Remember kindergarten? The kind teachers, the low tables and chairs, nap time and snacks? Remember construction paper, scissors, glue, pipe cleaners and dried noodles you used to make all kinds of arts and crafts? Turns out that Robert Fulghum was right. All you needed to know you learned in kindergarten. Especially when it comes to bringing your ideas to life.
Prototyping, building mockups or simulations is perhaps one of the most creative aspects of innovation. More importantly, the activity creates a tremendous amount of insight for virtually no cost. It’s a wonder to me that executives don’t mandate physical prototypes for every innovation activity they approve. We’ve often argued that when it comes to “low hanging fruit”, the two activities that provide the most return for the investment from an innovation standpoint are trend spotting and scenario planning and prototyping.
But prototyping seems like something you’d do in kindergarten, using simple art supplies – construction paper, pipe cleaners, modelling clay, tongue depressors. This doesn’t seem worthy of your vaunted ideas or of your time, given all the other important and far more professional things you’ve got to do. Yet prototyping – creating a physical mock up of the idea you’ve discussed – will create more value in less time than practically any other activity. Converting an idea into something physical (in the case of ideas about products or tangible solutions) or a simulation (in the case of ideas about processes, experiences or business models) does three vital things in quick succession:
- It validates the definition and structure of the idea that so far has been resident in the team’s collective mind, where it may have had different structure or features in the minds of individual team members
- It starts new idea generation. Once a physical prototype or virtual experience is realized, new ideas will flow
- It identifies gaps, shortcomings or weaknesses
And it does all that in very little time, with very little investment. But virtually no one does prototyping or simulation willingly.
Oh, they’ll send the product out to be modeled by professionals. They’ll create a version on a 3-D printer. But they won’t roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with clay or glue. Nope, we’re professionals here. No time for that kid stuff. And that attitude means they miss many vital features or gaps in the idea or design.
Innovation is an immersive experience
If you buy into the idea that the best innovators are immersed in their project and process, carefully understanding customer needs, constantly generating ideas, then why wouldn’t you also expect that those same innovators would also develop early mock ups of their ideas? Why would you wait for late, formal prototypes when the team can quickly generate rough mockups with simple ingredients? The more one team pursues ideas from the definition of the need to the development of the prototype, the more experience and more insight it brings to the table. Avoiding prototyping doesn’t make you more mature or professional, it simply means you missed a chance to explore your ideas and bring an even better product to market.