The Fad Lifecycle (‘Agile’, ‘Lean’, ‘Lean-Startup’ and ‘Design Thinking’ are dead)

Over the course of time, various frameworks, methodologies, and approaches (I would call them tools with labels) have come and gone. Panaceas that promise much and purport to solve our problems, turn into fads and die, bowing out to the next wave of ‘new thinking’ and labels.

While in vogue, the people that promulgate them (usually consulting firms and ‘thought-leaders’) extoll their merits and attempt to convince the unwitting of the need to buy their tools, attend their training classes, obtain certification, and buy their books. To not do so, they warn, is to be left behind; the fear marketing hyperbole: that your competitors are already doing it – and if you don’t join them – you will be left behind, or worse, you could become the next Kodak or Nokia. Fear sells.

If you are involved in the creation of technology today, then you will no doubt be aware of tools such as ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’, ‘Lean Startup’ & ‘Design Thinking’. The various consulting firms have done an outstanding job at marketing each, with the message reaching right up to the boardroom.

Each of these tools started small, and have over the ensuing years grown into the technology creation and transformation consciousness.

The ‘Innovation adoption lifecycle’ is a sociological model created by researchers Beal and Bohlen in 1957. It describes the adoption or acceptance of an innovation. The model indicates that the first group of people to use something new are called ‘innovators’, who are then followed by ‘early adopters’. Next come the ‘early majority’ and ‘late majority’, with the last group to eventually adopt called ‘laggards’.

Diagram: Innovation adoption lifecycle. Source: CC BY 2.5

A panacea or fad can be characterised in the same way. A new tool is created, and the ‘innovators’ begin to use it. Next, the ‘early adopters’ jump in, promoting the promise that this tool is better than the last. Popularisation occurs in the ‘early majority’ through promulgation by ‘thought-leaders’ who write books, articles, blogs, tweets and give presentations at conferences. The big firms, who smell money, enter and begin marketing and selling ‘benefits’ to the ‘late majority’, and finally, the ‘laggards’ catch up through fear marketing.

When the purported benefits of the fad do not materialise, the fad begins to die, and typically, a war of words ensues between naysayers that have arisen (sometimes the originators themselves) vs hardcore followers and other originators of the fad. The cycle repeats itself when the next new tool – often the same thing just with a new label – comes along to take its predecessor’s place.

I call this the ‘Fad lifecycle’.

Diagram: The Fad Lifecycle. Source: David Joyce, CC BY 2.5 AU

Psychologists have learned that if a person is presented with attitudes or actions that are difficult for them to accept, then their defensive mechanisms kick in. It results in the person attempting to rationalise – they think of reasons to justify or explain, in a seemingly rational or logical manner, to avoid the true explanation.

Rationalisation happens in the last stage of the fad lifecycle. Fads seldom completely die out, its originators, and some of its hardcore followers who remain loyal, rationalise that ‘people didn’t do it properly’, or ‘snake oil sales people ruined it’, or in extremis ‘in time we will be proven right!’. The most common rationalisation is to point to what has ‘worked’ and ignore the rest.

What has this got to do with ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’, ‘Lean Startup’ and ‘Design Thinking’? Well, if we examine each, they are following a familiar pattern – they are all trudging through the fad lifecycle.

Agile is dead

From beginning small in the early 1990s under a variety of different guises, ‘Agile’ was born in 2001 following the creation of the Manifesto for Agile Software development. Since then it has gained in popularity, progressing through the stages of the fad lifecycle.

Today, ‘Agile’ is in no doubt mainstream, with both the late majority and laggards embarking on ‘Agile’ transformations. Some of these endeavours are happening beyond the confines of its roots in technology development. Fuelled by ‘thought-leaders’ (sales people) who promise that ‘Agile’ is the antidote to outdated command-and-control hierarchies and bureaucracies, they recommend that it should be implemented across the entire organisation, thus going way beyond the original intention of a set of values that were created for Agile Software Development.

Unfortunately, popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to results. ‘Agile’ is now teetering on the edge of the ‘Fad begins to die & rationalisation begins’ stage of the fad lifecycle.

‘Agile’ was born from frustration. The blame for the large-scale failure of technology projects had been pinned on the ‘Waterfall’ methodology, while ‘Agile’ proponents promised these issues would be alleviated. Sixteen years on since the creation of the Agile Manifesto, there are just as many technology failures as there were in the days of ‘Waterfall’. The promised panacea hasn’t become a reality.

In evidence of ‘Agile’ being in the final stage of the fad lifecycle, there is a growing number of people today who claim that ‘Agile’ hasn’t worked, has become bastardised, and that ‘Agile is dead’ – some of whom were its founders.

6point6 commissioned a survey of 300 CIOs in the UK and the US to examine their experiences of Agile and measure how successfully the principles of Agile are being applied and executed.

The research … uncovered that over half of CIOs regard agile development as “discredited” (53%) while three-quarters (75%) are no longer prepared to defend it.  Almost three quarters (73%) of CIOs think Agile IT has now become an industry in its own right while half (50%) say they now think of Agile as “an IT fad”.

Others acknowledge there are issues but are equally as quick to rationalise by pointing out the advantages that have been gained. As Jim Highsmith, one of the 17 original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, wrote:

“I’d prefer to focus on the positive – virtually no one is “starting” a waterfall implementation these days, how we’ve learned to deliver value to customers faster, how we’ve brought quality to the forefront in ways that haven’t happened before, and how we’ve improved the quality of workplaces around the globe.”

Other people claim that newer kids on the block that followed ‘Agile’ – labels such as ‘DevOps’, ‘Modern Agile’, and ‘Strategic Agility’ – will ‘do it this time’. Here we see the first stage of the fad lifecycle beginning again.

Lean is dead

The term ‘Lean’ first gained widespread popularity after the success of the book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ (Womack, Jones and Roos, 2007, first published 1990).

The book became a bestseller, the term ‘Lean’ became widely known and a movement duly spawned. It moved through the fad lifecycle, spreading not only in manufacturing but also into service organisations and technology creation.

In the West, ‘Lean’ has often been promoted as the Toyota System in a box. Taiichi Ohno, the man who developed the Toyota System, insisted it shouldn’t have a name at all lest managers expect it to literally come in a box. Ohno was quite prescient, as this was the very marketing opportunity many early and recent Western ‘Lean’ promulgators tapped into, and they did so successfully, moving ‘Lean’ through the fad lifecycle.

In recent years there has been growing criticism of ‘Lean’, the Western attempt to reproduce the innovations in manufacturing practice first developed at Toyota in the 1950s.

Two of the authors of influential books on ‘Lean’, Mike Rother and Jeffrey Liker, highlighted the lack of sustainable results in an Industry Week survey which found that:

“only 2 percent of companies that have a lean program achieved their anticipated results” 

Rother kick started the fad lifecycle again by proclaiming that what was needed was a new label called ‘Kata’, duly publishing a ‘Toyota Kata’ book along with ‘Improvement Kata’ and ‘Coaching Kata’ practice guides.

More recently Jim Womack, one of the authors of the book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ and founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute stated:

“… we need to acknowledge that our efforts to dramatically transform large, mature organizations haven’t worked and aren’t going to work, even when these organizations encounter crises.

Similarly, we need to acknowledge that our traditional ways of teaching lean methods through workshops and explaining our ideas through workbooks are at a point of diminishing returns.”

Just as Highsmith did, Womack then rationalised the failure:

“Yes, after so many years, I’m disappointed in how far we have gotten in spreading lean thinking … as a community, we will need to rethink our tactics, stick to our purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing us from staying on course.”

‘Lean Startup’, started, stalled and died

In addition to ‘Agile’ and ‘Lean’ and there are two other tools that have gained notoriety; ‘Lean Startup’ and ‘Design Thinking’.

‘Lean Startup’ is a methodology for developing businesses and products, which aims to shorten product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning.

It is described as an intersection of customer development – which offers a way to find, test and grow customers – and ‘Agile’.

In 2008, Eric Ries started the fad lifecycle with ‘Lean Startup’, duly publishing a book called ‘The Lean Startup’ in 2011. It sold like hot cakes becoming a bestseller. Ries quickly became in demand on the conference circuit.

‘Lean Startup’ advised to use a new concept called a ‘Minimum Viable Product (MVP)’, then, based on user feedback loops, make small, fast incremental changes, evolving the design into something that customers can’t live without. As Eric Ries describedThe minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.’

Diagram: Process for Lean Startup. Source: The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, 2011

Terms such as ‘MVP’, ‘Build-Measure-Learn’, ‘Validated learning’, and ‘Pivoting’ entered the technology production and transformation lexicon. ‘Pivot’ became so overused that it made its way into a cartoon in the New Yorker where a couple, sat at a table outside a café, had the caption underneath “I’m not a leaving you. I’m pivoting to another man.”

Just as Ohno was prescient about ‘Lean in a box’, so was Ries: “Throughout our celebration of success of the Lean Startup movement, a note of caution is essential. We cannot afford to have our success breed a new pseudoscience around pivots, MVPs, and the like.”

However, this is what happened. Coupled with fear marketing around ‘being disrupted’, consulting firms latched onto concepts like MVPs with feverish activity. Other labels such as ‘Enterprise Lean’ arose, piggybacking concepts started in ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’ and ‘Lean Startup’, but this time applied to enterprise organisations. Another example of selling ‘Lean in a box’. A new role called the ‘intrapreneur’ became fashionable – quasi Richard Branson’s – except they were suggested to be managers within an enterprise organisation with attributes of entrepreneurs and startup founders.

A movement had been born that quickly made its way into the ‘Mainstream marketing and selling’ stage of the fad lifecycle.

Did it deliver on its promise? Do less startups fail? Are enterprise organisations full of intrapreneurs? Or is it entering the latter stages of the fad lifecycle?

Predictably, articles appeared claiming ‘Lean Startup is dead’, ‘Lean Startup, and how it almost killed our company’ and ‘What’s wrong with the lean startup methodology?’.

Other labels began to kick start the first stage of the fad lifecycle, for example, ‘Minimum Loveable Product (MLP)’, ‘Minimum Desirable Product (MDP)’, ‘Minimum Valuable Product’, and ‘Riskiest Assumption and Test (RAT)’.

In his article for ‘startup daily.’ titled ‘Is the lean startup dead?’ Luke Fitzpatrick, who teaches startup entrepreneurship at Sydney University stated:

“Eric Ries, admitted that his theory was developed for startups particularly in San Francisco, and may not work for places outside of the United States. Ries has also said that the lean methodology probably wouldn’t work for startups like Facebook or Uber.”

Ben Silbermann co-founder and CEO of Pinterest, now worth USD 1.57 billion, said he was grateful he didn’t read Lean Startup in the early days of Pinterest because it might have convinced him to give up at that point.

‘Design Thinking’ out-thought

Lastly, we come to ‘Design Thinking’.

If we were to give an award for the best-marketed tool at the executive level, it would go to ‘Design Thinking’. In testament to this, the large consulting firms and corporations have been snapping up design agencies.

Even though ‘Design Thinking’ has been evolving since the 1960’s, it is only more recently as an umbrella term that it has achieved fame and continued to gain popularity.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Roger Martin, author of books such as ‘The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage’ helped popularise ‘Design Thinking’ moving it through the fad cycle.

‘Design Thinking’ has become so well marketed, that it is now taught at Stanford University, and you can obtain a Master of Design/MBA at the IIT Institute of Design.

Richard Perez, a Director at Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town, extols the benefits of ‘Design Thinking’: “Design thinking helps to break down silos across corporate departments. With multiple disciplines around a table, it’s possible to bring new perspectives to a problem within a structured framework for working together.”

David Campey, co-founder of Afrolabs and Lean Iterator agrees: “The hidden gem of design thinking is the multidisciplinary team,”

In addition, its proponents argue that ‘Design Thinking’ is the missing component from ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’ and ‘Lean Startup’, where ‘Design Thinking’ is the starting point before development occurs, used to identify the problems to solve – sometimes problems people don’t realise they even have.

Perez continues: “The discovery phase is critical in design thinking. Most of the work is focused on developing a human-centred understanding of the problem before going into solution mode.”

Diagram: Process for Design Thinking. Source:

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things explains: “Designers don’t search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they converge upon their proposal. This process is called Design Thinking.”

There is no doubt ‘Design Thinking’ has caught on in both the private and public sectors. In evidence of this, the stated aim of the ‘Explore Design 2017’ conference in Canberra, Australia was billed as a ‘whole of government initiative, responding to a growing need across the public sector to use design thinking to collaboratively develop more impactful policies and services.’

It goes on to state ‘… the event focuses on how we can use design thinking for developing and improving policy development and service design.’

These examples show that ‘Design Thinking’ has well and truly passed through the ‘Mainstream Marketing and Selling’ stage of the fad lifecycle.

Now widely in use, has ‘Design Thinking’ delivered on its promise of breaking down silos across corporate departments? Are results matching intent, or are previous proponents now dreaming up new labels because ‘Design Thinking’ has entered into the ‘Fad begins to die and rationalisation begins’ stage?

Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design, and an award-winning writer who describes himself as one of design thinking’s biggest supporters called ‘Design Thinking’ a ‘failed experiment’.

Nussbaum recommends that we should move onto a new label (kick start the fad lifecycle) called ‘Creative Intelligence’.

In addition to Nussbaum, other ‘thought-leaders’ have come up with new labels to replace ‘Design Thinking’ such as ‘Design Doing’, ‘Design Driven’ and ‘Product Thinking’.

Commenting on Nussbaum’s ‘failed experiment’ proclamation, in his article ‘Is Design Thinking a “Failed Experiment?”’, John K. Coyle, Design Thinking & Innovation Expert, Author and Professor of Innovation, rationalises the failure and lays the blame on the culture and mindsets in organisations:

“[I] strongly agree with Bruce that many many design thinking efforts, particularly at large organizations, failed. I worked for years trying to bring the mindset and process of design thinking to large organizations and by far the mindset element was often the missing ingredient.”

Once again, we are into the rationalisation stage.

A way out

When we teach students on Masters courses, we impress upon them the need to ask every lecturer who teaches them tools two questions:

  1. Who invented this tool?
  2. What problem was he or she trying to solve?

Students are then encouraged to ask themselves: does my organisation have this problem?

It never ceases to amaze us how few lecturers can answer the two questions. They, like the commercially-motivated toolkit sales people, usually react defensively when unable to answer the questions and assume tools have universal application. These actors have produced an army of fools with tools.

These two questions offer a way out of the fad lifecycle – it helps us recognise wrong-headed thinking that churns out fads, and enables us to avoid the trap of buying into tools that are just more of the same – tools and labels that apply the same logic that created the problem in the first place.


If you would prefer not to wait for answers, senior leaders who have crossed a Rubicon, completely re-thinking their ideas about management, who have liberated technology, and built a generative service organisation that produces extraordinary results will each be talking at our upcoming Progressive Leaders Summit at the Melbourne Arts Centre on the 2nd November.

Further articles in this series:


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