Innovation Through Prototyping and Experiments

I’ve talked before about the importance of experiments in the innovation process. Experiments are essential for two reasons. First, they allow us to be more confident that our ideas will work. If we run a successful small experiment, that gives us some idea of how the innovation might work as we try to scale it up. Second, they allow us to sort our ideas more effectively. If we can devise a quick and dirty way to test out an idea, it will help us figure out which ones won’t work.

This seems fairly straightforward for testing product ideas, or really anything that is based on physical existence. But how can we experiment with intangible things, like services, or business models?

Diego Rodriguez provides some ideas in a great post that is part of his Innovation Principles series – Anything can by prototyped. You can prototype with anything:

You can prototype with anything. You want to get an answer to your big question using the bare minimum of energy and expense possibly, but not at the expense of the fidelity of the results. It’s not only about aluminum, foamcore, glue, and plywood. A video of the human experience of your proposed design is a prototype. Used correctly, an Excel spreadsheet is a wonderful prototyping tool. GMail started out as an in-market prototype. A temporary pop-up shop is a prototype. Believing that you can prototype with anything is a critical constraint in the design process, because it enables wise action, as opposed to the shots in the dark that arise from skipping to the end solution because zero imagination was applied to figuring out how to run a create a prototype to generate feedback from the world.

This really points out the great flaw in not thinking about innovation as a process. If innovation is simply coming up with great ideas, then you don’t need to prototype, and you don’t need to put any effort into diffusing the ideas. The great ideas will just sell themselves. This, of course is false.

The problem is that often inventive people just want to stop once they have their idea. It takes a lot of work to figure out how to prototype it to see if it will work, and it takes just as much work to develop a business model that will get the idea to spread. However, as Rodriguez points out, we need to invest just as much imagination into prototyping as we put into problem solving. On top of that, I’ll add that we need to invest this much imagination again to building our business model.

Successful innovation actually requires three separate creative acts: one great idea to solve a problem, another idea to test it, and a third idea to get it to spread. We have to be good at all three kinds of creativity to drive innovation. This is one reason that it is a often a collaborative process.

The action point today is clear: the next time you have a great idea, invest some time into figuring out how to prototype it. Once you’ve done this, then you can start working on your business model!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Innovation Through Prototyping and Experiments

  1. Prof. Larry Leifer of the Stanford School of Design argues that students or professionals need work spaces that combine the brainstorming and creative thought generation environment with prototyping space so that you can move from one to the other in seconds as you begin to grasp a new idea. He argues if you’re further than 8-10 seconds away from being able to starting making a 3D representation of your ‘idea’ you’ll lose a critical component to capturing and examining it as it emerges.

    Prototyping is thinking with objects that you’re manipulating. They may be virtual (as in software) or tangible (styrofoam) but they need to move from headspace to physical space rapidly if they are really going to be useful.

    Cheers – Phil

  2. Thanks Phil – that’s pretty interesting. Sounds like I need to get set up with more than just a whiteboard in my office. Actually, I need to use it more frequently to sketch out ideas as they occur…

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