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  • Writer's pictureKate

Build in Steps

Every product starts as an idea followed by a long list of questions to answer. While all these questions will eventually be answered on the way to market, few startups have the resources to answer them all definitively at one time. Prioritizing questions allows a team to focus on obtaining just the information needed to take the next step.

Picking the most important question to answer first is not easy. There are many great books and schools of thought about decision making that can be applied to your prototyping strategy. I don’t prescribe any specific method myself, but I do offer two general recommendations. One – have a process for deciding what to build and be consistent about using it. Two – be able to explain your process to others. Inventors and entrepreneurs rarely have a large team of advisors at this stage, so it’s helpful to follow a clear process to make sure your own decisions appear logical in hindsight.

This process doesn’t have to be a particularly complicated. I love this quote from an interview with Astro Teller of GoogleX.

“If you’re trying to get a monkey to stand on a pedestal ten feet high and recite Shakespeare monologues, you have a choice between training the monkey first and building the pedestal.

If you build the pedestal first … you feel good. You just did something useful; you just got a little bit of attaboy. That’s why people do that. But you’ve utterly wasted your company’s money [and your time] if you build the pedestal first because all the hard part is getting the monkey to recite Shakespeare.

If you can get the monkey to recite Shakespeare, we can always build the pedestal afterwards. But if you can’t, thank goodness we didn’t spend a moment or a penny building what turned out to be a useless pedestal.”

I often encourage my clients to “Identify their Monkey”. This is the big, hairy unknown that, if they can’t make it work, makes all other work useless. In medical device innovation, this monkey can be lurking in many different areas. I've twenty examples of medical device development factors that can kill an idea below.

Note, successful product developers focus on being “innovative” in only one or two of these areas and rely on well-established processes for the others (see “Don’t Reinvent the Wheel” in Blog 2 of this series). Other questions cannot be answered with building something. If the biggest killer of your idea is an issue of market adoption, regulatory policy, or business model, don’t build until you have a clear path forward through those areas. Where you want to focus your prototyping resources are the areas where you are being most innovative (ie there are few pre-existing solutions), where you learn best by building, and the questions you are trying to answer carry the greatest risk.

After you’ve narrowed your focus for your build effort to a general area and have started breaking down the general question to smaller ones, you may find yourself with multiple questions that appear to have the same level of significance to your project’s overall success.

“Who is your audience?” is frequently the question I ask following “Where is your Monkey?”. While inventors and entrepreneurs often start building to answer their own questions, they rapidly find themselves answering to others who they want to commit to their project. These could be questions asked by investors at an investment pitch, questions from lawyers about what to put in a patent, or questions from manufacturing or design partners scoping out a potential project. The questions being answered as part of the grand overall process may be temporarily re-prioritized based on what needs to be answered to bring a particular resource on board. Inventors and entrepreneurs can struggle to land investments or bring on key team members if they are unwilling to answer the questions prioritized by others.

If your questions to answer are equally key, and you do not have a specific audience prioritizing one over the other, focus on the question that you have the resources to answer right now. While this method has led to more than a few unnecessary prototypes (Hello 3D printing enthusiasts!), it is equally destructive to put off any progress because you lack the resources for a more ideal approach. If your cousin is a great mechanical engineer (and works for free pizza), don’t put off working out a mechanism because you’re still trying to find a software programmer. If you don’t have the funds to have custom parts made, or your custom parts are suddenly three months behind in their ship date, do your best with cardboard and duct tape. “Ideal” models for product development assume that all resources are equally available, both in terms of timeframe and finances. This is rarely true in real life. Having a clear priority as to which questions to answer, while remaining flexible on implementation, is critical to maintaining forward progress despite uncertainty.

Finally, remember that you yourself are a resource and an audience, and the biggest, hairiest monkey of them all is whether this project is worth the time and effort you will spend on it. If you have systematically narrowed your unknowns to a short list of questions that you should and can address, answer the one that will keep you and your team going. No matter how much energy you may have, it is ultimately finite. Building things that are satisfying to work out, that address your own nagging doubts, or are even just fun, are a valid part of keeping momentum. This is not saying "Go Build a Pedestal", but simply recognizing that there are some parts of teaching a monkey Shakespeare that are more pleasant than others.

Early in new products, when there are so many questions to answer, it will always be better to show continuous, less ideal progress than no progress at all. The only real rule about choosing what to build is that you eventually start building something.

Reflection Three of Ten

Do you know your “monkey”? This is not an easy question and may not be answered until you have studied out a new area of opportunity closely. Beware of an idea that seems “so obvious” that you wonder why no one has done it before, there is very likely a monkey hiding in the shadows.

Whose questions are you trying to answer right now? Are you your main audience, or have you progressed to where you are now recruiting resources? What questions do these resources have that will need to be answered before they join you?

About this Series

This is the third installment of a 10 parts series on prototyping strategy. This is not about how to pick a 3D printer or get a nice finish on your painted parts, but a deeper reflective dive into the why and how we go about building the things that help us design better products. The points I focus on are not just to better align your project with some design "ideal", they are a way to manage the very real problem of every entrepreneur or program manager - build it fast, build it right, with as few resources as possible.

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