Are the Ideas You’re Prototyping the Ones You Really Need?

Originally posted on

Spoiler Alert: This post has been stripped of all jargon and confusing methodological taxonomies in order to protect its meaning. An attempt has been made to communicate at the cutting edge of common sense.

We are now aware that the world is different than it looks from the window of a high rise, that five-year plans last a year at most, that ideas are best developed in quantity then prototyped to see what works before investing in them, that everyone with responsibility to make the enterprise or product a success should be in the room to imagine it.

This is all great news. And an important evolution from the past where hierarchy, control and long range plans governed the development of new ideas. 

Directed Creativity

One thing I’ve observed is that it’s easy to become drunk with the thrill of generating ideas, with the promise that collaboration holds and the learning and precise refinement that prototyping makes possible. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and we can become idea-happy: just coming up with cool stuff because it’s fun to do.

And process happy, which means that it’s easy to lose direction. With multiple collaborators involved and with a multitude of ideas on the table, it takes a bit more work and a good deal of discipline to keep the ship headed where you want to go.

It is surprising how often organizations go off track, or go around in circles, repeating the same attempts to move forward. They have difficulty making what have become too many parts or components or programs or phases add up to a whole that resembles what they set out to make.

The simple logic here is one that I use to help big organizations, entrepreneurs and grad students create the conditions for maximum creativity and collaboration while still maintaining the discipline and momentum to get where you’re trying to go.

  1. Define a north star. Keep it on the wall or on your forehead.

What is the highest order definition of where you want to go with your enterprise. This does not mean “to end poverty in the world,” “to fix food systems,” “to end injustice” or anything else that is noble but too big and abstract to act upon. Nor is it “to launch a successful product,” “to plan a kick ass marketing campaign,” “to bring communities together” or anything else that is tactical and does not include the outcome you want to achieve by doing any of those things.

“With multiple collaborators involved and with a multitude of ideas on the table, it takes discipline to keep the ship headed where you want to go.”

The north star has to be specific enough to act upon and measure whether or not you’re getting there, big enough to hold the a purpose that will excite you (and all those you count on to be in it with you) for a long time. For example: “We will be the first company to make buying green products the new normal.”

  1. Identify the conditions that need to exist in order for you to reach that north star.

What needs to be true? What needs to have changed? What needs to exist that doesn’t now? Who needs to be involved? This takes some thinking but is worth it.


For example:

  1. We have to be big enough to create a tipping point in the (name a geographic or other boundary).
  2. We have offer products at a price that everyone can afford.
  3. Our offerings have to be broad enough to cover all categories of need.
  4. What do you need to do or make in order for those conditions to exist?

What products, plans, actions will you take to achieve those conditions? This could include a product, a marketing plan, a new state of mind for your customers, a new organization for your company. For example: What are the specific items and actions it will take to meet the conditions above?

  1. What are the criteria for the things you’ll make or do in order for them to be successful?

For each thing you need to make or do, write the characteristics it has to have, or the qualifications. For example: What performance and cost characteristics do those products (or services) have to have? This is where you will also develop the indicators for success for each action you take or thing you make.

  1. How do all these elements fit together to make a system?

Draw a map of how they are related, how they influence each other. Map even the invisible things, they are often the most important for the enterprise’s success. For example: What’s the system look like when it’s finished? Who are the retailers, distributors, and manufacturers—what are the products?

Now create ideas that meet those criteria that accomplish the things that need to be true in order to get you to your north star. For example: Go crazy inventing amazing products.

This strategic path ensures that everything you devote time and energy to is an important component of helping you accomplish your ultimate goals—that everything you do is part of the same system.


Creating a disciplined idea-generating culture

Sometimes organizations fall in love with cool ideas and find that they aren’t moving past the idea or prototype phase. This happens when idea generation sessions are not framed by the questions or needs that are critical to the organization. Usually if something doesn’t get implemented it’s because it was non-essential or didn’t fully answer the brief in the first place.

A culture of prototyping is a culture of making and doing. It’s being willing to share an idea when it’s still only a spark or a hypothesis, being comfortable thinking in public before you know if your idea is a good one. A culture that is based on this is a trusting culture; one that is comfortable letting ideas emerge from a process instead of trying to plan everything in advance.

But a culture of prototyping needs to be questioned and evaluated all the time to make sure that what is being prototyped is what is needed.

One of the critical elements of the design process is critique. It’s powerful when done with care, and with detachment. (Detachment is the ability to step back from your own ideas and evaluate their quality or strategic rightness.)

In traditional businesses, there is a fear of showing things that are in process—a pressure to make sure things are perfect before revealing it to your boss or presenting it to colleagues.

Landing truly new ideas, the ones that will move your enterprise forward, requires the ability to be vulnerable, playful, disciplined and tough minded, all in the right order.

Sometimes we fall in love with a new technique or process, and we leave behind our basic instincts to question, and our common sense. Some things we already know are worth remembering.