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Are Agile & Design Thinking Enough?

In today’s emergent digital world, businesses must adjust not only what they deliver, but they also have to fine-tune how they institute change within their organisation. As continuous customer engagement and digital products/services increasingly drive the centre point of businesses, this generates the need for flexibility, adaptation and a revamping of old management structures.

In traditional models, organisations operate in functional silos which can slow down the process of innovation as they are not able to keep up with the changing needs of their customers. Defined roles and linear styles of change management can make it difficult to pull together all elements of an organisation and act quickly. In order to revolutionise this system and cope with complex problems that result from greater customer engagement, some businesses are turning to practices of agility and design thinking. Agile could be seen as just another buzzword but it has in fact been well-documented and studied. Agile businesses have the benefit of increased team productivity, employee satisfaction, the development of mutual respect via self-organising teams, reduced bureaucracy/repetition, added value to products as a result of continually adapting to customer’s needs and more space for senior managers to focus on higher-value work (

In a nutshell, agility is about speed, acclimatisation and being able to alter business strategy, delivery and organisational models in response to changing market demands. Added to that is the increased emphasis on listening to, and in some cases, co-creating with the consumer as part of the process of complex change. Enter design thinking.

Design thinking is about constant refinement. It utilises design principles and techniques such as brainstorming, visualising and bringing multi-faceted teams together to generate ideas to refine and solve problems. In this scenario, teams may come together on a project and spend several days creating boards of notes, pictures and ideas based on customer feedback which are then re-worked, re-organised or re-modelled before generating a product or product solution. O2 are leading the way in this regard with a ‘customer centred design team’ which embark on a series of trials, tests, visualisations and brainstorming stages before products are launched (

Taken together, design thinking and agile methods embody the idea that innovation and problem-solving are adaptable, endless cycles of refinement and reiteration. But what do these approaches look like in practice? And how do they demonstrate success?

Take the Toyota car company and their focus on ‘kaizen’ (continuous improvement) as an example of combined agile and design thinking. Employees are encouraged to come up with at least one innovation per month and to reflect daily on ‘what could I do better tomorrow’? Added to that is their ‘lean production’ approach which allows them to immediately adapt to market demands through an emphasis on interacting with customers, reducing system response time, flattening management structures, reducing inventory and making use of multi-skilled employees ( This combination of methods demonstrate why they are one of the largest and most successful motor vehicle manufacturers in the world.

In short, the digital market is altering the way people shop, what they buy, what services they use and how they live and interact with others. The speed and pace of this innovation thus affects, and is affected by, consumer needs and behaviour. From a business point of view, this fast-evolving digital landscape requires a complete change from end-to-end as the balance of power swings towards the customer as the central force. This requires models that can move at speed and adapt across all levels while solving complex problems quickly. Above all, it requires collaboration, transparency and flexible and novel approaches to technology, innovation and organisational change.

This leads us to the question of whether we need to change the way we change. Are agile and design thinking enough or do we need to delve further?


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