Can rapid prototying work for your creative project?

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The open source community has a phrase for the principle of rapid prototyping: “Release early, release often.” The theory is sound: Don’t wait until a project is perfect to share it. Instead, keep producing work so more people can experience it, react to it, find bugs, and improve it.

But does the principle also work in a creative environment? Ideas are fragile. Their merit is judged not just on the idea, but the quality of the execution. Often they need to be protected just to get that far. All it takes is one naysayer to sweep the legs out from under your idea.

Often our tendency is not to share an idea until we think it’s ready. We think one more round of revisions will give it a better chance of success. Or we worry that someone will steal our idea and improve it before we can. So we hold back.

The open source development model operates differently. The model has shown that your project stands the best chance of success if you create with your customers, and particularly if you build a community of participants around your project.

Even in a creative environment, the early stages of a project may just be the best time to share. Here are few reasons why:

1. The goal of a project isn’t just adoption, but participation.

When a project feels too finished, it becomes that much harder for would-be contributors to find a place to jump in and participate. It feels like the work has been done. It’s far less intimidating to engage in a project where it’s obvious that there is a place for improvements to be made.

The principle of rapid prototyping is particularly suited to an open source development model because one of your key goals is to build a community of people working to make your software better.

By producing a work that has room to improve, people might just feel the urge to improve it.

2. If you wait until a project is perfect, not only could it come too late, but it might never come at all.

Today people are creating and sharing at an intense pace. It’s possible that by the time a project is considered perfect, the world has moved on.

What’s important is not just today’s idea, but the ability to create and re-create in continuously new and changing environments. In this age currency is based on the flow of good work, not just any one individual work itself. So you need to get your work out there again and again.

You also need a strong stream of ideas to allow the weak ones to fail and the best ones to emerge. Which is why...

3. Rapid prototyping helps projects fail faster.

Often it takes an outside perspective to see the full merit of a solution. People who are experiencing an idea for the first time will offer a different point of view--one that may help your project fail faster or lead you to your next creative breakthrough.

As Robert Sutton, author and professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford School of Engineering has said, “The truth is, creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.”

Producing and releasing more work not only improves your chances of success, but helps ideas and projects that are destined to fail, fail faster. Or as Thomas Edison put it, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every failure brings success one step closer.

When you’re venturing into the unknown to solve a creative problem that by definition hasn’t been solved before, you need hope. Which is why...

4. Milestones make good motivators.

Showing progress is satisfying. Milestones let you step back and appreciate how far you’ve come and assess what you’ve learned along the way. If necessary, it’s also a good time to change direction.

For large projects that could take months or even years, milestones provide proof of progress. They may just provide the boost of hope and confidence to continue. Milestones also serve to inspire volunteers, both paid and unpaid, who are giving their time and energy toward a project.

In his encyclopedic book of business wisdom, The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence, Tom Peters urges us to “Master the Art of Milestoning.” He tells a story about spending extra money on a new treadmill mostly because it measured distances in three decimal places instead of two. He craves constant measurable progress. We all do.

He argues that all milestones are important, no matter how trivial or repetitive the task. But he suggests seeking out the sweet spot, the perfect milestone--one that’s substantial enough to matter, to merit real satisfaction for the people who’ve reached it, and to demonstrate real progress.

5. Rapid prototyping brings clients and customers into the process.

In one of my favorite books on creativity and advertising, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, Paul Arden illustrates the point about rapid prototyping when designing for clients: “Rough layouts sell the idea better than polished ones.”

In other words, design with not for.

“If you show a client a highly polished computer layout, he will probably reject it. There is either too much to worry about or not enough to worry about. They are equally bad,” Arden writes. “There is nothing for him to do. It’s not his work, it’s your work. He doesn’t feel involved.”

He adds this advice:

“Show the client a scribble.”

“Explain it to him, talk him through it, let him use his imagination.”

“Because you haven’t shown the exact way it’s going to be, there’s scope to reinterpret it and develop and change it as you progress.”

“Work with him rather than confronting him with your idea.”

And this to me is the key: When you’ve brought your client, customer, or your community along with you, they feel like they’re a part of the process. They can contribute to it. They can have their voices heard. Ultimately they can play a prominent role in making your project a success because they've been with you along the way.


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I am President + Partner at New Kind, a branding agency that specializes in helping open source and SaaS technology companies grow. Formerly Sr. Manager, Brand Communications + Design at Red Hat, and prior to that, held communications roles at IBM and Gateway. Find Jonathan on LinkedIn.


No they don't. <a href="">Here's why</a>.

@shawn Don't confuse milestones and deadlines.

@jeremyh: Sadly, many managers do.

Jonathan, thank you very much for your great article. I hope it will help me to defeat some kind-of-fear about the open development in our project. Also, it's very inspiring to me for not surrender because my earlier fails in my work in Fedora Ambassadors.

I hope you don't mind if we use a translation of this in our pretty new <a href="">Fedora Latam Magazine</a>. If you read in Spanish, you could review my translation in this page of our <a href="">wiki@fp.o</a>.

Best regards.

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