What insights Scrum has to offer to Design Thinking

6 min readJun 5, 2019
Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

Scrum, a word borrowed from the game of rugby had emerged to define the way product development and other important projects are managed at companies, large and small. Design Thinking is another approach that is fast gaining currency and is being experimented with in products and services organizations like. While the origins of both of these practices are unique, there would be potential synergies that would be drawn.

This piece aims at drawing insights from the two fields and adding to my/our current understanding of Design Thinking, as an approach to problem solving and new product development.

Scrum, in the context of rugby refers to the way a team works together to move the ball down the field, with careful alignment, unity of purpose, and clarity of goal. Think of the rugby ball as a project, or a new product idea.

Scrum, a technique of software development, amongst other project management applications, draws from the discipline of Toyota Production System and Military’s OODA (observe — orient — decide — act) loop, and could be attributed to the work of a former air force pilot Jeff Sutherland.

Attributed to the creation of the Agile Manifesto and the Scrum Guide, Jeff draws on this rich experience from combat missions, managing complex software and non software projects, and commonday occurances to present a compelling case on how almost any project can be managed using the tenets of scrum and a lot of waste can be flushed out of the system.

Jeff Sutherland (2014)

If Design Thinking (DT) could be thought of as a series of steps from a complex problem towards solution creation , think of Scrum as a execution tool to effective solution implementation. Scrum can complement DT by realizing the true benefits of minimalism, in efforts and outcome.

Some of the salient insights on Scrum are articulated by Jeff in his book ‘Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time’.

Here, I start by drawing the commonality between DT and Scrum and then identify how the former could benefit from the wide scale adoption of scrum.

The linear model is broken

Both software development and new product development have traditionally been based on the tenets of a linear, predictable model. Waterfall model in the case of software development and Stage-Gate model in the case of new product development.

The classic Waterfall model, dating back to 1970
Robert Cooper’s Stage Gate Model, dating back to 1986

Each of these models rely on a implicit sense of certainty and a closed systems view, and, as a result, seldom work. For one, there’s little iteration in the process, and secondly, the stages are in sequence, and not in parallel, leading to a delayed detection of failure and escalated costs and efforts.

The Scrum Process (source: Tarek Ben Guiza)
Design Thinking Process (Source: Stanford D.School)

Both Scrum and Design Thinking offer a fresh perspective in terms of keeping the customer right in front and centre of the proposition, and keeping the process iterative, incremental, flexible, and fluid. These new approaches are more realistic representations of how people actually work rather than how they say they work. Both Scrum and DT embrace uncertainty and creativity.

Some of the commonalities between Scrum and Design Thinking are summarised below.

  1. Bringing the focus back to people: The Agile Manifesto and the key tenets of Scrum states — people over process; and so does DT. Design Thinking is human-centric in nature, and not about the product or the process that needs to be improved. The focus is on subject, and not the object.
  2. Leveraging the power of diversity: As for DT, there’s a clear focus on diversity, of functional, technical and behavioral dimensions, amongst others. Even on the development team, there’s a emphasis on small (6–7 people strong), cross-functional, purpose oriented teams. Smaller teams help get everyone in sync quickly, the essence of faster development and delivery.
  3. Prioritizing at every stage: Scrum heavily emphasizes on solving the most important problem and baking in the most important features and not boiling the ocean. The firm realization is that 80 percent of value in any piece of a software is in 20 percent of the features. Based on the military discipline of OODA (observe- orient- decide- act), Scrum emphasizes on being real to the actual need and prioritizing at every stage. Ditto with DT, where important ideas are looked through the lens of customer desirability, technical feasibility and business viability.
  4. Failing faster to succeeding sooner: The cornerstone of DT is prototyping and testing, and that of Scrum is sprint cycles — the ‘inspect and adapt cycles’. These sprint cycles help make quick improvements on the existing and seeing it work. These short (1–2 weeks) cycles save resources, avoid escalation of commitment, and are manageable; akin to the ethos of rapid prototyping in the case of DT.
  5. Making it visual: Scum emphasises tremendously on weekly demos, a practice that keep the project on course, help identify problem early-on, get all in sync and most importantly, keeps customer in confidence on project progress. Showing the actual product is the most powerful part of Scrum. Even DT adopts a wide array of visual methods, ranging from empathy maps, to customer journey maps, mind maps, etcetera, to make the process and thinking visible to all.

What Scrum can teach Design Thinking in the execution game

Fixing the ownership

The role of Product Owner (one who take the final call), and Scrum Master (one who rallies the troops) is very important for effective execution. Often, in DT, there remains a diffused ownership, and with diversity of perspectives and too much of a divergent discussion, there might be difficulties in prioritization, cutting down losses, and taking some hard decisions.

Getting ownership defined in terms of Product Owners and Scrum Masters would help discipline the entire process.

Starting with the backlog

One of the defining features of Scrum is the clear identification of product backlog, which is then formed into sprint backlog and the Scrum Chart that identifies to-do, doing, and done items, just like the Kanban chart.

This instills a tremendous amount of discipline in the team, makes the progress visible to all concerned, helps keep timelines, and in load balancing. That’s a clear takeaway for DT, in terms of developing prototypes and effort estimations.

Keeping a rhythm through the sprint cycles and daily standups

Short, weekly sprints, starting with product/ sprint backlog to final demonstrations is the sine qua non of Scrum. The daily standup, weekly scrums, weekly demos are very useful in ensuring the team beats as a single heart.

The daily-standups (15 min max.), a concept drawn from Toyota Production System, can be a game changer in getting everyone up to speed and reviewing the progress. Experically the three questions: 1) what was done yesterday, 2) plan for today, 3) obstacles.

Weekly demos and Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Instead of relying on long/well laid out plans that may or may not work, Scrum relies on frequent demos and going for minimum viable products, as frequently as possible. This helps get some piece of the puzzle shipped and ready for customer inspection and team corroboration, and further helps all get a sense of the progress.

For DT, MVPs are like quick and dirty prototypes, but this time, they are closer to reality and done in a more systematic manner.

Scrum, if done well, can offer a great deal of reality to what happens after a successful Design Thinking project. It can address the criticism often attributed at Design Thinking of it not leading to real stuff.

I hope that this snipped helped. Do share your views.




Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.