Design thinking and lean startup are innovation strategies.
The paper titled “Design Thinking Vs. Lean Startup: A Comparison of Two User-Driven Innovation Strategies” examines these two innovation strategies, their common traits, their differences, and how the two strategies might inform one another or produce a third strategy.
Design thinking is an innovation strategy that uses empathy and experimentation to develop innovative products and services. The goal is to create new products and services customers want without relying on historical data that only applies to existing products and services.
This strategy connects a human centred approach with technical feasibility and economic viability. It involves inspiration, ideation, and implementation, often done in multiple iterations to incorporate feedback from customers.
As the name implies, design thinking began in the design world. It was initially developed and promulgated by the design consultancy IDEO in the late 90s. In the 21st century, significant attention has been given to applying design thinking to innovation in the business sector.
Lean startup is an innovation strategy that aims to shorten product development cycles with experimentation, iterative product releases and feedback-based validation. The goal is to reduce market risk by identifying working strategies at low cost before scaling.
The term is a trademark of Eric Ries, an American entrepreneur who wrote the book titled Lean Startup. Ries combined the ideas of agile software development and lean management. Ries introduced the concept of “minimal viable product”, the least costly product which still permits a full iterative loop to be constructed wherein the product is put before its intended users so that they may provide feedback that allows it to be improved.
Design thinking and lean startup strategies share two primary convictions:
- Creating a product or service that nobody needs is a waste.
- By gathering feedback continuously and iterating based on that feedback, a better product or service can be produced.
Both strategies take an action-oriented approach – it is better to do something small, test it and then improve it – before building something costly that may have no value.
The primary difference between these innovation strategies is the culture from which they emerged – design thinking from the design community, and lean startup from Silicon Valley.
Developing separately as they did, they have subtle differences. Lean startup is fractal in nature, as it can be applied to an entire project or any element of it, whereas design thinking is used to solve a so-called “wicked problem” in its entirety. Design thinking is particularly well suited to problems that begin with a vague definition. Lean startup begins with the business idea already in mind, although it is expected to pivot as customer feedback becomes available.
Design thinking would benefit from lean startup’s emphasis on feedback at the very earliest opportunity, even before a prototype is in place. Design thinking has more fully developed ideation techniques – the ability to broaden a search for ideas and then narrow it down to a candidate idea to evaluate and iterate.
In a 1960 paper titled Blind Variation and Selective Retentions in Creative Thought as in Other Knowledge Processes, American social scientist Donald Campbell proposed parallels between evolution in the natural world and in human creativity. Both require wide a frequent variation and selection of ideas.
While similar in approach and aims, the design thinking and lean startup strategies can benefit from each other in one respect. Design thinking is more generative of a wide variation of ideas. Lean startup is more effective at selecting ideas.
If your aim is innovation then either method is beneficial. Just remember to peek over the fence at the other method for inspiration.