Apply Design Thinking and Agile Principles to Your Life Changes

Iterations

The beginning of a new year is often a time when people think about the next steps in their work and lives. Sometimes this is triggered by an annual performance review, sometimes by simple introspection during the end-of-year lull in work activity. Whatever the motivation, if you’re looking to make some changes, you can apply the same creative process-improvement principles that are relevant to your work life to other aspects of your life, too.

A recent NPR story detailed how an innovative approach called design thinking can help you get unstuck when faced with complex or frustrating challenges. As NPR News correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains it, “The idea is you try something very practical, something you can do quickly, send it out into the world, and then learn from how it performs. You come back, iterate, and then go back into the world again.”

Aspects of design thinking have a lot in common with agile principles, as well as some basic approaches to requirements analysis. Vedantam explained how the challenges people face while trying to make changes in their lives are similar to those faced by engineers and designers when developing novel products. He shared the story of Dave Evans, who helped design the Apple mouse and now writes and teaches about applying design thinking to life and career choices. The central question of design thinking—How do you build something when you don't know what to build?—is one that we face in many other contexts, too.

Evans says the problem with the current approach many people take for solving problems is that they’re trying to figure out the one best solution when really, there are infinite paths to success. People don’t consider their current constraints as opportunities to clarify their direction, and they likewise fail to realize that each decision changes the context of the others, leading to new options. As Vedantam puts it, design thinking “isn't about becoming your perfect self. It's about looking very honestly at your circumstances and asking what room you have to maneuver.”

Evans suggests that by using design thinking, you can learn to work within limits, see how the choices you make toward a solution affect your situation, and continue to iterate within those limits until you find a good direction. The goal is to fail early and often.

These are all methods continually employed by agile software developers, proving again that agile principles can be useful in contexts other than software development. Whether you are searching for a new career, having annual personal retrospectives, or simply realizing that “inspect and adapt” has wider applicability than software development, developing an agile mindset is something from your work life that you can continue to use in other domains.

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