The next time you’re questioning your direction or priorities, try something radical: skip the long analysis of each option and jump right into making it real.
Taking an idea and creating something real and tangible that illustrates it—a simple model, sketch, or process description of something you want to explore--is a concept from the design thinking world. We’ve seen groups make an app on index cards, draw a poster-size version of a dashboard, test a new way of holding meetings, or create scenarios to walk their clients through.
You can use this visual representation or prototype to elicit quick feedback from colleagues or clients. The responses you get may lead you to modify your approach or scrap an early idea entirely. Ideas may go through multiple iterations as you refine and improve them based on feedback at each stage. Your ultimate outcome may integrate elements from more than one option.
BREAK THROUGH CHALLENGES
Prototyping is a great tool for helping nonprofit organizations break through places where they’re stuck. Here are a few reasons why:
There’s less at stake with a quick and simple prototype, making it easier to move beyond your comfort zone for some fresh thinking.
It can get you the kind of immediate, concrete feedback that an abstract idea can’t. Making a concept more “real” makes it easier for people to react to. A rough, unpolished drawing actually reduces the pressure to be too polite in a critique. You can help by asking your testers to be creative and offer improvements to your ideas.
Prototypes are really helpful in creating a framework if your idea lacks definition or constraints. They give vague ideas a shape.
You can quickly explore several high-contrast options, which will get you more unexpected insights or shifts in thinking than will minor variants of the tried-and-true.
EXAMPLE FROM THE FIELD
One of our clients was leading a well-funded opportunity to build a center for the youth they served. This center would allow them to reach many more kids and their families, create partnerships with tenants serving other needs, and dream big about long-term impacts. There were, in fact, so many possibilities that the client was stumped—where to begin?
We worked with the executive director to tease out three different ideas for key drivers of the center. In one scenario, the center would strive for long-term financial self-sufficiency. This would lead toward partnerships that were revenue-raising. A second idea was to focus on workforce readiness. This would lead to a set of educational programs from early childhood to post-secondary support and training. The third option the client identified was a holistic program for the children’s mind, body, and spirit, focusing on helping them thrive and create meaningful lives.
Each of these approaches could lead to different choices about the center’s vision, goals, and partnerships. The client and her team did some sketches to map out how each version would look and feel in practice, and used these to get feedback from potential partners to improve and refine the options.
Give it a try! Where are you questioning your direction or priorities? It could be big strategic thinking, a specific program, or even your future work. Pick something and create a very simple image of each option. You can take longer than ten minutes, but a short timeframe helps keep you from overthinking it.
Step 1: Pick ideas. Identify 3-4 options you're considering. It can be especially useful to take a couple of your first ideas and stretch them—how could they be more radical, more risky? Remember, you’re not trying to get the right answer, you’re expanding your range of ideas.
Step 2: Draw it. Engage a different part of your brain with a quick visual representation of each option: a sketch, a process design, or a map of how it would work in the world.
Step 3: Reflect. What resonates most? Why? What did you have the strongest reaction against? Why? What’s one thing you’ll take away from this?
Extra credit: Share your prototypes with a colleague or friend and seek their reaction. You can use this to refine your concepts and keep sharing them for more feedback.
For more about what prototypes can look like and why they matter, see Ideo's blog on six tips for how to prototype a service.