Design Thinking, Lean Startup, Agile? there is a bigger thing happening

As a product design manager and portfolio owner I found myself defending endless times why it takes around 9 months to design and launch a product and I couldn’t guarantee success. For the company I was working for that was far too long and risky. I have been applying design-led strategies combining agile and lean for almost 10 years, and they work, but they need to provide 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 your are really de-risking it.

For the purpose of this article I will name product, service, solution as the same concept: 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 quite general belief that Design Thinking’s main purpose is to produce the right solutions, Agile is to develop the solutions right and Lean Startup’s is to generate great businesses. It’s put as almost consecutive stages: Design thinking is designed to go from problems to concepts of solutions, Agile is to develop the solutions and Lean Startup is designed to go from solutions to businesses.

Going through all these consecutive stages and iterate, not only takes time, but prioritizes certain “catalyzers” over others in each stage; like creativity over traction in the concept solution design, speed over creativity in the Agile development and efficiency over creativity in the business making. An still, none of them bullet-proof your solution.

We know the ultimate goal of product and business design is not to develop a solution, or design a solution right, but is to generate repeatable growth. So no matter which role you have throughout the value chain, keep this goal in mind. Meaning the mission is to design a business model which is simply a system that creates, grows and scales.

This means that, keeping this goal in mind, the process of business innovation is to go from unsolved problems, unmet needs or aspirations to solutions that provide value (aka solves a relevant problem or need) which leads to business growth. I have seen over the years many entrepreneurs and company leaders that although are 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 first.

For business innovation to be successful I believe it needs equal doses of five catalyzers throughout every stage: creativity, speed of learning, efficiency, the right culture and proof of traction.

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

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

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

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

And what is traction? This is really what I want to shout out to you all: product designers, portfolio owners, business leaders, founders, product managers…Don’t waste the precious time I lost where I failed in many ways because I didn’t have a way to make evidence-based decisions along the way of designing businesses.

Proof of traction is the way you know you are in the right track when building a product (a business). And it is the most reliable way to prioritize ideas and next actions. I have seen a million models, canvases and team dynamics to help companies decide on which ideas to work on, and paper doesn’t take you very far. What drives you faster while bullet-proofing your business, is time-boxing real experiments based on constraints where you measure traction (aka clients).

I felt I had made a great discovery the minute I found a more organic and effective way to design and launch test products. And that is Continuous innovation by Leanstack.

It’s a framework and not so much a methodology, and embeds the wisdom of design thinking, lean startup, product marketing tactics, systems thinking and theory of constraints, Job to be done, a stoicism approach and agile methodologies. Just to name a few key ones.

To me the question isn’t which (Design Thinking, Agile or Lean Startup) is best, the answer is not when to use each, but understand how to apply all the existing methods to foster creativity, speed of learning, efficiency, collaboration and early traction in every stage. Precisely, one of the central axis of this framework is “right action-right time”.

Leanstack and its founder, Ash Maurya, is famous for inventing the Lean Canvas as a first and key tool to model the business solution, not as a set of features, but as a n interconnected system. But to me, there is so much more that I will try to briefly explain below comparing it with our featured guests.

So, to follow on IDEO’s nice example of the sea turtle babies (i.e.business ideas) which was:

“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 successfully 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 help turtles learn how to experience which eggs to pick (problems worth be 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).

I help companies design services through innovation strategies to launch products faster and with better returns