We all know that kid who wants to do everything perfectly and is afraid to fail. And despite overt displays of enthusiasm for “failing fast,” corporate America is often that kid.
There’s good reason for fear of failure: Most executives are expected to simultaneously deliver short-term results (e.g., quarterly sales) while pursuing long-term growth (e.g., new markets or sources of revenue). But most companies, teams, and careers aren’t designed to reap the rewards of long-term bets, and urgency often takes priority. Even if leaders have the time, resources, and permission to take a risk on something new, they often retreat to what’s safe. No one wants to get fired for playing the long game.
Is it possible to do both? Following the Great Recession, incumbent organizations navigating uncharted waters embraced design thinking, rapid prototyping, and piloting. Once seen as activities related to launching a new business, these new ways of working have become part of a larger innovation cycle to validate and refine new concepts that have the potential to be future products or services.
Can modern approaches to prototyping and piloting help organizations overcome the fear of failure, develop resilience, and avoid big, expensive mistakes as they build more magnificent things?
Prototyping, then and now
The term “prototype” has been in use for hundreds of years and is derived from Latin and Greek words that mean “original, primitive” and “a first or primitive form.” Prototyping, as an idea, is not new.
In modern contexts, prototypes are still described as an early sample or model built to test a concept or process. A prototype is a tool that helps turn something theoretical into a real, working product or system that can be evaluated and refined.
“Rapid prototyping” became popular in the 1980s as a way to quickly fabricate models or parts. Today, the availability of design software and 3D printing makes it even easier to manufacture production-quality components for physical prototypes. Usability experts and experience designers use different types of prototypes to gather feedback from users before investing time and money in development. These prototypes can range in fidelity from sketches on paper to working digital interfaces or functioning scale models. The rise of digital prototyping tools such as Figma and InVision have made it even easier for interaction designers to develop and test rapid prototypes of apps and websites.
Prototype fidelity and complexity often have little or no correlation with an organization’s size or maturity. Companies like IBM and Microsoft have used paper prototyping to develop their products, and the federal government has suggested using paper prototypes for web development. Meanwhile, researchers, inventors, and startups are creating advanced prototypes as they develop new tools for scientific discovery.
Regardless of form or fidelity, prototyping is a way to figure out the details by designing a product, service, or system and learning what works and — perhaps more importantly — what doesn’t work.
Some prototypes are designed specifically for internal testing and never reach end users. But better opportunities for learning come from introducing a working prototype to people who would actually use it and observing their experiences. Most companies use large-scale market research efforts to test products with hundreds or even thousands of people; testing a prototype with just a few users is much different. Though prototype testing borrows from the methodologies of focus groups and design research, it’s typically a much smaller and more informal effort.
What about piloting?
Like prototyping, piloting is a way to test, iterate, and refine. But piloting usually requires a higher level of fidelity and a greater commitment. When piloting, an organization has developed a prototype that works and is taking the next step: testing it with a small group of users over time.
Pilots work best when “you believe you have an effective solution and are looking to iron out the creases and understand how it works in reality.” If the goal of prototyping is to learn, the goal of piloting is to collect data; effective pilots are designed to gather feedback, track behaviors, and document outcomes.
Sometimes a pilot will validate a concept and prototype, but even at this more advanced stage, “failure” is informative. Some organizations pilot a prototype they fully expect to discard; tearing down and rebuilding something better is part of the planned innovation cycle.
Prototyping and piloting as part of a larger innovation cycle
Prototyping and piloting are just two parts of a larger approach to bringing a product or service to life. The process is rarely linear, but often begins with cycles of research and problem statement definition. A well-defined problem statement — one that aligns customer needs with business goals — can help teams develop high-potential concepts. Ideas with potential can be developed into prototypes, then refined and tuned through continuous iteration; sometimes this means conducting more research, revisiting the problem statement, or generating fresh concepts. Once a prototype is operational and ready for more rigorous testing, pilots bring those prototypes to a small group of users in the real world. Ideally, additional cycles of learning, iteration, and development eventually result in a product or service that’s ready to launch; after a successful pilot, the organization can move forward with an operating plan.
Just as “agile” methodology has been adopted as a more flexible alternative to the linear rigidity of “waterfall” models for software development, prototyping and piloting have emerged as a response to traditional research and planning processes.
In addition to making adjustments along the way, there are other possible outcomes along this extended continuum. At any point, an organization could conclude that the idea simply won’t work. Is that failure? Technically, yes. But modest investments in research, prototyping, and piloting can mitigate risk and help organizations avoid much more expensive mistakes later on.
Learning to fail vs. failing to learn
Over the past decade, we’ve helped organizations navigate all aspects of this innovation cycle — from research, problem statement definition, and concepting to prototyping, piloting, and operationalization. Based on our experience, these are some of the most important considerations for getting the most out of prototyping and piloting:
- What’s the level of commitment from your organization’s leadership? Do they understand the need for multiple cycles of learning and iteration?
- Know where you are in the innovation cycle. Have you done the research and defined the problem? If not, you may not be ready for prototyping and piloting.
- Are you solving a real human problem? Is your organization’s understanding of the problem supported by human-centered research? Not all business needs are aligned with what customers need.
- Are you open to feedback? Are you willing to reconsider your problem statement, conduct more research, or develop different concepts? Prototyping and piloting may not validate your idea, but it will help you learn.
- Be intentional about the fidelity of your prototype; match the fidelity to your learning objectives.
- What comes next? If prototyping and piloting is successful, can you make a business case? If it’s not successful, do you have the ability to abandon the initiative?
An organization that doesn’t learn to “fail” through prototyping and piloting often fails to learn what’s most critical to making its product or service successful.