“Design Thinking” and “Agile” methodologies have become trends in the world of business. Take a look at any annual report, and it seems like every company wants to be “more agile and flat,” or is adopting “design methodologies” with the goal of being more innovative. The unfortunate reality is that many of these initiatives are harming the innovation efforts of many companies – big and small.How is this possible? Well, when a CEO or executive talks about these methodologies, they are generally referring to two things. First, they talk about improving the ability to execute projects with a high level of experimentation, multidisciplinary teams, and a high level of collaboration between people and areas. Second, they talk about focusing on the client’s real needs, and the importance of working closely with clients during the development process. In a world that is changing more rapidly every day, where clients have increasing amounts of information, power and demands, these objectives are not wrong. The problem lies in the process of executing change in order to reach these lofty aspirations. This is the trap that we see more and more companies falling into.Design Thinking and Agile methodologies are not new. The former was developed back in the seventies, and was widely popularized with the publication, among others, of “The Sciences of the Artificial,” by the economist and professor Herbert Simon, which established many of the foundations of Design Thinking.1 The latter came 20 years ago, when a group of programmers published the Agile Manifesto.2 If you are thinking of adopting any of them, it’s not hard to find plenty of literature proving their worth. However, relying on research alone, it’s easy to get the impression that there are only two key elements necessary for showing your teams how to adopt these methodologies: the processes to follow and the tools to use.
There are a few common approaches to presenting these new ideas. You can focus on a change initiative, doing things like encouraging people to: learn how to make empathy maps, carry out brainstorming sessions, create prototypes, configure diverse teams, adopt working frameworks such as Scrum, and work in development sprints. You might also try to help people “open their minds” by creating “innovation rooms” within the office space, featuring artificial grass, bicycles, swings, and bean bag chairs that help people “think outside the box” and feel more Millennial than ever. Does this sound at all familiar?
None of this on its own, however, is going to help your company. In fact, if this is all you try, you will end up doing more harm than good. Your teams will feel lost and frustrated when they see that their efforts are in vain. They are going to think that the company has fallen victim to fads, and that the main reason for this change initiative is a good PR opportunity and better smile sheets.
The uncomfortable truth of these powerful methodologies is that they are not based on processes and tools, but on proper leadership and culture. Brainstorming never works if your leaders judge their teams on the quality of ideas that come up during brainstorming sessions. Prototyping is useless if leaders can’t facilitate an environment of open feedback and disciplined collaboration. Agile development paired with a high level of experimentation is a waste of resources if your leaders aren’t capable of managing uncertainty. The success of each part of the process and of each tool depends more on the leader who encourages and participates in its use than on the teams charged with adopting it.
Peter Drucker, the Austrian economist who is considered the “father” of Modern Management, once said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If your company really strives to be the frontrunner in innovation with the help of Design Thinking and Agile, the most important part of your initiative should be provoking a culture change. This change needs to involve everyone within the company, from the people who are in front of the client on a daily basis to those who have never been close to interacting with them.
This diversity of client understanding is what creates customer centricity. As such, your priority should be creating a plan to develop the leadership capabilities of middle management and executives. The most successful method focuses on two points: first, providing management and executives with the training and know-how to identify the day-to-day moments in which they can drive culture change through their behavior; second, helping them to internalize the specific behaviors necessary in these moments. Only then will your organization be enabled to adopt the new tools, processes and, therefore, methodologies of innovation.
The Design Thinking and Agile trap is believing that following a list of steps and learning a series of tools is the most important thing for driving innovation. The real opportunity for inciting change in leadership behaviors is through a strategic initiative of cultural change. This will set you apart, and act as the driving force that prevents you from falling victim to a passing fad – having a nice looking “innovation” room with quirky chairs that ultimately serves no purpose. Don’t just follow a list of steps or tools, but rather, break out from the crowd with the change driver that really matters, shifting your company culture.