VTT Global > Blog > News Blog > Union of Design Thinking and Agile leads to effective innovation



Being in the headlines doesn’t mean that design thinking is a new approach for the world. Design thinking has been gradually evolving since the 1960’s and over the years it has evolved and promised radical outcomes.[1] For multi-disciplinary, human centered projects encompass research and rapid ideation design thinking is applied as an umbrella term. It is in recent times that is began to monitor and measure itself in a quantified way in the word of business and economics sector.

In 2001 the CEO’s of the main software companies gathered in the mountains of Utah in a resort, where they shared the lesson learnt and best practices of their respective companies and the creation of the Agile Manifesto took place.[2]

Agile and Design Thinking are two different concepts but when combined together, they complement each other in such a way that it magnifies your innovation processes several times over to achieve success.[3]

“According to Rick Kotermanski, who is the Chief Strategy Officer at Summa Technologies, Inc. project results are greatly improved when you properly unite both methods.”

“Design is the action of bringing something new and desired into existence—a proactive stance that resolves or dissolves problematic situations by design. It is a compound of routine, adaptive and design expertise brought to bear on complex dynamic situations.” – Harold Nelson

Agile focuses on, how of a project, with fixed time and quality. Scope of work is usually variable with Agile. While design thinking revolves around exploring and generating ideas, with a focus on understanding users and innovating to meet customer needs. In other words, Agile is about how and Design thinking is about why.

Understanding Design Thinking:

Design thinking is how we tend to discover and resolve problems. Similarly, it’s what humans regularly refer to as “thinking out of the box”. The emphasis put on actual appreciation of the people being targeted with a product or provider makes Design Thinking inimitable.[4]

Key Principals of Design Thinking:

There are five key phases to successful Design Thinking. These are:

  • Empathize with your audience, customers or target market
  • Define their needs, any problem they might have and your understandings
  • By challenging assumptions, you are able to Ideate or create ideas for innovative solutions
  • Look at a Prototype, and start creating solutions
  • Finally, it is imperative to Test these solutions

Agile in nutshell:

The next step that follows the solution provided by Design thinking, is how to deliver those solution to the marketplace, and that is where the Agile is implemented. Agile works by way of focusing on smaller bits of the large challenge at a time, delivering price rapidly and adapting or changing based on real-time feedback. While the Agile framework as a total is transferable to the Design Thinking process.

Agile Manifesto’s values are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Design Thinking and Agile: Better Together:

According to research conducted by IDC 30-35% of IT projects fail. While other research shows a higher percentage of 50%.[1] With the better promotion of collaboration and communication the Agile doubles the success rate.

Design thinking brings a sturdy user focus while agile is a first-rate way to incrementally deliver solutions, making sure person desires are saved the front and core throughout the entire design and improvement process.

The report from the Standish Group covered project they studied between 2013 to 2017 showed that for this time period, with Agile projects being roughly 2X more likely to succeed, and 1/3 less likely to fail.[2], as shown in the figure below:

The combining of design thinking and Agile methodology is easier said than done. One has to get used to of doing and thinking in a new way. Once the team gets familiar to this concept this improves productivity. Organizations have to take into account allocation of right people to project. Design thinking and Agile value people over processes.

These three recommendations must be kept in mind for teams looking to leverage agile and design thinking for the first time:

Start small. Focus on high-value, low-risk opportunities to gain maturity using design thinking and agile together. Then, as your competence matures, take on more challenging and difficult initiatives.

Create cross-functional teams. To help the required inventiveness, create cross-functional teams that work together to design and develop solutions. It is essential for the team to be in physical proximity with the consumers so as to promote continual interaction and collaboration.

Balance design and development. Integrating agile and design thinking for the first time may create tension about the amount of time that should be spent on design thinking prior to starting the implementation.  Make sure the teams comprehend the core value of empathy, definition, and ideation phases, in particular, and that design thinking is not leveraged only at the front end of the process. The team should be ready to revert back to the start point at any stage to reveal the new users’ insights and reframe the problem, and then start development with a fresh sense of “why”.

Multiple Mindsets, Single Team:

The most important of all is about working together and achieving together. Learning is a team play, and collaboration is key in find our way to the place we want to be. There is no one accurate way of doing anything, nor is one mindset adequate. But combination of elements of each mindset helps us to find our way forward.

                                                                         Figure. How the three mindsets overlap

Teams must ought to challenge how they think and try new things, embrace the things that work, and learn from the things that don’t, instead of focusing on application of a process

The prime focus should not be in applying a process, the teams must look to challenge themselves, the whole way of looking things must be changed, they must try new things, embrace the things that work, and learn from their previous experience especially about those things that don’t. The success lies in how teams scale up their prevailing skills and learning new abilities, in a nutshell, lean by doing and adapt to what is learned.[3]


It is interesting to note that the exceptional upsides of Design Thinking and Agile, including but not limited to profit-making, productivity and innovation, are not restricted solely to the field of software development. Rather, regardless of the business type, the aforesaid method along with its associated strategies and techniques may be employed at all levels. What makes Design Thinking and Agile even more appealing is that by creating a process with the right combination of paybacks associated with one another, a seamless proceeding may be established right from the concept all the way to its pragmatic implementation.

[1] https://dzone.com/articles/design-thinking-and-agile-methodology-for-innovati

[2] http://vitalitychicago.com/blog/agile-projects-are-more-successful-traditional-projects/

[3] https://www.mindtheproduct.com/2017/09/understanding-design-thinking-lean-agile-work-together/

[4] https://medium.com/@szczpanks/design-thinking-where-it-came-from-and-the-type-of-people-who-made-it-all-happen-dc3a05411e53

[5] https://www.bbva.com/en/agile-methodology-la-revolution-ways-working/

[6] https://www.corporate-alchemists.com/en/design-thinking-agile-innovation/

[7] https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process