Dennis Zdonov

@dzdonov

Build A Prototyping Culture Or Die

A lot of businesses talk about the importance of innovation and of prototyping. Yet many companies, big and small, struggle with this in practice.

Prototyping is critical.

But the truth is, for prototyping to work, EVERY aspect of your company has to be aligned around it: people, process, product, and even sales and distribution.

In fact, without holistic alignment around a “prototyping culture,” prototyping can become more of a time drain than a benefit. So how do you make sure that doesn’t happen? The key to a successful prototyping culture is focusing on the 4 P’s.

1. People

Everyone on your team needs to accept that failure will happen, and that learning and improving is the priority.

Difficulty:

  • Nobody likes failing, and nobody likes working on something that will get thrown away.

Ways to overcome that difficulty:

  • Create alignment by giving everyone on your team complete transparency into the decision-making process, especially if it pertains to products or strategies that they might have had a hand in developing.
  • Let people take ownership of ideas and prove that they can be executed. It’s the idea/feature owner’s job to prove that his or her idea is worth pushing further, and not the evaluator’s. The burden of proof is on the owner, so they should be prepared to defend their ideas — or to drop them if their defense is insufficient.
  • Give people a chance to rotate around on functions. This will help prevent burnout.
  • Encourage people to be blunt. Help people develop their own “killer instinct” to kill things that aren’t working. After all, as Reid Hoffman once said, “With practice, killing your bad ideas will become second nature to you. And this ruthless killer instinct will clear the path toward your big opportunity.”

2. Process

Process should be optimized around development speed, and it should have clear milestones for assessing whether or not to proceed with an idea or kill it.

Difficulty:

  • Production processes are different from prototyping processes. A lot of production processes are built around maximizing quality, stability, and monetization, and during prototyping those things take a hit.

Ways to overcome that difficulty:

  • Hack together solutions with as many off-the-shelf tools as possible in order to move quickly. Using prebuilt tools and components will give you access to more documentation, community support, integrations, and so on to help you move faster.
  • Set clear expectations with your team around when progress will be assessed, and when and how a decision will be made about whether to proceed further with a concept or prototype. For example, run a review every 2 weeks. If passed, it will receive the greenlight to continue development. If it fails, the team moves on to a new idea/prototype.
  • Set clear expectations with upper management, investors, and other key stakeholders. Communicate that the product — whatever it might be — cannot be considered “production-grade” at early stages, and that you’re testing a limited set of assumptions, instead of the whole kitchen sink, so to speak. People tend to want instant results. But most things take time to materialize.

3. Product

Don’t “over-innovate” your product. Take an existing solution, figure out and keep what works, and then improve and innovate on a specific area.

Difficulty:

  • When it comes to innovating, many people tend to, either naturally or on account of ego, think too big — they want to reinvent too much. This can lead to over-engineered solutions that cost too much, that take too long to launch, and that expose your company to too much risk.

Ways to overcome that difficulty:

  • When it comes to a new product or critical platform, don’t build something just to prove you can do it. Instead, prove that you can build the key pieces first — the components you know you’ll need for differentiating yourself — and only start innovating more adventurously once those are in place. You can test and innovate faster when you’re standing on a solid foundation.
  • Remember that you don’t have to change much to change everything. Adding a “plus one” element is often enough to become the dominant player. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple didn’t release the first MP3 player, and Candy Crush wasn’t the first match-3 game.

4. Promotion (Sales & Distribution)

Products should be tested early, because eventual positioning & distribution of the product could impact feature development.

Difficulty:

  • It’s difficult to know who exactly your audience is — and how to best position your product for that audience — until you test it.

Ways to overcome that difficulty:

  • In gaming, we test many distribution-related items pre-launch: overall theme/art style, branding, messaging, icons, screenshots. This is critical.
  • How you distribute and promote inevitably impacts product decisions during development. For example, your game might have solid mechanics, but the theming is too narrow (ex: sci-fi, space exploration, etc.). When that’s the case, the product is effectively compromised. But you can fix that with the awareness gained through testing. It might lead to the knowledge, for example, that you need to change your visual style, or your core feature set, to appeal to a broader audience.

At the end of the day, prototyping successfully — and, in turn, innovating successfully — is a multifaceted process that requires nuance, thick skin, and cultural alignment.

It comes down to mindset and to strict, diligent adherence to a set of principles designed specifically to cultivate a prototyping culture.

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