Beloved Leadership #7 - Prototype Early and Often

Beloved Leadership #7 - Prototype Early and Often

Hello! Welcome to the last of the seven practices in the Beloved Leadership series. This series explores practices that Jess Rimington and Joanna Cea identified, researched, and explored in their book Beloved Economies. These practices are how organizations achieve unexpectedly good results when tackling complex challenges.

Practice #7, prototype early and often, feels like a specific method for deconsolidating rights to design (practice #1). The concept of prototyping is prevalent in many circles: the main idea is that as early in the process as possible, you put together a model and test it in as realistic conditions as possible. The feedback from the test is then used to make the next prototype, which is tested again. The goal is to identify weaknesses and refine the model's strengths as early as possible to save time and energy that could be wasted building something that doesn’t work well. The prototype is expected not to be the final product, so there is room to explore possibilities along the way.

The business-as-usual prototyping version can involve a select workgroup creating the prototype and others trying to destroy it as a test. Sometimes, multiple prototypes are developed and weighed against each other before being refined, and then new prototypes are offered up by the folks who made the first ones. In both cases, the original prototype creation is often done in a siloed environment, and end-users aren’t introduced to the process until the prototype is completed.

Rimington and Cea’s version of prototyping early and often means that the stakeholders or end-users are involved before any prototypes are even created and throughout the entire process. Stakeholders are involved in testing basic assumptions from the very beginning. This looks like asking if the right goals are being addressed or if the right problem is the priority before any other work happens. Stakeholders also explore the plan for addressing the priority problem. It requires humility on the part of people in the helping roles to assume they may be wrong every step of the way, so the voices and perspectives of the actual stakeholders legitimately guide the process from the beginning. One of Rimington and Cea’s study subjects commented, “Assuming we are wrong helps to offset whatever biases we may be bringing in.”

The next difference from the business-as-usual way is that once a prototype is created, everyone (including the stakeholders again) work together to identify what was learned from testing and to decide the next steps. For this step, the authors offer great tips for facilitating these conversations, such as sharing reasoning in open and transparent conversations and differentiating between what was heard and what you are proposing. These practices help everyone involved shift from centering their own needs to a collective “we” perspective that considers a wider array of perspectives, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose. This collective perspective not only fosters unity but also ensures that a wider array of perspectives is considered, leading to more comprehensive solutions.

The last key point Rimington and Cea identify for this practice is to replace perfectionism with a culture of learning. This is challenging when there is time or financial pressure to make the best possible thing as quickly as possible. The perfectionist mindset keeps people from creating prototypes that are more of a draft than a final product. When fewer voices contribute to the prototype, the result lacks the nuance and wisdom of multiple perspectives. Letting go of perfectionism is crucial for workgroups to create robust prototypes that bring out the problems the group needs to address in the next prototype. Without good (sometimes messy) prototypes and a thoughtful, invested process for examining them, useful perspectives are lost, and the result can fall flat. The authors suggest that to build a learning culture, workgroups can prototype different ways of working together and test the group process (even when people know or strongly suspect that some results will be imperfect).

The process of prototyping early and often maximizes the collective intelligence of the group (it creates space for practice #5 source from multiple ways of knowing). Similarly, it opens space for feedback and contributions at all stages of the process. Overall, this process creates deep involvement and buy-in as people work together and build relationships through the work. People with technical expertise are part of the process, as well as those without, and prototyping early and often ensures that all voices are valued, fostering a culture of respect and appreciation. The 'we' perspective not only fosters a culture of respect and appreciation but also ensures that all voices are valued, leading to a more inclusive and comprehensive process.

The process of prototyping early and often is not without its challenges. It requires bravery and humility to share ideas that aren’t fully developed, and it demands deep work to move from multiple perspectives of input into a draft of possibilities. However, the intentional focus on improvement at each step and the robust engagement in the process can lead to exceptional results. This approach can free you from the regression to mediocrity that is often a hallmark of business as usual, and it can lead to more effective solutions to the challenges at hand.