From Design Thinking to Agile Solutions in a Lean Startup

Lotte, Digital Content Specialist

Agile, Lean, and Scrum: you might have heard about these terms before, especially if you’re working in a startup or scaleup environment. Implementing Agile and Lean ways of working and using Scrum methodologies is becoming increasingly popular among modern businesses that are looking for a way to improve the efficiency of their internal production processes. The iterative operations on which these terms are based, are developed in order to provide clients and end-users with the best possible solutions, in a most efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective way. But these aren’t just buzzwords. They’re critical for the success of modern software development, and there’s much more to it than the basic concept of testing, reviewing, and adjusting.

What you need to know about Agile, Lean, and Scrum

Before we go deeper into the benefits of working Agile and Lean and implementing Scrum production procedures, it’s good to have a clear idea of what these individual terms stand for. The definitions of Agile and Lean tend to be difficult to distinguish from one another. But understanding the minor distinctions is crucial for successfully implementing these strategies and achieving positive results.

Agile

The definition of Lean and Agile are based on the iterative process of creating, testing, reviewing, and adjusting in order to make sure the end-user receives the solution they desire. This loop of feedback and adaptation is essential for digital agencies to get a better understanding of what the end-user wants, and how they visualize their ideal end-product. But although Agile and Lean share the same end-goal (providing the perfect end-product in the most efficient way), there are some differences between the two. Agile can best be seen as a way of working, with its focus on the efficient interaction between team members and their individual tasks and tools. The term “Agile” comes from the concept of agility, which is defined by the ability to move and think quickly, easily, and flexibly. An Agile working method revolves around a constant awareness of change, in order to continuously comply with the customer’s needs. All processes within Agile product management are organized in such a way that there’s always a possibility to adjust specific elements without having to spend too much time and effort in implementing these changes.

Lean

Lean can be best described as a business philosophy or mindset, rather than an actual practice or methodology. The philosophy of working Lean is focused on eliminating all internal production processes and decisions that don’t add value to the end-product and/or the customer, in order to simplify and facilitate the process of product development. Bringing value to the customer is a main goal of the Lean ideology, and getting rid of all the procedures that don’t contribute to this value can save a lot of time, effort, and money in the end.

Scrum

Scrum is a term often added to the concepts of Agile and Lean, but lesser-known compared to the other two. Whereas Agile and Lean are based on ways of efficient working and the mindset behind it, Scrum is a practical methodology that supports these processes. It’s a management framework built around Agile and Lean product management. After all, you don’t just work Agile or Lean out of nowhere. There has to be a practical strategy behind it to achieve this efficient and sustainable way of product development.

Implementing Scrum with Sprints

A popular example of a Scrum methodology is the implementation of so-called “Sprints”, which are recurring static periods of iterative work cycles, mostly alternating between time-slots of two to four weeks per Sprint. Sometimes shorter, but rarely longer. A typical project based on Scrum methodology consists of five cyclical phases:  

  1. A Scrum approach starts off with the responsible team clearly assembling and defining the project.

  2. So-called Product Backlogs are produced to contextualize everything that needs to happen in order to create the product in the form of, for example, the specification of technical features or the creation of user stories.

  3. After all the product requirements are defined, it’s time for the Sprint Planning, facilitated by the so-called Scrum Master. In this phase, the Product Owner defines the details of the Product Backlog, and the Agile Team defines and decides about the required time for the project and a division of task among the team members.

  4. Daily Scrum meetings are meant to keep in check if everyone is up-to-date with their tasks and if there are any bottlenecks standing in the way of achieving the deadline.

  5. Every Sprint ends with a so-called Sprint Review or Retrospective, in which the team looks back at what was done, how it was done, and if there’s a need for adjustments and improvements in the Product Backlog.

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The main focus of the process of an iterative Sprint is based on velocity. Every idea, step, and action has to be planned in such a way it reaches a maximum level of speed, efficiency, and productivity. After all, a lot of work has to be done in a very limited period of time. Any minor mistake or overlooked issue can cause a problematic congestion somewhere further on in the process.

When Waterfall meets Agile

You might still wonder why working Agile has become so popular over the past years. In order to better understand the benefits of Agile, we’ll compare the process of working Agile with another leading methodology within product management: the Waterfall methodology. We already addressed this methodology in our article on Rapid Prototyping, but now we’ll take a closer look.

Waterfall

The methodology of Waterfall product management is based on a step-by-step guide of working towards an end-product. Within this process, all steps have to be checked off in order to move on to the next phase. It’s a good solution for projects of a repetitive nature, that don’t rely on frequent adjustments in previous steps of the process. The Waterfall methodology provides a secure sense of structure and steadiness for the team involved in the production process, because it’s mostly a construction of the same steps to follow. However, if the situation occurs where there’s a growing need of more frequent adjustments, it can become time-consuming and expensive to constantly reverse to already checked off phases of the project. Especially in IT industries and digital agencies, the constant stream of technological innovations can become problematic when using the Waterfall methodology. In that case, this method possesses a few disadvantages, for example:  

  • Many software projects are highly dependent on external factors, like the client and their input. It’s not rare for projects like these to change during the entire development process, based on the client’s feedback. And the Waterfall method is not built for continuous adaptations.

  • Especially for larger projects, it’s difficult to estimate a fixed budget and duration. The separated phases are often big and complex, and therefore challenging to determine how much effort it will take to complete.

  • Because the Waterfall methodology is based on separated phases, team members tend to be focused on their own phase of the project. Whereas the intertwinement of team members’ tasks (like in Agile methodologies) can ultimately save a lot of time and errors caused by miscommunication or miscomprehension of each others’ ideas.

  • Testing only happens during the last phases of the Waterfall method. It could easily happen that a lot of time and effort has been invested in a project, while in the end it turns out not to fit your client’s wishes.

  • The frequent and extensive documentation of the separate processes that take place in the Waterfall method tend to take a lot of time, which isn’t efficient for smaller projects.

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Agile as an alternative

The Agile methodology is a great solution for this ever-changing field of technological innovations, as it provides a constant opportunity for feedback and adjustments in all phases of the project. Agile project management is based on an iterative structure of testing the product, receiving feedback from the client, and adjusting specific elements based on this feedback. Agile methodologies are specifically useful for startups and scaleups with a horizontal (or flat) hierarchical structure and distributed system of decision-making, in which all team members contribute an equal part to the process of product development. Other than within the Waterfall methodology, Agile product management follows a set of principles, rather than a clearly divided structure of steps that need to be checked off. These principles consist of a constant loop of creating, testing, client feedback, and the main goal to understand the client and add sustainable value to the product.

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From end-user problem to end-user solution

A Lean startup with Agile ways of working Like Lizard Global is strategically focused to the process of solving its end-users problems. We implement a clearly structured methodology that follows the path from problem to solution: from the process of empathizing and problem definition, to iterative design, development, and testing using Scrum Sprint methodologies characteristic for Agile strategies of product management. In this way of working, the phase of the end-user problem is defined by the concept of Design Thinking.

End-user problem and Design Thinking

In our article on Design Thinking, you could read about the importance of empathy towards your end-users in order to create a clear image of their problem, and base your solutions on a deeply-rooted mutual understanding. The process of design thinking is built upon three steps towards an end-user solution:  

  1. Empathy
  2. Problem definition
  3. Solution definition

Before even trying to comprehend the problem, the concept of design thinking aims to first personally connect with the end-user, in order to empathise with the user and create a stronger sense of understanding the actual problem. Once this connection is made and you’re on the same level, it’s time to take a close look at the problem and turn it into a concrete concept. After all, it’s impossible to define a solution if the problem is not clear in the first place. This brings us to the last step: defining the solution. This last step forms the bridge towards the actual development of a solution using Agile methods, like Scrum. Once there’s a concrete image of both the problem and its most fitting solution, it can be turned into action.

End-user solution and Agile methods in a Lean startup

You have a good insight into your end-users, the problem is clear, and the solution is ready for take-off. This is when you have to turn the knowledge you acquired during the process of design thinking into practice. The quickest way to realize this solution is by the iterative processes of analysing, building, and measuring, which represent the Lean mindset. A solid Agile strategy, in which a high velocity and efficiency form the core elements, fulfills a central role in these processes. Scrum Sprints are a very productive method for developing a viable and sustainable solution in a limited amount of time, from Backlog to execution.

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100% Agile at Lizard Global

There are countless options regarding the choice of strategies for managing production processes within a digital agency. Lizard Global follows the entire process from end-user problem to end-user solution as described in this article. As explained, the Waterfall methodology is generally most suitable for projects of a repetitive nature, in which a vast order of steps to follow and to check off is already good enough for delivering a well-made end-product. But because all our clients, users, problems, and solutions are unique, our projects are never the same. Lizard Global doesn’t possess a repetitive nature, and the fact that all our projects are unique is the exact reason we continuously aim to turn all our processes into 100% Agile.   Although Scrum methodologies like Sprints can be quite intense, they greatly prevent the risk of dissatisfaction in the end, especially compared to the Waterfall methodology, which only has one official feedback moment during the end-phase of the project. Because Agile methodologies have a lot of space for client/user reflection and feedback, chances are much higher that all stakeholders are satisfied with the final product. All things considered, Sprints turn out to be much less stressful in the end, whereas methodologies like Waterfall will always bring along the uncertainty of possible dissatisfaction and requests for changes in the end. This often happens when the determined budget is already depleted, which results in angry clients and lots of stress. Because we put the satisfaction of all our clients at a number one priority, Lizard Global chooses the maximum efficiency of the Agile way over all other methodologies.