Serious Play
I recommend Michael Schrage's book, Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, to people who are interested in the process of innovation and how to improve that process in their company. He examines many aspects of prototyping and describes how they fit into the innovation process. The increasing availability of inexpensive, quick-to-create computer-based prototypes makes understanding this process important.

Disclaimer: Like with many commentators of the high-tech scene, I've known Michael for over 15 years, from when he first interviewed me about spreadsheets. He used material from some of his discussions with me in the book, and treats me and my work very kindly in it. Nevertheless, I think it's really important even if I wasn't mentioned at all in the book.

The topic of this book is very dear to me. Ever since my father first taught me as a child to prototype things before I built them, simulation has been a major part of my career. I still remember him explaining the virtues of making a prototype. He was a printer who learned to mock up brochures and newsletters before he printed them to make sure his customers knew what they'd get. I applied the technique when creating the spreadsheet, itself a prototyping tool, going through several prototypes before Bob and I built the real thing, learning a lot from each. The need for more types of people in software development to be able to prototype user interfaces brought about Dan Bricklin's Demo Program, a product I wrote in the mid 1980's that was successful because rapid prototyping is so important. To this day I'm getting emails from people telling me how a prototype made with Demo helped them fund a product or create an interface.

Tom Peters wrote the Forward to Michael's book. In it he says: "In short, I love this book!...Schrage's shtick, rapid prototyping, sounds like a third-order innovation tool. Not so, Schrage argues persuasively. Rapid prototyping is the cornerstone, the cultural fountainhead of the innovative enterprise...Serious Play is simply the best book on innovation I've ever read." The strength of that recommendation (in addition to Michael's request to please read it) spurred me on to make sure I read the whole thing.

Here are some excerpts from Michael Schrage's book. He uses many quotes and valuable anecdotes to support his statements. The "war stories" are well worth reading, and I won't repeat them here. Suffice it to say that I have been using them as examples to illustrate points since first reading them.

The book starts out with some background in the Preface. Michael was researching the psychology of collaboration at the MIT Media Lab when he realized that "...the notion that more or better communication was the essential ingredient in collaboration was false; what was needed was a fundamentally different kind of communication." This kind of communication was around a "shared space", and the shared space was the prototype. Describing the nature of this "shared space", and showing how necessary it is to innovation, is the task of the book. [pg. xvi]

Despite calling prototyping "Serious Play", he says that "...prototyping is probably the single most pragmatic behavior the innovative firm can practice...Serious play turns out to be not an ideal but a core competence." It is about "...improvising with the unanticipated in ways that create new value...The ability to align those improvements cost-effectively with the needs of customers, clients, and markets dramatically boosts the odds for competitive success. That is the essential message of this book." [Preface xviii, xix, pg. 2]

He quotes Fred Brooks (The Mythical Man-Month) as saying that prototypes "...can be more articulate than people..." [pg. 15]

Michael observes how, after traditional demonstrations, done after months of careful preparation, "...more often than not, the client responds, 'Well, you've given us almost exactly what we discussed. But now that we've seen it, we realize it's not what we really want. We really need you to do something different. How about...?'" More rapid prototyping with less detailed advanced specification could be the answer to the frustration this brings. "It's far easier for clients to articulate what they want by playing with prototypes than by enumerating requirements. People don't order ingredients from a menu; they order meals." [pg. 18-19]

Contrary to conventional wisdom that "innovative teams create innovative prototypes", he claims that "innovative prototypes generate innovative teams. The prototype plays a more influential role in creating a team than teams do in creating prototypes...If you look past the narrative conventions in The Soul of a New Machine, a more persuasive -- and more accurate --- story emerges: the prototype becomes as much of a protagonist as West." [pg. 28]

He devotes a whole chapter to "A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge" as an example of the power of rapid prototyping. (It was being interviewed for this chapter that brought the book to my attention.) Michael claims that "...low-cost spreadsheet software effectively launched the largest and most significant experiment in rapid prototyping and simulation in the history of business." (An apparently successful experiment, it seems.) [pg. 38]

Delving into the details of prototyping in later chapters, he states "...the most experienced and sophisticated students of organizational modeling look first for what is not being modeled." [pg. 65]

Michael quotes George Gilder about "wasting transistors". Thanks to integrated circuits, "...if you do not use transistors in your cars, your offices, your telephone systems, your design centers, your farm gear, or your missiles, you go out of business. If you don't waste transistors, your cost structure will kill you. Your product will be either too expensive, too slow, too late, or too low in quality." Michael then goes on to make his own statement: "If you don't waste simulations and prototypes, your cost structure will kill you...Ingeniously 'wasting' prototypes is therefore essential to risk management. Throwing simulations at design problems becomes vital both to detecting errors and discovering opportunities." [pg. 101]

He states that "...the real value of a model or simulation may stem less from its ability to test a hypothesis than from its power to generate useful surprise. Louis Pasteur once remarked that 'chance favors the prepared mind.' It holds equally true that chance favors the prepared prototype: models and simulations can and should be media to create and capture surprise and serendipity...The challenge is to devise transparent models that also make people shake their heads and say 'Wow!'". The right "experts" can be "...hypervulnerable to surprise but well situated to turn surprise to their advantage. That's why Alexander Fleming recognized the importance of a mold on an agar plate and discovered penicillin." [pg. 117, 119, 125]

Michael gives some ways to evaluate prototypes. For one, he states that "...the customer's perceived mean-time-to-payback, not the innovator's speed-to-market, effectively determines which innovations will dominate their markets." He relates how I attribute the success of the spreadsheet to "...the fact that financial analysts believed that the system paid for itself in under a week." [pg. 181]

Finally, he says: "A prototype should be an invitation to play. You know you have a successful prototype when people who see it make useful suggestions about how it can be improved." [pg. 208]

I found that the first few chapters seemed to go a little slow, sounding a bit redundant. As I read on, I came to understand that he really was peeling an onion, breaking out many separate aspects of prototyping in a detail that I hadn't ever realized I needed to do to explain its importance. I was wrong. This book is helping me improve my understanding and communication about how to use something very close to my heart, prototyping. I now see that one of the reasons I personally am able to appear innovative is that I'm facile in prototyping with many forms of media, and have always designed by making a rapid series of prototypes for myself and other from which I learn and try again. Many of the products I have created (including VisiCalc, Demo, Overall, and Trellix) have been ones that let me and others prototype easier and quicker (in finance, user interface, information design, and web site design, respectively).

If this review helped you decide that you'd like to buy the book, you can follow this link to the book on Amazon.com and show your appreciation by letting me get the affiliate payment. For an essay about an ethical dilemma I ran into with this practice, read "The Affiliates Ethical Dilemma".
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