Rapid Prototyping: The Move Fast and Break Things Era is Over

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When Mark Zuckerberg was building Facebook, he famously told his team to “move fast and break things.” It’s a corporate motto that many entrepreneurs adopted, but is seen now as largely untenable. Even Zuckerberg has recanted, and told his employees that their new prime directive is to “move fast with stable infrastructure.” Less catchy, but also much less risky.

Rapid prototyping is an alternative approach that’s very different from that kind of recklessness where things get broken because you’re moving fast.

Rather, it’s an agile approach to innovation and digital transformation that takes the risk out of complex projects to achieve quick wins. Let’s dig into the details.

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping is a development process that recognizes mistakes and missteps are integral to progress, and moving quickly but mindfully through a cycle of trial and error is the best way to a stable, viable, and effective product.

In other words, rapid prototyping isn’t about not caring about mistakes and breakages. It’s about understanding that some mistakes are inevitable, and that it’s best to go through that learning process early and quickly so you can move more decisively to a place where you aren’t making those costly mistakes.

Finding the sweet spot

In this sense, rapid prototyping can be seen not just as a smarter way to move quickly, but also as a smarter way to build out big projects in ways that deliver quick wins and tangible results.

Compare it to taking the traditional slow approach to digital transformation that involves lots of interviews, research and PowerPoints over several months to produce a strategy.

The problem is that strategy won’t be battle-tested. Inevitably, as you start implementing the strategy, unexpected problems and complexities will crop up. It’ll take even more time and money before the strategy can be recalibrated, reassessed, and finally put into practice.

By this point, of course, a year or two has likely gone by, and the cutting-edge tech you’d hoped to adopt no longer looks quite as impressive as it used to.

While it’s easy to break things when you’re moving fast, you can also break things by moving too slowly.

And if things are going to get broken anyway, wouldn’t you rather get it over with early on, when there’s still time to course correct and realign quickly around a solution that actually delivers the results you need?

The power of prototyping

Rapid prototyping is really a way of moving purposefully toward a quick win. That starts with defining what a win actually looks like — something many companies overlook — and engaging key stakeholders early on to identify exactly what a new digital technology (or any other product) needs to accomplish to be successful.

Prototyping works best when organizations dedicate a small, focused team to manage the technical aspects of their product, and then use a clear roadmap to work their way through a punch-list of different concrete and goal-oriented tasks. Developing design and branding might be part of that process, for instance; so might developing UX around a core technology.

Once the core functionality and UX is established at an MVP level, the key is to use technologies such as Adobe XD or HTML to create simulated digital experiences. These can then be used to model, test, and rapidly iterate different versions, ironing out bugs and course-correcting before you start building out the product in earnest or investing serious cash.

The result: an agile approach to innovation and transformation that lets you kick the tires before you buy the car.

Whether you’re looking to build out an HR portal, a cloud SaaS solution, a new AI technology, or something entirely new and different, you’re able to make all your big mistakes while you still have training wheels in place. Then you’re able to move forward with far more conviction and confidence.

Ride out the squiggle with rapid prototyping

Damien Newman famously suggested that the design process can best be represented by a squiggle that starts off chaotic, then gradually coheres into a single decisive line. The same kind of metaphor can be applied to digital transformation: there’s inevitably a whole lot of chaos as you figure out what to build.

Some organizations try to make that chaos the whole ball game: they use a “move fast and break things” approach with no strategy for moving beyond the chaos or finding their way to stability.

Others try to impose stability, and move too quickly toward clarity without going through the messy process of truly finding their direction.

Rapid prototyping is the third way: it’s a methodology that lets us move fast, but do so with purpose and intent. The mistakes and missteps can be screened out early on, when the stakes are still low and you aren’t committed to a given technology or strategy — and by doing that, accelerate our journey forward.

For companies that are engaged in digital transformation — and in the current era of ubiquitous generative AI, aren’t we all? — rapid prototyping is the smartest way to de-risk complex projects, and position your companies for quick wins that translate into lasting success.