Prototype the problem

I was looking for practices that help expand shared mental model space and thinking about prototyping. I’ve always been amazed by the bridging power of hacking together something that kind-of-sort-of works and can be played with by others. Crystallized imagination, even when it’s just glue and popsicle sticks, immediately advances the conversation.

However, we often accidentally limit this power by prototyping solutions to problems that we don’t fully understand. When trying to expand the shared mental model space, it is tempting to make our ideas as “real” as possible — and in the process, produce answers based on a snapshot of a state, not accounting for the movement of the parts. Given a drawing of a car next to a tree and asked to solve the “tree problem,” I might devise several ingenious solutions for protecting the paint of the car from tree sap. No amount of prototyping will help me recognize that the “tree problem” is actually about the car careening toward the tree.

My colleague Donald Martin has a resonant framing here: prototype the problem (see him talk about it at PAIR Symposium). Prototyping the problem means popping the prototyping effort a level above solution space, out to the problem space. The prototype of a problem will look like a model describing the forces that influence and comprise the phenomenon we recognize as the problem. In the car example above, the “tree problem” prototype might involve understanding the speed at which the car is moving, strengths of participating materials (tree, car, person, etc.), as well as the means to control direction and speed of the car.

Where it gets tricky is making problem prototypes just as tangible as solution prototypes. There are many techniques available: from loosely contemplating a theory of change, to causal loop diagrams, to full-blown system dynamics. All have the same drawback: they aren’t as intuitive to grasp or play with as actually making a semi-working product mock-up. Every one of these requires us to first expand our shared mental space to think in terms of prototyping the problems. Recursion, don’t you love it.

Yet, turning our understanding of the problem into a playable prototype is a source of a significant advantage. First, we can reason about the environment, expanding both our solution space and the problem space. For that “tree problem,” discovering the role of material strengths guides me toward inventing seatbelts and airbags, no longer confined to just yelling  “veer left! brake harder!” But most importantly, it allows us to examine the problem space collectively, enriching it with bits that we would have never seen individually. My intuition is that an organization with a well-maintained problem prototype as part of its shared mental model space will not just be effective — it would also be a joy to work in.

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