Agile & Design Thinking: Competing or Completing?

By: Steve Perkins

Recently, a colleague caught up with me and, with a look of bewilderment on his face, asked a question. My colleague seemed frustrated from much searching and little resolution. “Everyone is talking about Agile and Design Thinking, but how do they relate?”

He was giving voice to the crowd of organizational leaders and business practitioners retooling in an effort to solve old problems in new ways. Many of them wondering, “Which practices should we adopt? Which is more effective, Design Thinking or Agile? Do we have to choose one, or can we do both?”

Although these concepts have been around for years, their application in large organizations is still emerging—resulting in occasional confusion and mixed signals on their application, adoption and coexistence. And to make matters more confusing, the answer on Agile vs. Design Thinking lies deeper beneath the surface, and isn’t really about either methodology…

It’s all about culture.

Culture is King

Several years ago, I was working at a high-tech startup designing and building superconducting particle accelerators for secret projects and groundbreaking research. It was the kind of stuff you only see in movies.

The work was intensely interesting and thrilling. Always learning and interacting with extraordinary people, from physicists to electron-beam welders (a uniquely refined craft with only a few in the country) to rare metal machinists. Some days I questioned if this was all some kind of Truman Show experiment, or if Ashton Kutcher was going to jump out from behind a desk.

There was, however, one major problem. The work environment was unbearable. The founder ruled with an iron fist, and employed many twisted philosophies that confused and abused the people working for him. There were challenges fiscally, ethically and physically. A chair thrown across the room during a meeting comes to mind…

Yet, despite these extreme low points, the worst part of the experience was the quiet hum of anxiety that constantly ate away at all of us. My hands quivering some mornings, wondering what kind of absurd situation was going to present itself that day.

It was 2009… in Michigan. And it was my first full-time job.

Looking back, I’m very grateful that I got out. In my experience, every trial brings with it a blessing—if, of course, you’re open and ready for it. Mine was a growing passion for a company culture that allows people to bring their whole selves to work and deliver great things as a result. I started studying and talking to people. To sum up a long (and continuing) journey, I discovered what many have discovered before—that culture is the primary driver of business success.

Put another way, new practices and methodologies will only succeed in a lasting way if the underlying culture supports them. And to be fair, ‘culture’ can be a nuanced word. For this discussion, we’re simply talking about the set of norms and principles that guide the way people interact and work.

So now we’re back to the glorious Design Thinking–Agile duo. The answer to our original question—on how Design Thinking and Agile relate—becomes very clear when you look at it through the lens of culture. Both are built on similar core principles, allowing the two to overlap, intermingle and apply in almost any context.

Design Thinking can be performed in an Agile manner and Agile can be executed using Design Thinking mindsets/tactics. However, there is a distinction in practice—Design Thinking serves to understand a need and generate a creative solution, while Agile serves as a way to build and deliver that solution to market. They complete each other. However, you want to be thoughtful about the balance of end-to-end experience design, and the need to ‘just start building.’

When to Use Design Thinking

Design Thinking is all about uncovering needs and discovering solutions to meet those needs. And it’s different than ‘design.’ It’s more exploratory, seeking to generate concepts and test ideas. Typically, organizations provide products and services that they think are good ideas—sometimes they’re ideas that came out of conversations about generating revenue, decreasing risk or acquiring more customers.

This is natural and not necessarily bad. It’s just that your customers are the reason your organization exists in the first place, so you should probably consider them too. And let’s be honest, most of us think about our offerings from our own point of view—especially when we don’t have a clear understanding of our customers or their deeply felt needs.

This is why we need Design Thinking, to help us understand our customers—getting to the ‘why’ behind what they do, and then exploring crazy ideas that might lead to a unique offering that our customers will love.

When to Use Agile

Once you’ve landed on a solution, you can use Agile to build it. Agile is all about delivering solutions. And it overlaps perfectly with the prototyping stage of Design Thinking. Many companies will separate the designers from the builders, when there’s actually much to be gained from collaboration.

In many circumstances, incremental design decisions can be fully prototyped and tested in market by the builders, allowing true feedback to be collected in a real-world environment. And for the builders, they’re empowered to make great decisions and even enhance the design, due to the context that’s been set. This also avoids rework—and everyone knows the massive cost savings of avoiding rework.

Agile is about focusing on small slices of work at a time, delivering value to the market quickly, and adapting based on feedback and learning.

How to Implement Design Thinking & Agile

Well, you need to implement the principles and the practices. So which comes first? The classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.

The good news, if you’re asking this question, then you’re on the path to success. There are some great proven frameworks and tactical activities that we don’t have time to delve into now, however here’s the bottom line: do them both in parallel. Experience has taught me that continuous repetition and celebration of principles lays the foundation for lasting success.

Practices without principles are a short-lived Band-Aid. And principles without practices are a fruitless exercise in philosophy. So focus on the principles because great people will be motivated to find ways to bring them to life, and iterate through new practices to see and feel quick wins. And while you’re at it, try to convert buzzwords and multi-syllable words to simple common language. How would you describe it over dinner with your friends? This, combined with specific examples of what it looks like in action, will resonate and stick with people.

What are the “Principles” and What do They Look Like in Practice?

Adopting Design Thinking and Agile methodologies definitely requires some culture shifting and can absolutely feel overwhelming. However, the beauty with both is you can always bring it back to a few golden principles, which you’ll also be practicing throughout the process of adoption! This continuous “bringing it home” also mitigates the rumor mill of, “oh boy, here’s the next flavor of the month…”

By emphasizing the principles, you’re creating a consistency that reinforces the new culture and helps people connect the dots. Here are a few examples:

Human-First / People Over Process

Looking at it from an internal perspective, think of it this way: if you tasked a team of 7 year olds with building a fort, how would they organize and complete the job? Sure, a bit of chaos… but they would focus and get the job done. Would they have meetings to discuss the fort? Would they create prioritization forums to allocate resources? It’s far more efficient to assemble people with a common mission and have real-time conversation. Yet, we’ve seen it time and again, organizations, as they grow tend to create silos that impede the mission.

And from an external perspective, technology and global connection have created an economy where customers have access to an ever-growing number of options. If you want to succeed with customers (and lower your marketing costs), you have to create things they’ll value—whatever the cost.

Creativity / Innovation

Creativity is in our DNA. But for many of us, it was stripped out somewhere along the way. In today’s world, innovation wins. And there are several ways to encourage innovation.

Allow individuals the freedom to be themselves, bringing their talents and passions to the table. Encourage smart risk-taking. Build in time for exploration and inspiration. Gather for lunch and watch a TED Talk. Send a team on a road trip to see your products/services in action, and then brainstorm new ways to solve the challenges being observed.

We do, after all, spend the majority of our lives at work. So have a little fun—you might be surprised how much money you make doing it.

Iteration / Prototyping / Adaptation

Gone are the days of yearlong, waterfall-style projects with no clear outcomes and futile chances of launching on time. And as Eddie Obeng has highlighted, we have entered an age where the rate of change has surpassed our rate of learning.

Thus, the only solution—and the better approach—is to embrace low-fidelity or incomplete versions of products and services, put them out into the organization or market and learn from the results. It’s faster. It gets you closer to the right solution. And it saves you tons of time that would’ve been spent projecting and creating Power Point decks.

Multi-discipline autonomous teams

Look around. Self-managing systems work better. Cities, traffic flow, democracy… ok, maybe not all the time. But you get the point.

Things these days are too complex to try and control and predict. Self-managing teams are more nimble. Hierarchical decision trees are too slow for the new market of startups and freelance economics. And a team consisting of only one role type will only think about the problem from one perspective.

Shouldn’t our teams reflect our customers? Many of Design Thinking and Agile’s biggest success stories stem from teams that consist of all the skills necessary to get the job done, a cross-pollination of backgrounds and perspectives, and the freedom to make local decisions and define the ‘how.’ Not to mention, these teams begin to adapt and customize their practices to fit the local culture & context, which elevates engagement through ownership.


No matter which methodology you choose to pursue, Design Thinking, Agile or both, it’s important to remember that you have to create and maintain an organizational culture that is able to support their guiding principles.

Not there yet? It’s ok. Remember, culture change is not easy and takes time. It requires a shift in both mindsets and behaviors. However, by starting to implement Design Thinking and Agile principles in parallel, you’ll begin to see this new culture come alive. I believe this duo is not just for select occasions, but actually the most effective business strategy to employ for the organization, the employees and the customers. And I believe it’s one of the most worthwhile pursuits in the workplace and in your career.


About Steve Perkins:

This week’s blog post has been one we’ve been looking forward to ever since Steve Perkins, Employee Experience & Culture Strategist for Capital One, said he’d write it for us. We’ve collaborated with Steve on multiple projects and been super impressed with the way in which he leverages various methodologies to advance products, teams and organizations.

Steve Perkins is an Employee Experience & Culture Strategist for Capital One. With a background in mechanical engineering, software development, consumer product R&D, and research/manufacturing of carbon nanotubes and research/manufacturing of carbon nanotubes and superconducting particle accelerators, Steve has always had a love for innovation and curiosity.

However, his true career passions have always lied at the intersection of entrepreneurship and helping people find meaning and vibrancy in life. Steve believes that corporate environments can be a place where people come alive and feel whole. And in his current role as a corporate intrapreneur and a catalyst for cultural change he’s helping Capital One build just that.

One day, in the environment that Steve is striving to build, when people ask if anything fun happened during the week, people will talk about work—companies will be in service to their employees, and employees in service to their customers—all resulting in great business results.



The Design Gym
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