Empathic Disruption: Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile Project Management12 min read

Organizations that don’t innovate die. Meanwhile, over 80% of innovations fail when they are introduced to the cruel element of the real world! Disrupting the status quo is clearly a risky business, but it’s also a vital, profitable, and rewarding way to live. There are many reasons why innovations don’t commercialize. Not having an empathic understanding of the end user can most certainly fast-track an innovation’s failure. User insight and resonance are the foundation of successful adoption of innovation.

Businesses need to invest in building innovation skills into their employee base. They not only need to be a design-thinking company—but also a design-driven one too. Meaning, they need to create a culture of design thinking and build a practice of design doing, where it relentlessly focuses on nailing the end-to-end customer experience, no matter if it is designing and building a solution for their own use or a client facing one. And so before anything gets built, the whole team—software engineers, designers, marketers, product and service managers—are interfacing with the customers to ensure they understand the problem well, and together, they design the best solution.

It is crucial that a design-centric culture begins by having a strategic intent and broad commitment from senior leadership, including at the executive and board levels. In some ways, this is the most essential element, having leaders throughout the organization that value design. Of course, with leadership on board, companies will also need talented designers to execute and drive the vision forward. And there’s no doubt that finding talent can be a challenge. 

Next, making a long-term investment in design infrastructure, training, and support across the organization is critical. If design thinking does not permeate an organization, it is all too easy for things to revert to business as usual, with everyone hidden away in their own silos instead of collaborating. To make design a driving force within a company, everyone—from executive leadership to engineering, marketing to sales—should receive training and coaching in design thinking, lean methodology and agile project management; whether it be in-person workshops or online courses.

Design Thinking – An Overview

In the past, design most often occurred fairly far downstream in the development process and focused on making new products aesthetically attractive or enhancing brand perception through smart, evocative advertising. Today, as innovation’s terrain expands to encompass human-centered processes and services as well as products, companies are asking designers to create ideas rather than to simply dress them up.

So what is design thinking? How can we make the most of it? Is it a methodology or a philosophy? Design thinking is a systematic approach to handling problems and generating new opportunities. The concept is pertinent to any field and purpose. Say, if you want to build a new product or customer experience or even take the business to the next level, this approach touches everywhere. Design principles contribute significantly to elevating the success rate for innovation. This can be easily seen in design-centric companies such as Apple, Google, Dyson, and Tesla.

Did you know you can apply design thinking to your life? We all want to live our best life and as mentioned, design thinking is pertinent to any field or purpose. So why not your life? Design thinking is all about trying something new out, see how it’s working, tweak it, and experiment further. Building a future with design thinking means taking an improvisational view of life, and moving forward by “wayfinding”. In other words, the consequences of your actions are the best sources of feedback.

Design thinking is fundamental to successful strategy development and organizational change.

Be it leading, managing, creating and innovating; everything can be designed. The robust design way of thinking is relevant to systems, procedures, and user experiences.

Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking Process


Empathizing is central to the design thinking process. It highlights the significance of listening to the requirements and wants of your customers relative to the particular problem. The approach aids you in saving your discoveries and learnings during this stage in a systematic way such as empathy maps.


Here you combine all the insights collected at the time of listening and observing people. You start to synthesize and face the challenge ahead of you. That means you start to define a problem. An aspect that design thinking proves vital at is framing a problem in a clear manner so that you end up devising solutions and exploring opportunities. Try framing the problem correctly so that more avenues and solutions open up.


So, now as the problem or the opportunity is clearly framed, you can search for methods to handle it. You should spur as many ideas as possible. Brainstorm or ideate. Design thinking stresses that during this phase you shouldn’t ignore ideas that seem obvious or easy. Any idea can sprout a brilliant concept. So, make sure to look into each and every idea with a fresh mindset. To finalize this stage, shortlist the best and leave the rest.


Prototyping brings the solutions into vision. Different methods are involved in it such as sketching, rapid prototyping, and many others. No matter whatever method you opt, the core purpose of this stage remains the same, that is,  intend to create rough drafts of solutions to decide if these will prove beneficial for the problem.

Follow a simple, speedy and economical approach while prototyping. Looking onto its context, a prototype can later transform into a beta product or a minimal viable product (MVP). Using agile project management or the lean startup methodology to manage MVP and its development can be useful.


Next is testing. In this stage, you need to test your prototype with the customers so as to monitor the response and deem whether the solution satisfied them or not.


And finally, we commercialize our product or service. The design thinking cycle continues as you add further features and enhancements to your product or service offering.

The Lean Startup Methodology – An Overview

Lean startup is a methodology for developing businesses and products, which aims to shorten product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning. The central hypothesis of the lean startup methodology is that if companies invest their time into iteratively building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures.

Similar to the precepts of lean manufacturing, the lean startup methodology seeks to eliminate wasteful practices and increase value-producing practices during the product development phase so that startups can have a better chance of success without requiring large amounts of outside funding, elaborate business plans, or the perfect product. Customer feedback during product development is integral to the lean startup process and ensures that the producer does not invest time designing features or services that consumers do not want. This is done primarily through two processes, using key performance indicators and a continuous deployment process.

Because startups typically cannot afford to have their entire investment depend upon the success of one single product launch, the lean startup methodology proposes that by releasing a minimum viable product (MVP) that is not yet finalized, the company can then make use of customer feedback to help further tailor their product to the specific needs of its customers.

The lean startup methodology asserts that the “lean has nothing to do with how much money a company raises”; rather it has everything to do with assessing the specific demands of consumers and how to meet that demand using the least amount of resources possible.

Lean Startup Methodology

Lean Startup Methodology

Agile Development Methodology – An Overview

Implementing Agile Project Management

Implementing Agile Project Management

Agile development describes an approach to software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end users(s). It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

Most agile development methods break product development work into small increments that minimize the amount of up-front planning and design. Iterations, or sprints, are short time frames (timeboxes) that typically last from one to four weeks. Each iteration involves a cross-functional team working in all functions: planning, analysis, design, coding, unit testing, and acceptance testing. At the end of the iteration, a working product is demonstrated to stakeholders. This minimizes overall risk and allows the product to adapt to changes quickly. An iteration might not add enough functionality to warrant a market release, but the goal is to have an available release (with minimal bugs) at the end of each iteration. Multiple iterations might be required to release a product or new features. Working software is the primary measure of progress.

No matter which development method is followed, every team should include a customer representative (Product Owner in Scrum). This person is agreed by stakeholders to act on their behalf and makes a personal commitment to being available for developers to answer questions throughout the iteration. At the end of each iteration, stakeholders and the customer representative review progress and re-evaluate priorities with a view to optimizing the return on investment (ROI) and ensuring alignment with customer needs and company goals.

A common characteristic in agile software development is the daily stand-up (also known as the daily scrum). In a brief session, team members report to each other what they did the previous day toward their team’s iteration goal, what they intend to do today toward the goal, and any roadblocks or impediments they can see to the goal.

Specific tools and techniques, such as continuous integration, automated unit testing, pair programming (XP), test-driven development, design patterns, behavior-driven development, domain-driven design, code refactoring, and other techniques are often used to improve quality and enhance product development agility. The idea is that the quality is built into the software. You can find more info on Agile project management on my other posts.

So, Which Process is Right?

Design Thinking + Lean Startup + Agile Project Management

Design Thinking + Lean Startup + Agile Project Management

The real benefit comes when you bring all three mindsets together. Too often, the question is “lean or agile?”. The answer is “and”, not “or”: it’s Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile.

Design Thinking is how you explore and solve problems; Lean is your framework for testing your beliefs and learning your way to the right outcomes; Agile is how you adapt to changing conditions.

Many Mindsets, one Team

It’s about working together and achieving together. Learning is a team sport, and collaboration is key if you’re going to find your way to the place you want to be. There is no one correct way, nor is one single mindset enough. But all together, elements of each mindset help you to find your way forward.

Instead of focusing on applying a process, teams ought to challenge how they think and try new things, embrace the things that work, and learn from the things that don’t. This right way will be different for each team in their own specific context. Success is about how teams develop new abilities, learn by doing, and adapt to what is learned.

Best Practices

As Symcor is seeking to leverage the benefits of continuous improvement and a software-based service offering, it would be best to pick and choose the specific elements from each practice that works well for its teams and the brand values it’s trying to convey. Below are some best practices to implement when combining all three methodologies:

  1. Working in short cycles — take small steps, try something new and see how it works. If it fails, you’ve invested very little. If it succeeds, keep doing it and improving on it.
  2. Hold regular retrospectives — at the end of each cycle, review what went well, what didn’t go well and vow to improve one or two key things.
  3. Put the customer at the centre of everything — if you’re struggling to get an alignment as a team, focus on customer value. How do we know we’re shipping something users care about? How do we find out? How does that affect what we prioritize? These are good questions to ask on a regular basis.
  4. Go and see — regularly walk around, talk to your teams, ask them what’s working and where they’re struggling. Bring those learnings back to your management meetings and share with your colleagues. Patterns that yield good outcomes should be amplified. Those that are causing problems should be remedied.
  5. Balance product discovery with delivery work by only testing high-risk hypotheses The reality is, teams can’t test every task in their backlog. In fact, they shouldn’t. There are assumptions in every backlog that are riskier than others. Prioritize these assumptions based on their perceived risk and their perceived value. Everyone on the team should weigh in on risk, because each backlog item may present a different type of risk.
  6. Do less research, more often—Practice user research with a cross-functional team in attendance, but simply do less of it, more often. Instead of testing 12 people, test 3. Take the learning from that, and then do the test again next week. broadcast your findings broadly immediately after the test. Show the value of the exercise, reduce the commitment for participation, as well as the cost, and you’ll find an increased level of organizational buy-in for this classic product discovery technique.
  7. Review your incentive structure—This is perhaps the most important criteria for ensuring your teams choose the most productive amalgamation of these philosophies to work with. Teams will optimize the work they’re incentivized to achieve. If you incentivize velocity, teams will work on getting more features out to market. If you incentivize learning, teams will build better product discovery processes


I hope I was able to shed some light on how you could combine Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile Project Management to create new products and services for your customers. I would love to hear your comments below!

By |2018-12-16T10:07:23-04:00December 12th, 2018|Agile Project Management, Product Management, Strategy|0 Comments

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