I went on a Disney Cruise with my family a couple of years back, and attended a talk on Innovations (yes… I am “that guy” who attends presentations while on a cruise ship in the Caribbean ). There were a lot of fascinating stories and insights, but the one that most stuck with me was the story of Joe Rohde, an Imagineer who was determined that Disney should build a live animal theme park. Rohde first pitched the idea with CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, and his leadership team… and his idea was shot down. “Disney doesn’t do zoos” was the general consensus from the team, and Rohde walked away unsuccessful. Undeterred, Rohde returned a second time, this time armed with an amazing presentation, charts, and data and he made a compelling case for why Disney should start this new “Animal Kingdom”. The pitch generated a lot of conversation and debate, but at the end of the meeting Eisner again rejected the proposal citing something to the effect of “Live animals just don’t capture the ‘magic’ that people expect from Disney”. Again, Rohde left the meeting discouraged but just as resolved that this idea was still a winner and that he needed to bring it to life. So… Rohde went back a third time, but this time went without any slides, charts, or reports. This time, he brought a 6-Foot Bengal Tiger into the room and watched the room go from ‘shock’ to ‘awe’, as child-like wonder crossed the faces of the executives in the room. The moment was “magical”, the Animal Kingdom project was approved, and the park has been a successful endeavor for the Walt Disney Company.
The point here, of course, is not literally to bring a tiger into the board room (although I had a couple of Monday morning meetings where I could have used one!), but rather to remember the power of prototyping. How much time is wasted in an average week, debating hypotheticals and possibilities? We can easily spend endless energy arguing hypotheses, shooting holes in others’ points of view, and stalling on decisions to move forward when the substance of the conversation is solely conceptual. Taking the time to translate a concept into even a rough prototype can make a world of difference in driving real progress.
1) It brings it to life for them. A colleague once told me that I was having trouble selling in a new idea to a team because I was seeing “rainbows”, when they were seeing in “black & white”. Translating the rainbow in our minds into a tangible prototype can help bring possibilities in our minds to life for others and drive consensus.
2) It brings it to life for ourselves. To carry the metaphor further… sometimes the “rainbow”, when real, may not have a pot of gold at the end of it. Maybe what seemed amazing in our minds, is not as compelling or actionable when prototyped. Maybe there is a fatal flaw in the thinking that can be uncovered early before developmental work is done. Even better, maybe the art of prototyping will strengthen the initial concept and better bring the whole idea to life. Regardless, early prototyping helps not only communicate the idea to others, but also strengthens it for ourselves.
3) Move from a hypothetical debate to a tangible discussion… and turn a war of passionate opinions into productive, pragmatic deliberations. If there are 10 people in a room, there will be 10 different mental pictures of how an idea could come to life- a prototype can help make sure that everyone is having the same conversation about the same opportunity.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand ideas. To be clear, when I say “prototype”, these don’t necessarily need to be professional, functional, and proven… just a way to tangibly turn a concept into a reality. One of my favorite examples is the initial prototyping of the computer mouse. When Steve Jobs and Apple first brought the mouse idea to life, they used guitar wire, wheels from a toy train, and jar lids- clearly not an actionable product in itself, but this ‘scrappy’ effort brought the concept to life in such a way as to sell the idea and stimulate technology development. Taking the time to make it “real” helps the discussions go beyond ideas into actions, forces debates to go from abstract to tangible, and decisions to go from hypothetical to concrete. Go beyond dreams into actions- bring the Tiger into the room!