Close philosophies, collaborative logic, iterative approaches, the establishment of multidisciplinary teams and a constant concern to place the user at the heart of the design process: on many points, Design Thinking and Agility share similarities.

If Design Thinking is about identifying the “true” need and the solution to it (the “What”), agility primarily focuses on how to implement this solution (the “How”). Both are complementary (Design Thinking is a very good way to initiate an Agile approach). Very early on, these two approaches make it possible to ascertain via user feedback how the developed product will really meet the needs, avoiding wasted money and unnecessary effort.

If the association between a Design Thinking approach and Agile coaching is relatively simple to implement at a single team level, what is the situation in a context of agility at scale where several agile teams are brought together to collaborate? In this article, we will see how possible it is to insert a Design Thinking approach using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to make your development efforts even more effective.


A picture is worth a thousand words. Design Thinking focuses on prototyping solutions (through sketching or wireframing in particular), and is an extremely tangible and effective way of defining the perimeters and physical appearance of the product to be developed. It facilitates a common understanding and enables the alignment of the vision between the teams. By definition, an agility at scale context implies several agile teams being involved. The greater the number of teams, the more information will be shared between them, and the more crucial it will be for each team to have a clear and shared vision of the product to be developed. It’s a matter of common sense!

Thus, we can regret the all too small number of Agile teams taking the time to display on open spaces’ walls the wireframes and/or mock-ups representing the user interfaces in progress. The benefits of doing this in terms of understanding and quality of exchanges are enormous though.


Design Thinking well fits the SAFe Portfolio Backlog management where it is recommended to use a very simple tracking table (called “Portfolio Kanban”) representing the main steps to design, develop and deploy a new Epic.

Six steps make up the Kanban Portfolio: “Funnel” (list of Epics), “Reviewing” (first level of analysis of Epics), “Analyzing” (higher level of analysis of Epics were decision to invest or not is made), “Portfolio Backlog” (Epics that will be done), “Implementing” (Development of Epics), and “Done” (Epics done).

It is mostly at the “Analyzing” stage that organizations decide to invest (sometimes several million euros) or not in an Epic. It is therefore recommended to make an informed choice. Consequently, performing a Design Thinking session to test the feasibility and desirability of an Epic at a macro level is a reliable, fast and cost-effective option to ensure that what we intend to develop is in sync with the real needs of the users. With the Portfolio Kanban, the “Reviewing” and “Analyzing” stages will be particularly adapted to host Design Thinking sessions to optimize, once again, the development efforts.


At a more micro level, SAFe evokes “Continuous Exploration”, which is the process of continuously exploring the needs of the market and users in order to define a vision, a roadmap and a set of “Features” to meet these needs. “Continuous Exploration” is the first step in the continuous delivery pipeline of an Agile Train structured in four parts and followed by “Continuous Integration”, “Continuous Deployment” and “Release on Demand”.

With Continuous Exploration, teams are invited to issue “Outcomes hypothesis”, initiate a Collaborative Design approach, build a MMF (Minimum Marketable Feature) and evaluate the MMF against the hypothesis. More than ever at this stage, the adoption of a Design Thinking approach will be particularly judicious. SAFe has well integrated this connection by replacing the term “UX” (used in version 4.0) by the term “Lean UX” in version 4.5 (In his book “Lean UX”, Jeff Gothelf encompasses Lean Startup, Design Thinking and Agile development to define the concept of “Lean UX”).

In a context of agility at scale, Design Thinking seems particularly suitable. Whether it is to align the vision of all the teams involved, prioritize the Portfolio Backlog or define the Features more precisely, it is a cost-effective, reliable and collaborative approach to reduce your time-to-market and create deliverables with high added value for users. We can therefore only rejoice that SAFe has fully grasped the strength of this combination by going so far as to specifically reserve an iteration (“Innovation and Planning Iteration“) for each Program Increment (“PI“) to enable teams to innovate. But beyond the theory, it is now up to large organizations to take over and to operationally implement this winning combination within their teams as it will increasingly become a strategic imperative in the ultra-competitive and disruptive markets of tomorrow.

Adrien Hembert