Agile and Design Thinking: A fluid solution for insolvable world problems

By Asaad Taha, Ph.D., MSP®, PRINCE2®

Solutions are at a premium. Calamitous wars, corrupt governments, and political extremism consume lives and resources despite world outcries. Millions suffer physical and mental trauma arising from inequalities in food distribution, living wages, and healthcare accessibility.

Image from Foreign

These conditions are exacerbated by armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters, global warming, communicable and non-communicable diseases, inequity, poverty, and seismic demographic movements. Moreover, all this occurs in the context of institutionalized legacies of colonization, inequity, slavery, racism, and religious animosity.

The causes and conditions have pushed much of humanity to the edge, the limits of its own mortality, a collective suicide. If indeed, we have reached an existential chasm, we must design and implement responses with pragmatic power where theory, goodwill, and prayer have failed. But an Agile design thinking framework offers some real insight, evolution, and growth hacking.

For example, too many high-impact social actors and change-makers have no helicopter oversight. They misunderstand systems dynamics and fail to see gaps in strategic execution capabilities. Their tunnel vision favors social interventions, not social transformation, and their behavior inclines towards an activity, project, or program-driven implementation approach — not well suited for addressing complex and protracted socioeconomic issues.

Unreasonable overhead and lengthy implementation deplete most donors’ and taxpayers’ dollars in the typical supply chain: Donor → Government Contractor/UN Agency → International Nongovernmental Organization (INGO) → National Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) → Grass-root Implementer. Unfortunately, such linear concepts have no discernible dynamic.

Six Sigma, TQM, Lean Management, Logistics Theory, Supply Chain Management, Block-chain Technology, all these labels mean little to the grassroots’ implementers or the people they serve. They may be vital to the donor’s and organization’s performance and stakeholders. But they lose and confuse in the very environments they seek to serve.

Lacking holistic vision and without strategic clarity, donors see their resources disappear into activities-based programs or projects. Neither the donor nor end-user realizes the desired social benefits. The social impact sector requires long overdue structural reform and deep cultural changes, a radical business model trans-formative shift, not a gradual evolution or a drift. The socio-political, ecological changes and economic realities make deconstruction of the current system and reconstruction inevitable.

Without holistic oversight, we are left to pursue horizontal plans, linear strategies that parse problems, processes, and solutions into incremental moves on a single plane. On the other hand, a holistic approach requires an organizational framework that encourages and enables a fluid dynamic, scalable future and independent innovation.

Developing an actionable strategic prevention framework

It struck me we can approach this like managing a personal financial portfolio. All investors favor high-return investments for maximum results. But they also try to balance those quick wins with long-term revenue tails.

Those investment vehicles should be:

· Issue-based: Information on the investors’ circumstances, risk-tolerance, and goals.

· Evidence-based: In-depth information about investments with high sustainable yields.

· Innovation-based: Analysis of the investors’ appetite for risk and innovative opportunities.

At S4F Solutions™, I have tried to re-imagine and re-draw that logic as it might apply to the delivery of best-intentioned resources to their desired outcomes. The central intervention enabling the synergy between intent and actualization must be F⁴ in all situations: Fit for Purpose, Fit to Use, Fit to Context, and Fit in Time. No systems thinking, human-centered design, agile methodology, and more will address today’s complex issues alone. There is no silver bullet, super snake oil, or universal wrench.

Instead, we must integrate three pillars of success:

· A Strategic-Execution Framework that translates strategy into sustainable benefit realization and results;

· A Problem-Solving Methodology that links intended changes, benefits, and strategic objectives; and

· A Sustainable Systems-Strengthening Framework that balances business-as-usual and investments in transformational change.

All of this must occur within a MER₂L (Monitoring, Evaluating, Research, Reporting, and Learning) oversight.

A fluid integration of design thinking and agile thinking

Global prosperity does provide a return on investment for everyone at a macroeconomic level — along with prevention of armed conflict, extremism, human trafficking, and seismic demographic movements. Those in high-income economies struggle with career choice decisions, social standing, food choices, self-esteem, and human relationships. The healthy people in low-income economies are hard-pressed to survive, let alone provide others with their choice in morning coffee. For all this, people of goodwill make large and small sacrifices to contribute to not only doing things right but doing the right thing — only to see those sacrifices diminished or disrupted by the delivery mechanism.

Let us start by defining design thinking and agile, the focuses of this article:

Design Thinking has been owned by information and project engineers focused on completing projects expeditiously and efficiently. It has assumed “in projects both the goals and the method of achieving them are well understood at the start of the project” (Dijksterhuis & Silvius, 2017). However, objectives and/or the methods are not always clearly defined. “These projects are only successful if they achieve a unitary, beneficial change with value for users” (Dijksterhuis & Silvius, 2017).

“It has gotten to a point where Design Thinking is a condition for success” (Hambeukers, 2018). It is pointing the way to work that is flexible, concrete, engaging, and aligned with the human condition, and connecting with and bringing out the best in people (Hambeukers, 2018).

Agility softens incremental and reiterative disciplined progress pursued by Design Thinking. “Agility is the counterpart of discipline. Where discipline ingrains and strengthens, agility releases and invents. It allows athletes to make the unexpected play, musicians to improvise and ornament, craftsmen to evolve their style, and engineers to adjust technology and needs. Agility applies memory and history to adjust to new environments, react and adapt, take advantage of unexpected opportunities and update the experience base for the future” (Boehm & Turner, 2004).

One thing that differentiates and unifies design thinking and agile thinking is how they are visualized. There has been a press to move from the horizontal spreadsheets and Gantt charts to a view of things as round, dynamic, and fluid.

S4F Solutions™ (S4F) has developed a design thinking solution arising from years of first-person and in-the-trenches experience with donors and recipients. And, we have found this interactive process serves many challenges to various public and private portfolios. “Overall, this results in a holistic perspective to develop a more customer-oriented solution, incorporating functional and nonfunctional requirements” (Vitterli, Walter, Uebernickel, & Petri, 2013).

The framework has several characteristic virtues:

· Adopted to social impact sector

· Interactive process of discovery,

· Collective intelligence consolidation,

· Lean prototyping, and

· Real-time validation and learning.

· An Integrated Framework; combines systems thinking with agile design thinking, lean human experience, human-centered design, implementation & change management, growth hacking and.

S4F Solutions™ abhors linear and horizontal projection and performance. It opts for a spiral or helical concept. The metaphor does a better job at suggesting the interplay of functions and participants as well as its dynamic. Viewed from one plane, the cogs of sequential mechanical gears move the process (Figures 1, 2, & 3).

Figure 1: Illustration of Design Thinking integration with Agile implementation ©Asaad Taha 2014.

Figure 2: The helix/spiral provides a multi-sector, multi-function, and multi-dimensional dynamic.

Figure 3: This illustrates the movement of energy from left to right converting resources and intentions into human-centered results.

Perceived from another plane, you see the flow of collective synergy of forces and players combining to realize some well-intended outcomes (Figure 3). The helix illustrates a dynamic geometry facilitating exploration and experimentation by engaging participants to work in forums including design thinking sessions and collective intelligence workshops. Increments reiterate looping back to a continuum of progress, self-assessment, and improvement (Figure 2).

This is a more fluid process than the typical illustrations with chain links or block rows. It opens invaluable opportunities to observe real-life situations, to exchange rapid modeling and

prototyping, to provide faster feedback loops to the prototypes from customers and designers, and to revise prototypes to meet the needs of stakeholders.

Design thinking has proven an agile way of creating quality products and reimagining solutions that fit purpose and context. In this case, S4F Solutions™ prototyping features a spiral, risk-driven, solution development process based on the unique risk patterns of a given project. The spiral guides stakeholders through an evolutionary prototyping process.

The primary goal of evolutionary prototyping builds a structured model and a means of evolutionary refinement. The evolutionary prototype once developed becomes the heart and soul of the new solution and an incremental building process. Employing evolutionary prototyping produces a system that is continually rebuilt and refined. Prototyping is an agile way to test assumptions, learn more about customer needs, and improve ideas.

The S4F Design Thinking & Strategic Alignment Solution™ strategically empowers partners to align every executed initiative from the design phase to the delivery stage. This design thinking approach is outcomes-oriented and grounded. It uses base-lining, benchmarking, incremental sprinting, and SMARTER (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound, Evaluated, and Reimagined) (Vinestock, 2019). These essential components form a solid foundation for sustainable-benefit realization and incremental evolution.

An accurate alignment road-map

The development of an accurate alignment road-map — on the heels of the design and execution phases — ensures synergy of initiatives, coherence, efficiency, and effectiveness. The alignment road-map not only help donors to achieve their goals, but it also guarantees initiative synergism for amplified impact. Adopting a holistic system thinking and strategic approach is the antithesis of a parallel or silo-based approach, generating a collective impact and preventing antagonism.

S4F Design Thinking & Strategic Alignment Solutions™ further supports partner organizations by grounding initiatives on root-causes, evidence-based theory of change (ToC), and subsequent actions. It is designed to secure solutions to complex challenges quickly, whether it is service re-design, program/project development, or strategic transformation. The approach allows partners to challenge assumptions, learn early, and adapt fast.

Stakeholders purposefully engage during the planning design phase since their involvement is crucial. Stakeholders must have a share in the vision status, problem root-causes, assumptions, or identified solution during the design process. Early ownership of the process outcomes creates buy-in and reduces the risk of failure and cost escalation.

If you have a project, program, or idea to bring to life or redesign, S4F Solutions™ offers clients various evidence-based prototyping processes, roll-outs, and scale-up methodologies. To learn more, you can contact S4F Solutions™.

Works Cited

Boehm, B., & Turner, R. (2004). Balancing Agility and Discipline: a guide for the perplexed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

De Jonge, M. (2019, Jan. 7). Combine Design Thinking, Lean Startup and Agile? Beware of Waterfall in disguise! Retrieved Mar. 24, 2019, from Medium:

Dijksterhuis, E., & Silvius, G. (2017, Jan. 4). The Design Thinking Approach to Projects. Journal of Modern Project Management, 4(3). Retrieved Mar. 31, 2019, from Journal:

Hambeukers, D. (2018, May 19). Why Design Thinking Is Taking The World By Storm. Retrieved Mar. 25, 2019, from Medium:

Link, P., & Lewrick, M. (2014, Mar. 24). Agile Methods in a New Era of Innovative Maagement. Science-to-Business Marketing Conference. Retrieved Mar. 27, 2019, from

Reuven, C. (2014, May 13). Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2019, from Forbes:

Underwood, B. (2015, Fall). Balancing Agility and Discipline, A Guide for the Perplexed. Retrieved Mar. 29, 2019, from

Vinestock, L. (2019, Jan. 18). Why You Need To Start Setting S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Goals In Life. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2019, from A Conscious Rethink:

Vitterli, C., Walter, B., Uebernickel, F., & Petri, C. (2013, Mar. 27). From Palaces to Yurts: Why Requirements Engineering Needs Design Thinking. IEEE Internet Computing, 12(2), 91–94. doi:10.1109/MIC.2013.32

Yalcinkaya, M. (2017, Dec.). Understanding the Technical and Cognitive Challenges, and Closing the Gaps in Architectural, Engineering, Construction-Facility Management (AEC-FM) Standards. Aalto University. doi:DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.26724.01923

A Social Entrepreneur | Futurist|Principal Advisor @ S4F™ Solutions™

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