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There are many mindsets present in the market today – new ones popping out with every new transition with societal transformations – that we can’t help but pause and wonder: What’s the difference?

Recently, I received an enquiry to customize a bootcamp to equip a company’s staff with a number of thinking modes to be more agile. To which my research led to the answer revolving around equipping staff with the critical skills of Design Thinking, then Lean Thinking, and finally Agile Thinking.

Design Thinking guides us to explore and solve problems; Lean Thinking is our framework for testing our beliefs and learning our way to the right outcomes; and Agile Thinking is how we adapt to changing conditions with software.

Understanding the Difference: Design Thinking

Design Thinking is about ability and learning. Abilities like dealing with ambiguity, empathetic learning, synthesis, and experimentation, among others. A designer’s ability to make meaning, frame a problem, and explore potential solutions are key.

“Ask yourself, when was the last time that your first idea was your best idea?”

Meaning and new ideas emerge when we explore things. Design Thinking is simply how we explore those problems and solutions. Everyone designs, whether it’s conscious or not. If you’re solving a problem, you’re designing a solution. Design Thinking is a mindset that helps us do it better.

Related: Design Thinking for Creative Problem Solving & Strategic Innovation Masterclass


Understanding the Difference: Lean Thinking

Lean Thinking began as a response to scientific management practices in manufacturing. Organisations sought efficiency through process, rules, and procedures; And management was mostly about control. But in modern business, control is a falsehood. Things are too complex, too unpredictable, and too dynamic to be controlled. Lean Thinking offers a different mindset for managing any system of work. It’s fundamentally about exploring uncertainty, making decisions by experimenting and learning, and empowering people who are closest to the work to decide how best to achieve desired outcomes.

“Lean says be adaptive, not predictive.”

Related: Applying Lean Thinking to Improve Productivity, Enhance Organizational Effectiveness and Achieve Higher Growth

Understanding the Difference: Agile Thinking

Agile Thinking is related to Lean Thinking. The differences are mostly about what these mindsets are applied to, and how. In conditions of high uncertainty, Agile Thinking offers ways to build software that is dynamic and can adapt to change. This isn’t just about pivoting, but it’s also about scaling and evolving solutions over time. If we accept that today’s solution will be different from tomorrow’s, then we should focus on meeting our immediate needs in a way that doesn’t constrain our ability to respond when things change later. The heart of Agile is adapting gracefully to changing needs with software.

Related: Agile Thinking: Work Faster, Think Clearer and Improve Your Business Agility to Meet Customers Changing Demands

How Design, Lean, and Agile come together

By combining design thinking, the lean startup and agile, you are far more likely to not only come up with better ideas but turn those ideas into viable money makers and deliver them in a way that creates immediate value for customers, doesn’t result in cost and schedule blowouts — synonymous with innovation at large companies — and give your employees the opportunity to partake in more rewarding and fulfilling work.

To simplify, design thinking helps us come up with better ideas, the lean startup helps us turn those ideas into business models that work and agile helps us deliver the product to market in a fast, incremental way so that we get ongoing feedback, adapt and deliver precisely what the customer wants.