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Accelerating Business Innovation with Design Thinking and Agile Development Zerone Tech Team


The scope of enterprise innovation is extending beyond technological accomplishments. It is also about discovering and adopting new organizational models that encourage collaboration, conversation and co-creation in the dynamically changing business environment. Two of the most popular methodologies that can be paired are Design Thinking and Agile Development. Combining these two approaches empowers businesses to sustain the momentum and rapidly deliver the right solution. This white paper takes a look at how design thinking and agile development work together to accelerate business innovation.


According to various studies conducted by the leading data organizations including IDC, more than 40% of IT projects still fail. One common factor cited as the reason behind this failure is the misalignment of the projects with the user and business needs. Many IT leaders believe that it’s the need of the hour to bring fundamental changes to the way projects are run. Ability to collaborate, innovate and apply customer-empathy determine the effectiveness of a business. Two of the methods- Design Thinking and Agile Development- are transforming product development, process and delivery in those directions.

Design Thinking and Agile Development are two different concepts, but they complement each other in multiple ways. Although these concepts have been around for years, their application, adoption and coexistence in today’s enterprises are happening at a slow pace. The question of “Design Thinking vs. Agile Development” also exists among organizational leaders and business practitioners.

In their effort to solve old problems using new methods, businesses often come up with these questions:

  • Should I adopt Agile Practices or Design Thinking Principles?
  • Which of the two is more effective?
  • Can I choose only one or proceed with both?

Our take on this topic is to combine the best of Design Thinking and Agile Development, since both are crucial for business innovation. Through this white paper, we try to analyze how this incredible intersection benefits forward-looking organizations.

Understanding the Concepts

Both design thinking and agile development have their own individual sets of benefits. However, combining them will leverage digital transformation and business innovation. Prior to exploring their joined benefits, it’s crucial to have a fair understanding of both the concepts.

What is Design Thinking

Design thinking deals with the why of a project:

It starts with exploring why the problem exists, understanding the users and their concerns, churning user data into insights and generating ideas to resolve the challenges. Design thinking redefines a problem so that solutions or alternate workarounds to resolve the problem can be discovered quickly. Design thinking is founded on a simple, yet powerful logic: a product should be designed to meet its user’s expectations. This requires a great deal of empathy, imagination and patience.

Design thinking process involves five stages:

  1. Empathize: In this stage, you try to understand the user and their problems deeply by doing field study, consulting experts on the matter, and analyzing the problem from the user’s perspective. A substantial amount of information regarding the user’s pain points is gathered during this stage.
  2. Define: Next step is to put together all the information that you have gathered in the previous step. You will analyze the data in front of you, and define the problem in a concrete manner so that you can move to the ideation stage and discover ways to solve the challenges.
  3. Ideate: Using the information gained from previous stages, you will generate logical ideas to solve the problem. Even alternative ideas and ‘out of the box’ methods for problem solving are discovered at the ideation phase.
  4. Prototype: Ideas are brought to life at this stage by quickly creating working prototypes, and putting them into the hands of the users to gather real-time feedback. This will help you gain a better understanding of the constraints of the prototype developed.
  5. Test: The last stage of design thinking is known as Test. The prototypes made at stage four are tested at this point to see how well they solve the problem identified at the first two stages. Alterations and refinements can be made at this step in order to attain the best outcomes for their end product.

Until you solve the problem or until your user is satisfied with your product, you can go back to the previous stages and revise the whole process. Design thinking, hence is flexible, solution-focused, iterative and incremental method to solve business challenges.

Five Stages of Design Thinking

What is Agile Development

Agile development primarily deals with the how of a project:

In Agile, project plan happens in phases or chunks, rather than as a whole. Agile development works by focusing on smaller bits of the larger project, meaning that development happens in iterations. It empowers organizations to deliver value quickly and make changes based on real-time feedback. In agile development, a large project is divided into smaller tasks called sprints. Each sprint is completed in cycles or iterations, and assessed frequently. The scope of work varies, while time and quality remain fixed.

A Sprint Cycle in Agile Development

How They Differ

A key difference is that agile development is focused on improving process efficiency and product delivery, while design thinking revisits the entire process ecosystem to redefine the problem, resolve challenges and boost innovation. Agile works on streamlining the process, that is, how to execute the solution systematically, while design thinking emphasizes on the feasibility of the solution.

Design thinking is the what and why of a project, such as the methods, techniques or exercises followed to execute the project. Agile development deals with the how of a project, that is, it talks about the process that is followed.

Why Design Thinking and Agile Development Are Better Together

Design Thinking and Agile Development work fine on their own, but putting them together amplifies your innovation. When combined, they can create a mutually reinforcing environment focused on user-centricity and frequent iteration in order to accomplish the best outcomes. If agile is an excellent method to incrementally deliver solutions, design thinking brings a strong user focus throughout the design and development process. While design thinking tries to understand the user’s need and generate a creative solution to address it, Agile serves as a way to build and deliver that solution to the market.

Design Thinking and Agile Development aren’t necessarily opposed to one another. Actually, both share many of the same objectives; such as streamlining processes and operations, perceiving things from customer’s point of view, and incremental delivery of solutions.

The best way to combine both is to start with design thinking- using its five stages to recognize the problem that needs to be solved and identifying the possible solutions. Once the solution is decided, enterprises can use the agile approach to complete the task in fast and efficient cycles.

Why Agile Development Alone Cannot Solve the Challenges

Compared to the projects that follow the traditional waterfall model of execution, agile projects have a higher success rate. In agile there is more focus on increased communication and collaboration. Despite these merits, agile alone cannot consistently deliver engaging and impactful solutions.

Limitations of agile approach
  • Agile is a highly effective method for delivering solutions, but you cannot be sure that you are solving the right problems.
  • Humans have a tendency to accept suboptimal (less than the highest standard) environments. Hence they miss out the possibilities of exploring the approaches that can actually deliver better outcomes.
  • In agile the scope is more for incremental improvements and less for breakthrough solutions. This could put down the potential value.

Hence design thinking and agile development are better together.

Implementing Design Thinking and Agile Development

How Design Thinking and Agile Development relate to each other becomes clear when you look at it through the lens of culture. Culture in this context refers to the norms and principles that guide the way people interact at work. Any new practice or methodology will succeed in a long-term only if the underlying organizational culture supports them, to which Design Thinking and Agile Development principles are no exception.

It is important to note that both methodologies emphasize people and interactions over processes and tools. Hence an organization looking to implement design thinking and agile development must ensure that there is an enterprise-wide cultural compatibility and a stable environment where the culture can flourish. If the companies are able to welcome this culture shift, it will lead them to a more productive zone.

Recommendations for The First-Timers

If your organization is planning to leverage design thinking and agile development together for the first time, here are a few recommendations to keep in mind:

  • Initially, it is advisable to focus on low-risk opportunities that can deliver high value. As your capability advances, you can take up more challenges.
  • Creating cross-functional teams that can collaborate to design and develop solutions boosts creativity.
  • Implement and use standard communication tools that will promote collaboration of project teams with end users.
  • It’s important to balance design and development. Make sure that design thinking is not leveraged only at the front-end. At any point of time, the team should be prepared to go back to the beginning in order to uncover new user insights, redefine the problem and revisit the “why” part. Agile often starts with the process, whereas design thinking sets a standard to it.

Setting The Right Environment

The combination of design thinking and agile development becomes successful only if the team is composed of people with different skillsets, creative ideas, diverse backgrounds and multiple perspectives who can collaborate and share their thoughts with each other. Everyone should get a chance to take risks, should be exposed to other teams and their work, and must engage in fruitful team discussions. The purpose of combining design thinking and agile development is to derive innovative and cost-effective solutions to address challenges in minimal time.

Imagine a group of children aged 7-10 trying to build a tent. In the beginning it appears too chaotic, but you can discover the logic hidden in the frenzy. Compare the activity to a contemporary project management scenario. It will be amazing to see the children grouping and regrouping in seconds, having quick meetings with each other, and everyone performing one or other task towards attaining a common goal.

Similarly, design thinking team cannot view its work as completely independent of the agile team. While both design thinking and agile development retain autonomy in their area of specialization, there is enough opportunity to collaborate in an innovative environment. Allowing teams to self-manage and take smart risks, brainstorm and bring up innovative ideas, and facilitating cross-team collaboration can help you gain the advantages of both the methodologies.


Design thinking and agile development are becoming the “wave of the future”. To realize the powerful advantages of each, enterprises should look at the ways to harmonize them, starting with a cultural shift. Leveraging design thinking in conjunction with agile development to optimize user-centricity, productivity, innovation, and profit making is not just limited to software development. It can be applied in every type of business, at every possible level. Each method offers its own benefits, but combining both from concept to implementation can amplify the associated benefits.

About the Author

Zerone Tech Team is a bunch of technology enthusiasts at Zerone Consulting who have hands-on expertise in a vast variety of technologies essential to keep businesses running in the competitive world. The team is committed to perform systematic research on the novel technologies and the dynamic digital trends, and share the insights with the readers.

Zerone Tech Team will enrich you with updates on the latest happenings in IT and also provide thoughtful perspectives.


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