I stumbled across an interesting TED talk the other day, presented by Tom Chi from Google (video posted below). Tom was one of the driving forces behind one of Google’s most controversial products: Google Glass. While the Glass product itself doesn’t necessarily resonate with me, the process (coined as “rapid prototyping”) that Tom describes to create Glass is undeniably thought provoking.
Tom talks through the various stages of Glass development, which occurred in very brief design phases of around one hour. By using everyday materials like fishing lines, clay, and plexiglass, Tom’s team was able to learn much more about their future product than they would have in a typical design meeting.
At the conclusion of his talk, Tom argues that rapid prototyping can be applied to any field, whether it be science, poetry, or music. One example: ReWork, a Denver-based social startup, uses rapid prototyping to develop strategies for community problems like homelessness and hunger. He also contends that schools typically emphasize learning through thought disproportionately to what can be learned through experience.
Here’s a quick recap of Tom’s rules for rapid prototyping and how they can be applied to project management.
Rule #1: Find the quickest path to experience.
Even within a rigid waterfall project framework, project managers can encourage team members to place more value on experience and data, rather than opinions and anecdotes. In the face of uncertain requirements gathering, could a small pilot project be executed to gain more customer input on a prototype process, service, or product? Trying to chart out a project schedule with 100% accuracy is increasingly becoming a liability instead of an asset in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Whenever possible, encourage your project teams to value experience over theoretical planning.
Rule #2: Doing is the best kind of thinking.
This rule speaks to the importance of a project manager having hands-on knowledge of the industry he/she works in. That doesn’t mean that as project managers we need to be experts in marketing, coding, product development, or any other technical skillset which lives in our project ecosystem. But having some degree of know-how will have a multiplier effect on our business impact outside of our PMO confines. As I’ve suggested in other articles, there is no substitute for first-hand observation, exactly where project work occurs. Prior to your kickoff meeting for a new project, invest some time in first-hand research to be the most effective project manager you can be.
Rule #3: Use materials that move at the speed of thought to maximize your learning.
At first glance, this might seem like a difficult rule to apply, especially if your projects don’t deal with tangible products. In a services environment, I might rephrase this rule as “Use project methodologies which move at the speed of your customer’s thoughts” – and the only way to understand customer thought is by capturing the fabled “Voice of the Customer”. Frequently perform experiments and focus groups to analyze how your processes and services are performing. Establish a network of customers who are willing to test out new processes before you scale them.
What do you think? In my opinion, the general principle of “doing is the best kind of thinking” is a maxim to live by, and one that has ample potential in the world of project management. Use the comment section below to share any experiences you’ve had applying any of these principles. In the meantime, I’ll be in my office’s breakroom fiddling around with some clay and fishing lines.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.
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