Design Thinking and the Business Agility Ecosystem

We have entered the third wave of Agility. The first wave was about Agile teams adopting frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban and XP, the second wave was about Agile at Scale where organizations implemented scaling patterns to ensure Agile could operate at large scale. The third wave is Business Agility. To achieve a state of Business Agility, the entire organization needs to adopt an Agile mindset, effectively creating an end-to-end Agile ecosystem. And Agile today is being recognized more and more as a requirement for dealing with, as Stephen Denning put it in a recent article, “a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”. Innovation is the name of the game — or at least, it’s the key to staying in the game. Lean Startup is one method for creating and sustaining innovation; another option that is getting a lot of attention these days is Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Mens et manus is the Latin phrase meaning “mind and hand”, which is the motto of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I think this is a great way to frame a conversation about how Design Thinking is relevant to organizations trying to achieve Business Agility. Design Thinking is about testing the creative ideas that are in your mind by using your hands to give those ideas a form, and then putting those potential solutions into the hands of your end user or customer for early and frequent feedback.

Design Thinking Venn DiagramDesign Thinking is a set of mindsets (or what some in Agile might call “principles”) for solving problems that has been around for about 30 years — making it even older than Scrum. It came out of both the Stanford Design School (the d.School) and a leading design and innovation consulting firm named IDEO. Design Thinking exists at the intersection between what is viable for the businessfeasible in terms of available technology and desirable to consumers. In order for Design Thinking to work, people first need to develop a sense of creative confidence, a concept that Tom and David Kelley describe in detail in their book “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential in Us All”. In effect, they say that, rather than treating design as some sort of cult activity that is only done by a select set of highly specialized design clerics, everyone should focus on bringing out their own inherent creativity, especially in problem solving. To help this process along, organizations can promote Design Thinking so it can be absorbed into the DNA of the broader organization.

What Are the Key Mindsets (Principles) of Design Thinking?

Since its inception, Design Thinking has been anchored on six key mindsets. You’ll notice a lot of similarities between each of these six mindsets and the principles of the Agile Manifesto.

  • Focus on Human Values
    By developing empathy, we put ourselves into the shoes of the people for whom we are trying to solve a problem because that’s when we are able to develop a true understanding of their problem.
  • Culture of Prototyping
    The goal is to get feedback early by showing users prototypes instead of telling them what we think we are trying to create. Let’s fail fast when necessary so we can learn from the failure and try something else that might be more likely to work. In other words, we’re turning a concept into something more tangible — mens et manus!
  • Show Don’t Tell
    This mindset is very analogous to the Scrum review/demo where, at the end of each iteration, the team shows the PO the value they produced as opposed to just talking about their accomplishments with the goal of getting timely feedback that can inform the development process. It is essential to embrace feedback quickly (even on unfinished work).
  • Radical Collaboration
    In Design Thinking, the preference is for a cross-functional team of people with creative confidence participating in the design process and bringing in their own unique perspectives and areas of expertise.
  • Bias Toward Action
    Get everyone out of their cubes and whenever possible out of the building so you can observe real problems in real settings. This also means taking initiative, doing more and talking less, as well as making progress even when you feel stuck.
  • Focus on Process
    Finally, we want to iterate as much as possible, we want to be transparent in terms of our progress, and we want to encourage the team to reflect on process and improve it

Business Agility Ecosystem

Design Thinking can provide a mature and proven set of principles and practices that both the business/product management and software development parts of the organization can use to identify which problems are worth solving and very rapidly ideate potential solutions to those problems by using prototypes and testing assumptions. It can fill the gap that exists in many organizations that have successfully passed through the first and second waves of Agile and are looking for a set of practices to help them enter into the third wave of Business Agility. One approach to implementing Design Thinking toward achieving Business Agility is to view it in relation to the entire value stream. Consider the following diagram that shows a high-level visualization of an end-to-end Business Agility Ecosystem:

Business Agility Ecosystem-01

In the first wave of Agile, we focused mostly on the middle space, and as a result this has traditionally served as the entry point for the discussion about the need for Agility. Agile team-level frameworks such as a Scrum, Kanban and Extreme Programming (XP) are frequently used today to help organizations build solutions using traditional Agile practices. However, as delivery speed increases, the need to address bottlenecks and obstacles up- and downstream have made Agile values, principles and practices more widely applicable. Design Thinking could be used as the foundation for the upfront part of a Business Agility Ecosystem — where the focus is on figuring out which problems to solve — either along with or as an alternative to other sets of practices such as Lean Startup.  As we get further along into the ecosystem, we can decide to implement some of these validated solutions by manifesting those ideas as backlog items on an Agile team’s product backlog in the middle space of the ecosystem. The final space of the ecosystem includes practices that enable the organization to deploy customer value quickly, such as DevOps. Meanwhile, the enterprise undergoing change must also have certain foundational approaches that make Business Agility possible: Change Management capabilities and frameworks, such as ADKAR or Kotter Accelerate; Agile portfolio management to support more Agile governance and risk practices, and scaling patterns (SAFe, LeSS, etc.) to establish Agility throughout the enterprise.


When we compare the mindsets of Design Thinking to the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, it’s clear that there’s a lot of synergy and compatibility between the two, and this is why a number of organizations are already having success embracing Design Thinking as a key component of their overall Business Agility strategy. In “What is Agile?” Denning identifies a number of companies who have already achieved a certain level of Business Agility. Perhaps in the near future companies seeking to innovate at the pace of change could join these ranks by adopting some of the principles and practices found within Design Thinking to implement their own Business Agility Ecosystem.

Mens et manus!


Sources and Further Reading

Field Guide to Human Centered Design. IDEO. 2015.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE. Stanford University. 2012.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. An Educator’s Guide to Design Thinking. Stanford University.

Kolko, Jon. Design Thinking Comes of Age. Harvard Business Review. Sept. 2015.

Roger Martin, Dean. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business School Publishing. 2009.

Denning, Stephen. “What is Agile?” Forbes. 2016.



Change management is a key element of any Agile transformation, but few people understand why it’s so important and how it fits in with Agile. To learn more about where change management and Agile transformations intersect, watch Dan Fuller’s webinar “Leading Agile Change: Proven Change Management Approaches for Agile Transformation” now.

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