Innovation methodologies: Agile, Lean, design thinking

Terms like design thinking, lean, agile, are popping up more and more outside the startup world.

Woman holding paper in workshop

Chances are that you have encountered at least one of these terms throughout your career, but do you really know what they mean? We’ve put together a quick cheat sheet to help you navigate your way through the innovation jargon.

Design thinking, lean and agile are all innovation methodologies aimed at understanding what people want. These terms are often used together and they are all ways to approach and improve your product cycle, while each focusing on a different area.

Design thinking

Design thinking relies on empathy to understand customers’ needs and pain points. It helps you figure out who you’re designing for and what their needs are, before working on a solution. This is a huge change from the traditional approaches of building a product first and trying to sell it, before asking if it’s needed.

Where did it all start?

A group of designers from an American design consultancy IDEO formulated a new approach to innovation that put people first. Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, was one of the designers who spearheaded the “design thinking” movement. 

A human-centred approach that combines people’s needs, technological possibilities and business feasibility

Tim Brown

How does it work?

The design thinking cycle follows five main steps:

  1. First, empathise with the people you are designing for. What’s their pain point? Some effective ways to discover this are user interviews and user tests.
  2. Define the user’s needs and challenges, by using the insights and observations from the first step.
  3. Ideate through brainstorming exercises.
  4. Prototype. Build something simple that you can use to test with your users.
  5. Lastly, test your prototype with real users and get feedback in real-time. Get the insights from your tests and if needed start the process again, based on your learnings.

Lean methodology

How you can iterate and learn without breaking the budget, losing your sanity or wasting time. Lean focuses on creating a minimal viable product (MVP) and letting the customer determine value.

Where did it all start?

Taiichi Ohno, an Engineering Executive at Toyota in the 50s & 60s, was a true visionary at Toyota who envisioned a new innovative way to build cars. Without a doubt, Ohno was a wise leader way ahead of his time. Ohno was passionate about two things: creating empathy within his workforce & reducing waste at all costs. Years later, Ohno’s philosophy was brought to the startup world through Eric Reis, Serial Entrepreneur and Thought Leader, in his book “The Lean Startup”.

the only way to make a beautiful product, is to let it be unbeautiful first.”

Eric Reis
Lean startup

How does it work?

One of the core principles of the Lean Startup is the “Build, Measure, Learn” cycle. Build-Measure-Learn is a framework for establishing – and continuously improving – the effectiveness of new products, services and ideas in a quick and cost-effective way. First, start by building a basic version of your product or service. Then, test your assumption and see how the users respond to it. At last, use the insights that you collected to iterate your idea or pivot. The goal is to continuously improve your product or service, to build something that your customers want. When following Lean methodology you always start with the problem, not with the solution.


At its core, Agile isn’t so much a methodology as a philosophy. It’s a blanket term for an approach to project management or product development that prioritises incremental, feedback-driven changes into product or service development. Agile project management was developed as an alternative to traditional, waterfall, project management. 

Image source: “Agile manifesto” on Medium.

Where did it all start?

In 2001, a group of developers met in a ski resort in Utah to talk, ski relax, and try to find common ground. What emerged was the Agile Manifesto. At the core of the manifesto there are four values: 

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation 
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change, over following a plan 

The Agile Alliance was seeking an alternative to these types of waterfall approaches, which it described as “documentation driven, heavyweight software development processes.”

How does it work?

Companies adopting agile are usually trying to achieve one of these goals: 

  • Above all, to realise the value faster by focusing on doing rather than talking or justifying.
  • Encourage experimentation by implementing a faster course correction and using failures as lessons.  
  • Increase transparency and more rapid decision making.
  • Maintain relevancy and encourage greater visibility of progress.
  • Establish team routines and increase the empowerment of team members.

Do you want to learn the ABC of innovation? Check out our Foundation workshop, part of the Certificate in Applied Innovation. Book now.

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