Prototyping as a Strategic Capability

Audree Fletcher

28 February 2018

In this guest post, Audree Fletcher, Service Designer & Researcher at Barnardo’s and former Head of Design for the Department for International Trade, explains the virtues of prototyping: crucial advice for both budding tech startups and commissioning Government departments.

The pace of change in the world means that the environment every business operates in is volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. The strategies and practices that got you where you are today won’t get you where you want to be tomorrow.

How should the modern leader respond to this modern reality?

By assuming they don’t currently have the answers they need. By acknowledging that the answers – and the questions – will change over time. And by recognising this means the only viable strategy for long-term success is the building of learning as a core competence of the business.

This is arguably the startup-way. According to their very nature, startups are open to learning, changing, and adapting.

The difficulty, then, lies in collaborating with bigger more established bodies who are slower to change. This problem is especially pertinent for tech startups working in the public sector.

Learning through experimentation – through the success and failure of business experiments – is now a strategic differentiator for all companies, institutions and organisations. You don’t have to bet big. On the contrary, the best strategists design small and cheap (and so low risk) experiments that release value (learning) to their business as quickly as possible.

How do they do this? Through prototyping.

When I talk about prototyping, most people think about Dyson hoovers.

Prototyping, at its essence, involves making something real in order to test it – and so pretty much anything can be prototyped. As a prototype is a simply experiment from which we seek to learn, the first step is figuring out what it is we hope to learn and constructing hypotheses around it. Develop criteria for judging whether or not your hypothesis has been (in)validated, then design small scale experiments to test your hypotheses.

Do you wonder if your proposition will be attractive enough to generate the customer base you need?

Prototyping can be a way of testing for an initial level of interest from your target audience. Design an experiment, specify what “enough” interest for the purposes of your test looks like, then run it and see.

When political advisors “leak” a prospective policy ahead of its formal announcement, they’re doing just that – testing the waters to see how a proposition is likely to be received by their audience. There isn’t much of a jump between these behaviours and the placing of a fake Facebook advert to test the initial level of interest in a new product.

Are you struggling to communicate and win support for your idea?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then “a prototype is worth a thousands meetings.” This is the power of making concepts real – prototypes engage, they provide clarity, they build shared understanding. Moreover, if your prototype and the narrative around it simply isn’t landing well, you can seize the opportunity to experiment with variations and adjustments, refining as you go. This is how public speakers and stand-up comedians work on their material – professionals don’t get it right first time, but they do learn each time.

Forward-thinking organisations prototype more than just product and service propositions: I’ve seen prototyping used as a problem-solving and change management tool to great effect in applications as diverse as the design of Government policies, workplace environments and organisational structures.  

Are you worried that an idea, though fine in principle, might flounder in practice?

Prototyping is a way of systematically thinking things through. Identify and test your riskiest assumptions. What assumptions – about the customer experience, about implementation, about your monetisation strategy, about your organisational capability – if wrong, could destroy the value that your idea promises to deliver?

In the 1970s, IBM had to decide whether to invest heavily to corner the market in emerging speech-to-text technology. Strategists, market researchers and even prospective customers in focus groups were convinced that the technology would be the death of the keyboard and soon become ubiquitous. Someone decided to prototype the user experience before betting the house – and discovered some fatal assumptions: not until customers were in a fake office, in front of a computer using fake speech-to-text software, did anyone realise that privacy and office noise implications that would prevent the widespread adoption of that technology. Making it real – prototyping that experience – led to a breakthrough insight that saved IBMs position in the marketplace (for a couple of decades at least).

Wondering how to scale your innovation?

Prototyping is a vehicle for implementation. The long bemoaned days of strategy consultants and c-suite executives imposing fully-worked up ideas, strategies and change programmes are over. Only 30% of transformation and change programmes ever worked anyway.

Why? Because the people who needed to work out the detail of implementation weren’t involved. Because the people who would need to deliver it didn’t understand it or didn’t buy into it. Because the wider ecosystem around the change – incentives, processes, systems, capabilities – wasn’t taken into account in its design and wasn’t adjusted in implementation. And because it’s almost impossible to come up with a complete answer at the start – no design survives first contact with reality”.

Prototyping is a way of figuring out the details – refining and tuning your product, service or system through continuous iteration until it is fully operational and delivering maximum impact.

For example, at Barnardo’s we combine hypothesis-driven design with iterative development of products and services. We work with colleagues from around the organisation – from strategy and policy through to those staff working face-to-face with our service users – to design a good enough prototype of something small but valuable. We build it, test it with users and learn from their interaction with it. We review what worked, what didn’t and then we decide what we want to learn next – begin the build-test-learn cycle once more. With each iteration, we’re testing hypotheses, refining what we’ve already designed, and adding new functionality to meet user needs. Eventually, we’ll have used prototyping to fine-tune our way to a fully operational, fully awesome service ready to be operated at scale.

Learning through failure is the quickest route to success, but this doesn’t mean that business experimentation has to be a leap of faith. The risks needn’t be reckless: risk can be measured, failure can be bounded. But you still have to be willing to fail in order to learn.

“Without learning to fail small, you will fail to learn – and eventually fail big.”

This is a crucial message for both startups and Government. Taking risks, either by prototyping your product in-house and getting it out there, or by taking a chance by doing the same with a small but ambitious startup, is the only way to learn, and through that, to make progress.

Prototyping is the critical capability for any organisation in today’s world. Use it to test the waters on a new idea, and to engage and build shared understanding of a complex proposition or concept. Use prototyping as a method for ensuring you haven’t missed anything important – for reviewing and testing your riskiest assumptions and thinking things through. And avoid implementation failure by using prototyping to extend design iteration into your implementation phase.

Still not sure? You could always prototype the use of prototyping in your organisation today.

Join us at The GovTechSummit in Paris on 12 November 2018 to bring entrepreneurs to the public sector!

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By | 2018-09-20T17:46:21+00:00 February 28th, 2018|Tags: , , , , , , , |0 Comments

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