Prototyping Innovation


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Having an innovative idea is not the same thing as doing innovation. Obviously we need the idea, but the measure of innovation is on the “product” of the idea. Doing innovation is the rally cry. And like most things, winging it only gets you so far.

The terminology is somewhat new to the community sector but clearly is not a new concept. A prototype is a model or an example built to test a concept or process and/or to act as a thing to be learned from and/or replicated. It is designed and implemented in order to appraise a vision of a new or better idea or option and serves to provide specifications for a real, working system rather than a theoretical one.[i]

Prototyping models of a human service program or system or community development approaches is important because new models or major innovations cannot be fully articulated at the onset, much less be optimally successful without testing, experimenting, evaluating, and correcting issues or even failures along the way.

Many years ago I was a furniture maker. We decided to design a better way to fasten table legs to table tops. Our process was fairly sophisticated in terms of tracking our experience with different woods, fasteners, table skirts, hardware, cutting tools, glues and so on. Basically we would build a table based on one our ideas and then set out to see what it would take to break our method (i.e., we set out to destroy the idea now that it was in 3D. We probably broke 50 tables before we landed on the fastening system and process that was most effective. In other words, we had 50 failures before we were successful.

This is not uncommon of course. I read somewhere that Hewlett-Packard abandons 600 ideas before it finds one to pursue A major point of prototyping is not to avoid failure but rather to understand it.

Prototyping can be particularly helpful when addressing complex issues and people. By experimenting, assessing and adjusting along the way, the model or program can mature in an iterative manner rather than being expected to get everything right from the get-go.

Some argue that prototyping is more expensive than a fully operational model. I suggest that while the cost of prototyping is not small, the investment has a significant potential to create a cost-effective, fully operational model that maximizes its impact in community.

Prototyping is a way of containing the risk when seeking solutions to help vulnerable people. One could argue that when innovating services for vulnerable populations that prototyping is an ethical imperative.

User Design principles are helpful frames for prototyping innovation. Gould and Lewis (1985) offer the following in their book, Early Focus on Users & Tasks.

“First, designers must understand who the users will be. This understanding is arrived at in part by directly studying their cognitive, behavioral… and attitudinal characteristics, and in part by studying the nature of the work expected to be accomplished.

“Second, early in the development process, intended users should actually use simulations and prototypes to carry out real work, and their performance and reactions should be observed, recorded, and analyzed.

“Third, when problems are found in user testing, as they will be, they must be fixed. This means design must be iterative: There must be a cycle of design, test and measure, and redesign, repeated as often as necessary.”

Innovative Space created with IdeaPaint, an innovation that allows us to turn our walls into easels.

We Need Innovation Space
I wrote in another article[i], that innovation space is required in which routines, history, and best practice are welcome but not as confining forces to limit free thinking and the collective generation of new, if not radical ideas. In other word it is an open space for taking chances, postulating the wild dream, mixing colors together never before mixed and not being chastised or disciplined for experimentation that ends up failing.

It is a space that desires the view points of the boat rockers, the lone ranger, and the outliers, while also enabling collaboration, group think, and collective sense-making. Here is where true dialogue occurs purposed to explore and understand before running to the gates of resolution or submitting our minds to the machinations of logic models and unrealistic expectations of ordering actions into a matrix of outcomes and indicators. All that is for later.

Of course the space cannot be created unless accompanied by the time required to enter it and the resources needed to support the space and the people working in it.

Innovative Purpose
Innovation is a response – whether to a problem or crisis, a possibility or opportunity, or an issue or trend that poses harm to the organization. To seek out innovation necessarily means we wish to journey beyond the status quo because we have determined or at least sense that the status quo will not serve us well.

Acting on such purpose also requires discipline. We have to ask key questions like:

  • What isn’t working and what do we envision will work. Do we require a new theory of change in order to craft new actions?
  • What are we doing and thinking that inhibit our progress toward our desired or anticipated future?
  • Are we seeking to produce the right results for the circumstances we are trying to address? If our clients are failing is it because of us, a system, them or a blending of all three — and then how do we adjust our strategies, programs and actions accordingly?
  • How might we alter or reinvent our functional work, whether to streamline, save money, enhance quality, add to our business intelligence, and so on?

Such questions and others like them are not for leaders and management to address and resolve. Instead it is their job, if not innovative mandate, to create the space and conditions for everyone involved to ask and address such critical questions.

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[i] See “The Way of Innovation” on my blog at

[ii] 1 Adapted from narrative on Wikipedia,

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mark Holmgren
Mark Holmgren Consulting
Mark Holmgren is committed to helping non profit organizations and local governments build capacities for new visions. Mark does this through the provision of custom designed strategic services that fit an organization's culture as well as its aspirations.


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