Making it Real 2: Try it out first, save costs later

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

The NCVO Innovation Group met this month to think about the importance of prototyping and innovation.  For many the reality of prototyping was new despite having heard the word before and having a loose grasp of what it entailed.  Sean Miller (who will be posting a guest blog next week) described prototyping as ‘de-risking’ a new idea.  But what does that really mean and how do you do it?

Sean pointed out that trying to hard to get the perfect solution before launching can be death to innovation. In a recent master class on implementation, Roger Neill talked about best current practice and the value of getting feedback on ideas whilst they are still developing, being very clear that what you are demonstrating is the best thing you have for now.  Prototyping can play an important role in developing a new service or product and getting that feedback loop going.

To quote from NESTA’s recent prototyping day, “prototyping is about:

  • acting before you’ve got all the answers
  • testing and exploring an idea
  • probably stumbling a little, but then getting it right.”

By trying out ideas in a rough and ready way you can avoid making mistakes later and reduce the risk of failure.  It is not the same as piloting something, which often involves a mini launch and needs you to have developed the whole service.  It is testing out bits of it. For example, how you would market a new service.  You might mock up a flyer and present it to members of your target audience to see how it is received and whether it gets the message across before you go to the expense of producing and distributing it.  It sounds obvious but so often it is omitted leading to wasted costs or a failed service.

As Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt say in their piece on Design Thinking for Social Innovation, “Time and again, initiatives falter because they are not based on the client’s or customer’s needs and have never been prototyped to solicit feedback.”  They describe a water treatment centre in India which local people did not use even though the alternative water supply made them ill.  The clean water was only available in flagons too big for the people’s needs, too heavy for the women to carry and shaped inconveniently for the women to carry on their heads.  Prototyping the service (for example, sharing with the women a range of sizes and shapes of container and getting them to carry them when full) would have quickly highlighted what was necessary.

Thinking through the design of a new service, trying out elements of it on target customers and soliciting feedback may all seem like common sense but it is common sense that is often lacking in the race to produce something new. It may seem as if you do not have time to do it, but it is usually time well spent and avoids costs in the future. Innnovation, by it’s very nature involves risk, but you can reduce the risk of failure by making some mistakes, and some discoveries, early on.

Katherine William-Powlett’s blog

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