Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Moving from brainstorming to doing to learning

Last Friday morning, I found myself with a group of professionals hopping along colored dinosaur tracks strewn along the ground, comparing my standing broad jump mark to a grasshopper’s, and fashioning tiny hand-weights, climbing holds, and stability balls out of clay. This was all in the name of solving real problems real educators face, and it was all before noon.

Welcome to the Schoolyard Scrimmage.

No, it's not a recess brawl or a lunchtime food fight. It's a collaborative problem solving party.

The event, organized by Hi Howard of Front Range BOCES and ReWork, brought professionals from disparate fields (architecture, philanthropy, law) together with education administrators to come up with solutions to real problems using a method called rapid prototyping.

Let’s unpack that a bit. Rapid prototyping is a process for quickly testing out potential solutions and getting real feedback from real people. The central idea is that if you incorporate user feedback (or as I like to call it, real people feedback) into the design process as early as possible, and continue to incorporate it through ideation, refinement, and production, you’ll learn more and get to a good solution more quickly and more efficiently.

Google’s Tom Chi is a rapid prototyping advocate, and we watched a short video where he gave us the hows and whys. Here are a few of his verbal gems:

“Most businesses are just a big guessathon....Don’t guess. Learn.” Chi says that is may feel like guessing is cheaper, but doing is cheaper if you can figure out how to do things quickly.

Don’t fail. Learn. Start-ups like to boast about failing fast, but Chi prefers to call it learning fast. The concept of failure puts you in an uncreative mindset. Ideas that ultimately succeed are often slightly modified versions of things that, technically, were failures.

Don’t argue. Just try it. Chi recommends that if you find yourself discussing whether or not something would work, force yourself to stop talking and start prototyping.
Quotes are better as doodles, right?
Here’s how rapid prototyping works:
  1. As quickly as possible, move from an idea to a working model that approximates it.
  2. Try out the working model on a customer/user (or someone who can stand in for one).
  3. Improve your model based on the feedback and do the process all over again.
For example, you can prototype an interaction by acting out a conversation, you can prototype an information campaign by sketching it up, or you can prototype a physical solution by building it.

Easier said than done, right? At the Schoolyard Scrimmage, we worked in small, pre-determined groups and had a facilitated timeline that forced us to move from the brainstorming/ideation phase to the building phase to the testing phase. We tested and then iterated on two ideas -- so four cycles of rapid prototyping and user feedback. It was fast. And it was difficult. And it was fun.

In my group, working on how an elementary school might offer health and fitness programs in non-traditional spaces, brainstorming came easily. But rapid prototyping is not the same as rapid brainstorming. Finding the right focus that would allow us to prototype, learn, and iterate was the hardest part.

Nonetheless, the event was a success. And we all took home a new challenge: Bring rapid prototyping into our daily work. After few days back at my desk, I’ve found that this process makes sense conceptually, but has been hard to incorporate into my workflow. It’s more of a mental and cultural shift than anything else. But I have become more sensitive to times when we’re steeped in discussion rather than active experimentation, and I’ve been seeking out, and acting on, feedback as much as possible.

Whether it’s hopping along dinosaur tracks, doodling, or simply asking questions and soliciting feedback earlier and more frequently, I hope a rapid prototyping mindset will add a little color and insight to my day.

Best part: Learning - and trying - a new mode of thinking in a group setting.

Hardest part: Moving from ideation into prototyping and testing. For me, the ideation stage is the fun part. But it’s clear the prototyping and testing part is essential for ideas to succeed.

Biggest takeaway: If you find yourself guessing, speculating about, or discussing a problem, that’s great. It’s what we do as humans and it’s part of the creative process. But push yourself to find a quick and dirty way to test your guess. It’ll make your guesses go farther (and it’s also fun).

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