worth solving), help them survive into baby turtles (through solutions that can effectively solve the problems or unmet needs), and once they adapt (product/market fit), efficiently bring them up into adults (businesses that make it to the growth stage) for them to thrive in a competitive world (scale).

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