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24 Jan 2013

Creative Innovation (Pt 15): Prototypes as Obstacles

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Creative Innovation

Creative Bulb

Prototypes can become the box inside of which we think.

“Once he gets an idea in his head, there’s no changing it!” As common as this comment is, it’s true for us all to some degree. It’s formally called anchoring. Such ideas can alter our thinking and feeling processes and undermine our creative efforts. In fact, anchoring is so strong that it can influence our decisions even if we know the information is wrong.

Words alone are often anchors (money vs. time; thinking vs. feeling) and set moods. When they form ideas, they are even more powerful. Now, according to Paul Leonardi’s article, “Early Prototypes Can Hurt a Team’s Creativity” (Harvard Business Review, December 2011 edition), prototypes can serve as anchors too:

. . . when people see a detailed prototype, something odd happens: They concentrate on the prototype’s form and function, forgetting to attend to any remaining ambiguities about the problem the product is meant to solve or the obstacles in the way. Instead of clarifying the path ahead, the prototype puts a halt to useful brainstorming.

Now, often we delude ourselves by exploring other options, but we sabotage them by emphasizing evidence and arguments that support the initial idea and discounting those that don’t. In short, we formulate a rationale making the initial idea best.

We can observe the effects of anchoring in our everyday conversations. The person who first expresses himself often sets the direction of the conversation because conversations often build from the most recent comments. Focus groups have to guard against alphas, people who dominate conversations, or their findings become skewed.

The physicality of prototypes (also diagrams, blueprints, plans, etc.) can do more damage to the creative process than discussed ideas. So, the next time you see or think something, ask, “Is this preventing us from seeing other options or revisiting the problem?”


Series Navigation<< Creative Innovation (Pt 14): Time Alone

2 Responses

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, Greger, lo-fi prototypes would mitigate the risk. The question is, “How much?” It would mitigate any emotional attachment to the prototype. It would still not be enough to consider the team even reasonably safe from strong anchoring influences. We would need other techniques. Anchoring is very potent on just ideas or blueprints alone, both cruder still than even lo-fi prototypes.

      In the innovation process, the lo-fi prototype would work very well as an intermediary stage between what’s on “paper” and a hi-fi prototype. It would also help to produce lo-fi prototypes of the 2-4 best – but still very divergent – themes. You are right that this would help early on in the innovation process. The more thought and discussion we can stimulate at this time the more we can reduce costly modifications as the idea moves from prototype to market and end user.

      Thank you for visiting and leaving your insights, Greger. Have a good one.

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