Archives For experimentation

a prototyping experiment

December 19, 2008 — 6 Comments

A team of designers at IDEO have been working on ideas around Design On Time. Larry Cheng created a ‘free time’ dispenser that hands out free time in ten minute increments in the form of printed tickets. What you do with that time is entirely up to you. Nice idea, but Ted Howes and Adam Vollmer decided to try it out in the real world and took the dispenser on their Caltrain ride back to San Francisco the other day. Their story of the experiment in live prototyping is posted below. For me, getting prototypes into the real world is crucial. That is when we learn all the things about our ideas that we never even thought to consider. It does take some guts though.

Here is what Adam wrote:

Evening commuters on NB Caltrain 369 were happily surprised to be presented with free Free Time Thursday evening.  Ted and I took Larry Cheng’s 10 minute machine to the road, distributing approximately 600 minutes of free time in 10 minute increments over the 38 minute journey (that’s a 15.8:1 Free Time to Real Time multiplier!).

Reactions to our offering were mixed, ranging from excitement to confusion (in many cases), curiosity, suspicion, and in at least one case, borderline hostility.  Among the many ways that Caltrainers plan to use their free time, favorites included ‘more time with my son’, ‘more time with my cat’, and ‘more time with a bottle of wine’.  Encouragingly, the notion of sharing and re-gifting seemed to catch on, and we expect Free Time to be a popular white elephant gift this holiday season.  Several people observed that they spent up to 10% of their free time spinning the worm gear on the Free Time dispenser, but no one seemed to mind.

Ted observed an interesting viral characteristic of Free Time, that once a few passengers in a car had taken their Free Time, their neighbors couldn’t resist the opportunity to play.  In some cars people nearly lined up for tickets – in others, we got turned down cold.  In more than one instance, passengers who had previously declined changed their minds after enough of their neighbors had warmed up to Free Time.

Here’s the experiment in action:

Skepticism greets the time machine

This guy was PSYCHED for his free time

Ted delivers his sales pitch.  Really, it’s free!

Celebrating train riders bartered with us for Free Time with tasty cookies

This fellow already has PLENTY of free time.

This guy got it right away – he gave his friend a Free Time ticket right there on the spot!

Curious anticipation…

Free Time puts some people to sleep

Ted, triumphant


October 12, 2008 — Leave a comment

I spent Friday with a great group of people thinking about experimentation. The session was held at IDEO under the auspices of the Management Lab (MLab). MLab was founded by Gary Hamel and is designed to support research and experimentation around the future of management. It is a great privilege to hang out with Gary and the other smart people he invites to these events. I will leave it to Gary to publish more about the content of the session but it did get me thinking about how important it is to remind ourselves of the value of experimentation. My hypothesis is that organizations generally avoid experimentation when it comes to processes and management. In fact they positively hate it. One reason may be that it is scary to mess with people and processes and much harder to do than messing around with new technology or new products. That feels more like an excuse than a reason to me. I believe we lack processes for prototyping our ideas quickly when it comes to management. One insight that came from the day was that experiments too often turn into initiatives. Experiments are designed for learning and it is okay if they fail whereas initiatives are too important to fail. I came away thinking that initiatives are things to be avoided at least until you have learnt from some experiments.

In the interests of learning, here is another IDEO blog that publishses some of the experiments we have been up to recently. It’s called IDEO Labs.

I am a big fan of a culture of experimentation as a driver of innovation. I believe it creates the divergence necessary to create the best, and least incremental, options. I also think that if an organization relies on top down direction to achieve that experimentation then it risks missing many of the most interesting opportunities. Steve Jobs aside, large companies have not exhibited a good track record when it comes to picking the right bets and I think that is because they started with too meager a set of choices.

I was wondering what the rule set might be for encouraging bottom-up or emergent experimentation such that you end up with better innovation options without the chaos or diffusion of “letting a thousand flowers bloom”. Here is my take:

1. Assume the best ideas emerge from the organizational ecosystem, including all stake-holders not just employees.
2. Set conditions so that those in the ecosystem who are most likely to be stimulated by changing external factors (technology, business factors, consumer needs, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones who are best situated and motivated to have new ideas.
3. Do not favor ideas based on the author. Favor the relevance of the content.
4. Do favor ideas that create organizational resonance. Indeed demand new ideas gain a following, even if small and vocal, before giving organizational support.
5. Use the resources of senior leadership (the top-down bit) to cultivate, to tend, prune and harvest ideas.
6. Articulate an over-arching purpose so that the ecosystem has a context in which to innovate without top down control. (John Mackie has done a great job of this at Whole Foods)

None of these rules is necessarily easy to apply, especially for a top-down oriented organization, but I think they might achieve some pretty spectacular results. What do you think?