The relationship between Design Thinking and Agile

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The relationship between Design Thinking and Agile
At its core, Design Thinking focuses on humans first and foremost. It’s a solution-based methodology, that first looks to understand what the human need is.  So, Design Thinking is about finding solutions to a certain problem(s), by truly understanding how humans work, and what they need. There are few assumptions at play.  

When organisations start to look at Design Thinking and Agile implementations, there may be early confusion as to what the relationship between them is.

Don’t they both look at customer problems through the customer lens?  

Yes, however one is about defining the problem/solution, and one is about optimising the solution value.

As Chris MacLeod, senior consultant in Australia says, “Design Thinking is a great tool for discovering what constitutes value to a particular customer or segment. Agile is a framework for delivering that value in a constantly iterative, and therefore more responsive way.”


At its core, Design Thinking focuses on humans first and foremost. It’s a solution-based methodology, that first looks to understand what the human need is.  So, Design Thinking is about finding solutions to a certain problem(s), by truly understanding how humans work, and what they need. There are few assumptions at play.  

Design Thinking isn’t a linear process either.  It’s flexible and somewhat fluid. However in order for it to be implemented as a methodology there is a certain accepted phased approach that helps structure an organisations’ implementation.     

These phases :
1. Empathise
2. Define
3. Ideate
4. Prototype
5. Test

However, as the process is fluid and multi-dimensional, these phases are often overlapping and repeating at any given time. Importantly, forward motion of problem solving is in play.  Design Thinking is particularly useful with ‘Wicked Problems’.

Wicked Problems

In 1973 Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber coined the term Wicked Problem while professors of design and urban planning at University of California, Berkeley.

A Wicked Problem is abstract, hard to define and usually has multi-layered connected issues.  Things like poverty, climate change or terrorism.   Design Thinking is used in helping continually solve wicked problems, as there isn’t a stopping point or end solution to those problems.  

Design Thinking in the workplace

Design Thinking in the workplace will use its solution-based, creative approach to exploring and solving problems.   When Agile is married with Design Thinking, it allows for adaptability of change and products that can be developed iteratively.  Agile will deliver the value and ROI that organisations are seeking.

“In my opinion and how I approach new ways of working, Design Thinking and Agile go hand in hand. Both are people-centric in their own ways, Design Thinking  puts people at the heart of what we’re trying to create or solve for, and Agile has the customer-value lens which is core,” says Fiona Royall, senior consultant in Australia.


One of the most important elements of Design Thinking involves empathy.   Empathy, when it comes to a human-centred design process, allows (and asks) designers to put aside assumptions. Involving ethnographic research, an element of Design Thinking identifies the hidden needs, perhaps not spoken of in traditional ‘focus group’ style research.   

Empathy is developed for the customer, by understanding their needs, through immersive exploratory exercises.   Design Thinking asks the designer to not only immerse and observe but immerse and experience the customer problem.

“I’ve been reflecting a lot on ‘designing for’ and ‘designing with’.  With some Design Thinking methods, I find people lose sight of the value of research and inquiry, the immersive exploratory phase, where you might go out and speak to, be with, and/or observe people for instance,” explains Fiona.

Sometimes this is circumvented, by people making assumptions or thinking they already know the answers. This type of mindset won’t unlock the true value realisation behind human-centered design approaches,” she says.

Consider this before you start

Yi Jin, a consultant in Australia, adds, “In organisations, the limitations of Design Thinking is that it must be established on a culture that is open, trusting and encouraging – that’s the foundation.”

Jeanne Liedtka is professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  Jeanne did a seven year study looking in depth at 50 projects.    “Immersion in user experiences provides raw material for deeper insights. But finding patterns and making sense of the mass of qualitative data collected is a daunting challenge,” she says.  This is where Design Thinking comes into its own. It is why you need experienced designers involved.

“Teaching Design Thinking across organisations is fantastic to build the awareness, but it doesn’t replace the need and skillset for designers with deep expertise, knowledge and experience. Ideally, designers should have a place at the table,” suggests Fiona.


Both Design Thinking and Agile are both part methodology and part philosophy.  As discussed, they are both underpinned by human-centred design.  However while related, they are both distinct in their ways of driving customer value.

Nate Nelson is our Managing Director in the US.   He says, “Design Thinking is powered by the ability to collaborate, take in diverse opinions, connect the “why” and the “what”, and to drive clarity into solving the right problems,” whereas, “Agile mindsets and principles are seeking the same clarity and collaboration in order to iterate on the highest value solutions to those problems,” he explains.

If you think Design Thinking and Agile are merely two methodologies that complement each other, you might miss out on some great synergies created by them.

Design Thinking and Agile lend their strengths in different stages of the value creation process. Thus when used together can form a much stronger business approach. A relationship is formed between the two.

Design Thinking is a great way to explore opportunities and problems through divergent thinking and a staunch focus on empathising with the human user.   Complementary to that, Agile provides a mindset for building things right through iterative action.

When used together Design Thinking and Agile can eliminate unnecessary processes, inspire creativity and remove assumptions and bias. Design Thinking will identify the problem and solutions (and perhaps one not even identified by the customer in the first place). It will foster new thinking and creativity. Agile will be the framework that delivers the solution, and allows teams to test and learn at pace, in a collaborative, multifunctional way.    

In a nutshell:
Leverage Agile to incrementally build out the solution identified by Design Thinking.

It’s nuanced and can be hard to get a feel for ‘which one?’ ADAPTOVATE is experienced at working with complex problems within organisations and designing the best operating model for the right outcomes. We’ve worked in all sectors including Mining, Energy, Health, Financial Sector and Governments.

To learn more about how your organisation can benefit from new ways of working, including Design Thinking and agile methodologies, please get in touch. 



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