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Agile, Design Thinking, Mindfulness – Embracing Small to Win Big

    Last Updated on February 18, 2024

    It’s all about moving out of the Digital express lane and getting Agile!

    Speed wins. If you can do something faster, you have a better chance to succeed. If you can ideate faster, produce faster, test faster, win customers faster, and innovate faster than your competitors you will win. But, is being fast and winning necessarily the best goal to have?

    How do we plan and manage ourselves effectively? How do we plan and manage our projects effectively? How can we know we’re doing the right thing, the sustainable thing, the thing that matters?

    Last month Charlie and I wrote about the disruptive forces of technology that are all around us, and how these are in some ways having adverse effects on society, business, and ourselves. Social Media, push notifications on our phones, computer games, computer viruses, talking refrigerators, self-driving cars, sex robots … even artificial intelligence! The speed of digital transformation is increasing and becoming more ubiquitous, creating a collectivism of likes and follows which are deconstructing many aspects of our lives.

    This month, we look at a much more upbeat, positive side of Digital Transformation – the methodologies that are on the cusp of this transformation.  Learning to fail in order to succeed, taking the time to get perspective, being people-focused, and being authentic. What? In the age of Social Media and Robot lovers? Yes! Let’s take a minute to pull out of the digital fast lane, and look at Agile, Design Thinking, and Mindfulness

    Friendly note: This is a lot of information, so if you would like focus on just one of these topics, you can simply click on the linked term above – but we hope you will read through the whole post. If a triangle is the strongest shape, then this combined threesome will give you good reason for optimism.

    Really? From my experience, if something seems too good to be true, it generally is.

    Perhaps I can convince you, Charlie. Give me a chance :o)

    What is the Main Idea Behind Agile?

    To be fast, you need to be Agile. You can’t be fast if you don’t stay flexible, in shape, or able to negotiate obstacles! Well, how do you do that?

    You have probably heard of the term Agile.  Like Blockchain, and AI, Agile is a term you must have encountered at least once in the last month. But what is Agile? Is it like Pilates? Can you download it? It’s not a cult is it?

    I’m glad you mention Pilates here.
    From the beginning of this section, the way you describe ‘Agile’ has made me think of gymnastics, yoga, and – yes – Pilates!

    Well, Agile techniques came to us most recently from the software industry and not the fitness industry – however Agile methods for project management and development are quite old. Like many aspects of our digital world, current “Agile” can be traced back to “innovations of necessity” that came out of the second world war. Agile concepts can also be traced back to ancient Rome and China. As they say – every design is just a redesign.

    At its core, Agile does the same thing you and I do when faced with too much to do and not enough time – we make a list, figure out what completing each task will require, prioritize what is to be done, then start doing it. 

    Do you actually do this? Wow! I typically just become flustered, rush about, go all panicky, break something – in short, make a mess of things.
    I take it that Agile helps you *not* get into that state?

    Well “breaking things”, or failing, IS a good thing. Failure is just another part of experience gained. If you’re creating things, you’re doing things that have a potential for failure.  And you learn from those things. And if you are worried about getting flustered, you should know that Agile is closely related to the PDCA – Plan, Do, Check, Act process. 

    PDCA allows you to break things down into smaller, more achievable steps, and probably helps slow things down so you don’t become as flustered in the future.

    Agile is a time boxed, iterative approach, that works by breaking projects down into little bits of functionality, prioritizing them, and then continuously delivering results in short cycles. 

    • + Agile is flexible, fast, aims for continuous improvements in what’s being done, and offers the ability to negotiate change quickly and easily.
    • + Agile is centered around adaptive planning, self-organization, and short delivery times.
    • + Agile is people and results focused.  It is an approach perfectly suited to our rapidly changing world.

    “Breaking projects down into little bits of functionality” – sounds to me like the good old piece of advice: break tasks down into smaller bits.
    As you say – every design is just a redesign. Wondering why you need a fancy name for it?

    You must have a cool name for things. You know, naming things makes them more accessible, and accessibility is very important.

    Agile methodologies – like Scrum, Lean, or eXtreme Programming – help you ensure that you’re building the right thing, and that you’re doing it the best way you can. 

    I know – what’s in a name? But seriously – who came up with those names? They sound weird. And they certainly sound like a bunch of men came up with them. Maybe this is all prejudice, but I just cannot imagine a group of women coming up with a name such as ‘Scrum’.

    That may be true. Of the 17 people who wrote the Agile Manifesto in 2001, only 1 was a woman. However, women have given us many interesting terms such as “Intersectionality”, “Kyriarchy”, as well as “bug” and “debug”, the latter in regards to computer software. But you are probably right, “Scrum” is a certainly a male word – but then it comes from the sport Rugby.

    Names aside, the benefits of Agile are directly tied to its faster, lighter, more engaged mindset. The process, in a nutshell, delivers what the customer wants, when the customer wants it. There’s much less wasted time spent developing in the wrong direction, and the entire system is quicker to respond to change.

    You know, you keep on telling me about all those wonderful things that Agile (supposedly) is and does. But please get to the point:
    What exactly is it? What do you do, other than break bigger tasks down into smaller ones?

    The fortune cookie version? OK. Agile is a method that can be used to help you get things done, it can help you become more empathetic (because it is people focused), effective (it is results focused), and efficient (it is time focused), and at scale it can help your company or group become more so too.  More in the next section!

    What are the 4 Statements of the Agile Manifesto?

    Agile works by addressing three important elements of projects and processes.  These were codified in the Agile Manifesto which was drawn up in 2001.

    The first important element is that Agile values “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. Why? Because people are more effective.

    Two, Agile is solutions focused, and so it values “working systems (or a working prototype) over comprehensive documentation”. That doesn’t mean there is no documentation – there is – but it is important to get something out to people to test first. Remember: speed wins.

    Three, Agile values “customer collaboration over contract negotiation”. If you must refer to a contract, then something is obviously wrong with the project.

    And fourth, Agile values “responding to change over following a plan”. Which means that the ability to be flexible, iterative, and open to changing scope is more important and valuable than sticking to a plan which was written in basically a different reality. Things change – markets, customer wishes, competition – in order to be fast, you need to be able to flexible.

    I have a problem here with the way you are writing about Agile. “Agile values” – this makes it sound like Agile is some kind of entity, a person even. But it isn’t. This is ‘reification’, ‘deus ex machina’. At first there was nothing, and now there suddenly is ‘Agile’.
    Why not write about it as a procedure that people came up with – why make it into something that ‘is’ out there?

    It certainly seems that society’s adoption of techie terminology has gone a bit overboard, but I hope to be able to show the value in Agile as a process, stripped of the sexy buzzwords. We have already said that Agile is all about people, and not processes, but as a methodology it is also about first things first – focusing on the urgency and importance of tasks. 

    As a waiter I understood never to argue with a customer, just give them what they want. Problem, solution, value given. In this respect I think Agile is as close to an a priori way of doing things as you can get – in the same way that following your conscience is to an a priori set of codes of conduct.  We don’t need to be told it is wrong to steal – it is something we know and feel. 

    As a method with which to react when determining the best solution based on the severity of a given condition, the military, police, fire, and medical teams work in an Agile way every day.  We (should) do this as well in our time management – prioritizing and adjusting what needs to be done to the people and situations we are in – basically targeting what matters.

    If companies (my most recent and ongoing example here would be Deutsche Bahn) wanted to bring the most value to their customers as quickly as possible, the way they would go about it, without giving the procedure a formal name, would probably be in an Agile fashion. The reason they don’t is that they have become too dependent on their processes and procedures.

    “Agile people conceive and approach the world and their assigned tasks differently from those who are less agile. In general, agile people have a propensity to seek improvements, are more willing to consider information that is at odds with preconceived notions and are more willing to be different and take risks. … Unfortunately, many organizations, both large and small, suppress agility-enabling characteristics.”

    How is Agile Related to Project Management?

    In Project Management, there is what is called a “Triple Constraint Pyramid” which is used to analyze projects.  In any given project, you have three items that will affect your project, and in order to succeed you will probably need to change one of them. But, which one?

    Do we really need that “Triple Constant Pyramid”? So many terms to describe Agile …

    A rose by any other name is still a rose … the three constraints in any projects are Budget, Scope, and Schedule.  Depending on what project management process you are following, depends on which of these three you may adjust when things get tight.

    Traditional Project Management is very common in large projects with large teams. Though, Agile at Scale (SAFe) is being used in very forward-thinking companies such as Netflix for example who have moved away from traditional practices. Traditional means going from one step to the next, completing a task, and moving on to the next – like a waterfall.

    While Traditional is a very linear process, Agile is more evolving, and more interested in the outcome and people than the processes.  In Traditional Project Management, you can change the budget of a project because what you are making and when it is to be ready are pretty much fixed. In Agile, however, you are looking to deliver some value as quickly as possible, so you will change the scope of your project instead.

    Here is an example we can all relate to. You are making dinner for a group of people. You have printed a menu with 5 different courses. You begin to run out of time and people are getting hungry. Do you ask them to wait another half hour, or do you just go with the 4 courses? Probably the latter. Agile is that simple. Deliver value quickly.

    If people are still hungry you can always make another course, but if you had stressed and made the 5 courses, making the people wait, and it turned out the 5th course was left uneaten – you would not have been as successful in delivering value to your guests. And, you would have wasted time and money, and made yourself and your guests unhappy. If you and your guests are unhappy, you have probably defeated the purpose of your dinner.

    Now that’s a nice concrete example that I understand.

    Thank you, Charlie, remember my article on CAKE? Why? Who? What? How? When? Where?  As I said, “Everything you do has a purpose.” When you prepare to do something, you set your direction (the right way to so the right things) based on purpose. Purpose aligns What you are doing with How you will do it, and most importantly Why you will.

    I couldn’t agree more. But where does purpose come into the process? Who sets the purpose? Is there a step where you specify your purpose? It seems to me that the entire Agile process can go very wrong – as you describe in your example – if the purpose is not sufficiently clear.

    Oh, now we are just coming up to the juicy part that will answer your question – but to give you a hint: YOU set the purpose!

    Using Agile to Build, Measure, and Learn

    You have probably heard of the term “minimum viable product (MVP)”.  It is a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development. It is a concept that stresses the impact of learning in new product development. An important part of Agile is to deliver value quickly, and an MVP can allow you to do that.

    More terminology! No, I must out myself here – never heard of it … You keep on repeating that Agile is designed to “deliver value quickly”.
    This is a value that seems to be built into Agile and that makes it suitable for some contexts under some purposes – but not others.
    Why would speed always be so important? Should it be? I would argue that there can be value in waiting for something.

    Hmmm … all right – how about thinking of an MVP as a “sample”, a “prototype” or a “mock-up”?  I agree with you – speed is not the goal for everything in life. However, in our digitally transforming business world, speed is important because ‘Speed Wins’. The only constant in business is change, and currently change is happening faster and faster. We need to be fast simply to keep up with change. If we want to get out ahead of it, we must be even faster. As the old saying goes – “May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’ve gone.”

    A key premise behind the idea of a MVP is that you produce an actual product (which may be no more than a landing page, or a tray of sandwiches, or a service with an appearance of automation, but which is fully manual behind the scenes) that you can offer to people and observe their actual behavior and collect their feedback.

    I see – the feedback is about the reaction of those for whom a product is intended.

    Exactly.  That is why empathy is so important.  If we can really understand what people need, rather than what they want, we can better solve problems and deliver real value. Seeing what people do with respect to a product is much more reliable than asking people what they would do.  Build a product, Test (observe) their acceptance, and Learn (feedback) in order to improve what you did in the next iteration.

    I think I get it now: Instead of planning ahead, you focus on one core task, create a first rough example,
    observe your customers’ reactions, and then modify.

    How are Design Thinking and Agile Related?

    Before I was introduced to Agile, I had experience using Design Thinking for large web design projects.  Thinking back on that, it is striking how similar Agile and Design thinking are in two important areas – that of empathy and team empowerment.

    Design Thinking attempts to inspire our ability to take an abstract idea and create something with it. It’s based upon the fundamental belief that an unexecuted idea, one that is never realized, makes no sense – that doing is equally as valuable as thinking.

    Design thinking has its roots in Participatory Thinking and User-Centered Design to name but two related schools of thought. The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( can probably be considered the source of modern Design Thinking.  

    A big part of the Design Thinking concept involves empathy for those you are designing for. It’s often manifested through a series of activities, the creation of user personas for example, which attempt to create an experience of what or how your idea will ultimately be accepted and used.

    Like Agile, the Design Thinking method is simple, and iterative: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.  The best way to begin to empathize is through Value Mapping – a task which allows you to put yourself in the shoes of whoever you are providing a solution for and to better understand their needs.

    Wait. How do we define empathise? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as being: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner also : the capacity for this”.

    Design Thinking is how we explore and solve problems, while Agile is how we can adapt to changing conditions. Design Thinking aligns very well with the Agile Manifesto ( because it is:

    • + Interactive – puts people first, over processes
    • + Solution-oriented – a working, testable product, over comprehensive documentation
    • + Collaborative – places customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    • + Adaptive – adapts to change before following a plan

    Meaning and new ideas emerge when we explore things. Our ability to take meaning, frame a problem, and explore potential solutions is what Design Thinking is all about. If you’re solving a problem, you’re designing a solution; and it is this mindset that helps us do that better.

    Ok, I can see some of the similarities between Agile and Design Thinking.
    But how exactly can I bring the two together? Has this already been done?

    Think of this in terms of incremental wish fulfillment. First you get a cupcake, then a whole cake, then a wedding cake. The important thing to remember is that both Agile and Design Thinking emphasize people. In our first step we can use Design Thinking to empathize with whoever will use our product – who are they, what do they need, and why? Let’s say we find out that you Charlie, would like to access your baking recipes on your phone via voice search.

    Using this information, we can use Agile to create a roadmap about how to deliver what you want. Remember, with Agile we incrementally give a little bit to deliver value quickly. First, we will give you access to your baking recipes via a website, then in the next stage have that site made searchable A-Z and sortable according to most popular recipes, and in the final step integrate voice search.  We are giving Charlie immediate access to the baking recipes because we know voice search will take us 4 weeks to implement – but we don’t want them to wait 4 weeks before a search can be made. That is Design Thinking and Agile working together.

    How are Agile and Mindfulness Related?

    If you thought Agile was something you needed to leave at the office, you are going to be surprised. The approaches and themes inherent to Agile are also found in Mindfulness.

    You have probably heard of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is an important mindset to help you steer the disruptive times in which we are living. 

    Why do you want to be Mindful?  Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of what you are and what you are doing, and not overwhelmed by what is going on around you. Sounds like something you could use both during the commute and during your workday.

    There are many different definitions of mindfulness. The one that I like best replaces the “not overwhelmed by what is going on around you” by “without judging your experience, whatever it may be”. This is the definition used by teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach who say that mindfulness is like a bird with two wings: being fully present is the one wing, and a non-judgmental attitude is the other. And with only one wing the bird cannot fly. But on two wings, it can soar – and when it does, not being overwhelmed is just one of the potential effects of mindfulness,
    as improvement of memory, focus, and regulation of emotion.

    With Mindfulness – whatever definition you use – you can develop grounded, tactile, common sense approaches to achievement that allow you to be aware of and be in the present moment.

    “Grounded, tactile, common sense approaches to achievement”? What exactly does this mean? And I don’t really understand the relationship between Mindfulness and Agile. As you say, mindfulness can be helpful in all walks of life, and this includes Agile. Why would Mindfulness be relevant to Agile in particular – more than, say, when playing with your child, going for a walk, or making dinner?

    Let me answer that in a moment Charlie.  I first wanted to say that like Agile, Mindfulness requires daily and focused practice and commitment. That shouldn’t deter you though. If you don’t get it right away, that’s okay because failure and learning is an important part of Agile too. Remember – only through failing can you learn, experience, grow, learn resilience, and appreciate value. If we never failed, we would never improve. Without failure there would be no innovation – because there would be no need to improve!

    And this is where I wonder about the fit between Mindfulness and Agile. If you use my definition above, the non-judgmental attitude is an important part of mindfulness. But this means that one experience is as important as any other experience. “Failure”, “innovation” – these terms don’t really come into it. I suppose you could go up to a meta-level here and say that in the long run (the very long run!), meditators learn to “train the puppy”, as Jack Kornfield puts it, so there can be long-term improvement of meditation skills and experience. But nevertheless, one meditation experience is not better or worse than another. This makes me wonder whether the proponents of Agile have tried to jump on the Mindfulness wagon, because it’s so popular – while really there is no intrinsic relationship between the two?

    To answer your previous question, I see a strong connection between Agile and Mindfulness. For ourselves, I think that not shying away from failure – being instead curious about our mistakes – is very important.  We should develop the ability to respond to our failures instead of reacting to them (Agile teaches us how that it is positive and necessary to fail) – and Mindful techniques can help us with that developing that ability in ourselves.

    Being curious about our mistakes – ok, this makes sense. I understand now how Mindfulness and Agile are related.

    When you meditate, you’re being Mindful – you are being in the moment. That’s Mindfulness for me. It is not dissimilar to what is necessary in role of the Agile coach. A large part of it is not to be a project manager, but to be a facilitator. In Agile we call this a ‘servant-leader’. In this role, you need to be in a way that best serves the Agile team. It means your awareness must be in the present: actively present and listening openly to what a person is saying. In any Agile project, the customer or stakeholders are a part of the project – they are actually in the meetings – and being actively listened to and participating as well. I think this is how the two really converge.

    So, How Can I be Mindful?

    Mindfulness enhances everything you do with emotional regulation, attention control (focus), and self-awareness. There are many types of mindfulness practices that build these skills

    • Journaling
    • Some games on your phone
    • Meditation (and prayer)
    • The most effective and widespread is mediation 

    No mindfulness without at least mini-meditations – and longer meditation is better. The games on the phone are usually designed to lead up to at least mini-meditations. And the journaling helps you reflect upon your experience, which can also be valuable. But the core is always meditation.

    Meditation improves your neurological connections and your personality:

    • Greater memory and concentration
    • Better emotional regulation & control
    • Higher intelligence and creativity

    Agile and You

    Agile can be used in not only software development but in building websites, making shoes, building cars – pretty much anything. In fact, there are many ways that the tenets of Agile Thinking can help you. 

    Many project management processes were developed for the creation of things most of us will not have the chance nor the need to do. However, tailoring these processes to your own needs is both a rewarding and effective way of managing your tasks – whether they be baking a cake or managing your own projects.

    Agile, Design Thinking, and Mindfulness techniques can help you improve yourself, your workflow, your project management, even your entire company. We encourage you to find out more about Agile, Design Thinking, and Mindfulness. There are countless online courses and books available, as well as (we are sure) someone in your organisation or social circle who is already agile and mindful.

    Agile, Design Thinking, Mindfulness – I am starting to get the idea and to see how they can be useful individually and in combination.
    It’s a lot to take in, though. I would suggest that starting small, with just one of the three, and waiting to see how this works out on one area of one’s life,

    would also be fine. And exactly in line with Agile – right??

    Indeed. Adding even a small aspect of Agile, Design Thinking, or Mindfulness to your life will add value. Having the ability to empathise with people and understanding the situations around you while focusing on the one important, urgent thing you are doing.  It means you will become faster and better, and you will succeed more often.  In our fast-changing digital world going small to finish large, is really the biggest takeaway.

    Sources and Further Reading

    I talked about this topic again with Green Geeks on a webinar in October 2022. Check it out!

    Image source: Gratisography @ pexels

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