4: Prototype as if you are right. Listen as if you are wrong.

To make change in the world, we must constantly engage in a yin-yang cycle of prototyping.  This implies a commitment to two behaviors:

  1. Prototype as if you are right.
  2. Listen as if you are wrong.

What is a prototype?  A prototype is nothing other than a single question, embodied.  In a way quite similar to the scientific method, productive prototyping is about asking a single question at a time, and then constructing a model in the world which brings back evidence to answer your question.  In order to believe in the evidence that comes back to you, you need to prototype as if you already know the answer.  A strong belief in your point of view will push you to find more creative solutions to the question at hand.

Once your prototype is ready for the world, it is important to listen as if you are wrong.  You (and everyone around you) must be willing to respect the evidence that the prototype brings back, whether you life it or not.  You must also go out of your way to put your prototype in to the world.  Hiding it in a closet is only cheating the process, and ultimately, yourself.  My colleague Dennis Boyle, who is one of the world's truly great design thinkers and a remarkable product development guru, has a saying which we like to refer to as Boyle's Law.  It goes like this:

"never attend a meeting without a new prototype"

This serves to both push and pull.  It pushes you to prototype earlier and with more frequency, because you want to (and have to) meet with other people in the course of life.  And it pulls you toward a more productive state, because you can't have a meeting without having a new prototype, which means that you spend less time talking in pointless meetings and more time doing productive explorations.  Doing is very important.

There is an important build on Boyle's Law, which goes by the handle of Raney's Corollary.  Coined by another one of my colleagues, Colin Raney, his corollary states:

"you only learn when things start breaking"

The goal of a prototype is not to be right, but to get an answer.  That answer is what allows you move forward with wisdom.

When we engage in both of these behaviors, prototyping as if we are right but listening as if we are wrong, we engage ourselves in a continuing cycle of do-try-listen.  When faced with the challenge of bringing something new in to the world, this cycle leads to concrete results that have a better chance of changing the world, as they are born of lessons from the world.  As such, I much prefer the word "prototyping" (a verb) over the word "prototype" (a noun).  It is about doing.  Prototyping is how things move forward.

This is the fourth of 21 principles.  Please give me your feedback and ideas.

3 thoughts on “4: Prototype as if you are right. Listen as if you are wrong.

  1. Perhaps this principle comes later.
    If a prototype answers a single question, how do you prepare and engage the (perhaps uninitiated) audience appropriately for a productive review session?
    In my experience, all exposition and preparation aside, audiences will subjectively review anything put in front of them from the viewpoint of their particular expertise or agenda – independent of the question you’ve answered with the prototype.
    For instance, if a prototype demonstrated the answer to a question about improving vehicle aerodynamics, an audience member may ask how many cupholders are planned in the production version.
    This is especially true with disruptive prototypes that represent breaking changes from existing patterns and habits. A prototype can feel like a direct threat or criticism to an audience member whose niche intersects with the prototype’s question.
    How can the prototyper better prepare the audience and process tangential or skewed feedback?

  2. Good post. I agree with all of it. I definitely agree with Raney’s Corollary because, for structures, you can see more clearly see where the weaknesses are and where you have overkill.

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