“Ideas need to be brutally tested”….. So says the teenage idealist.
This was part of a conversation with my son during a 5 hour road trip along the mystical A470. He is studying product design.
I must admit, the ‘teenage idealist’ part of me very much liked that proposition. It sounds very dynamic and action orientated.
When I asked, “what exactly do you mean by brutal”, it was like lighting a firework. I was treated to an explosion of exactly how an idea gets treated in the world of student product design:
- ‘you strip the idea right back to its very core to make sure it works’,
- ‘you constantly evaluate and check, does it meet the design requirements?’,
- ‘you add nothing unless it gives extra value’,
- ‘completely honest peer evaluation is critical’,
- ‘you test and discard what doesn’t work, you refine, you test again’.
- ‘you need brutal testing to make sure that only the best products find their way into the harsh reality of the marketplace’.
A brutal process indeed.
The (sad) reality of brutally rejected Ideas. The small pile of cardboard prototypes I’d seen on my Son’s desk, now made a lot more sense. They were a the consequences of a brutal selection process, rejected ideas. It was quite sad, some of the prototypes looked like good fun.
There had obviously been a far bit of effort (physical and emotional) in getting them to the point of rejection. It’s a tough life as a product design student.
I’m not sure if I have that level of emotional resilience to cope with having my cherished ideas being kicked to pieces, even if it is supposed to be ultimately helpful. It needs a certain sort of mindset.
Who ‘brutally’ tests ideas? The conversation got me wondering about the design of public services. It’s only in recent years I’ve heard people talk about public services being ‘designed’. Before that they must have just ‘happened’.
However, I’m not sure if we are using the word ‘design’, in the same way that a product design student would recognise it. The part I think is missing is the process of ‘brutally’ testing many ideas before you choose the best one to develop.
I do worry that when ideas and solutions to a problem are looked for, only very few possibilities are ever considered. These are frequently; the most obvious, ‘first thing we thought of’, or variations of things that have been done before. There isn’t much that is really new.
Just to compound the effect, when it comes down to ‘options appraisal’ (testing the ideas), this is far from brutal. In my view, any evaluation process that accepts ‘do nothing’ as a realistic option, is a bit of a sham. ‘Do Nothing’ = ‘lets pretend we have many realistic ideas and throw this one in for dramatic effect’.
There seems to be a lot of ‘mushy consensus’ dominating what gets done.
But ‘brutal’ is bad. In the polite world of public services, ‘brutal’ is very bad. Rightly so. But I do wonder if we could do with a bit more rigour in evaluating ideas, options and proposals. Maybe it would work if we adopted other processes we know and happily accept, like procurement or post project reviews?
- Procurement. We all know and love this. Set out what you require, ask some people if they would like to bid for it. Brutally appraise their bid against some set criteria. We could easily apply that approach to testing ideas.
- Post Project Review. A bit like the procurement process but done after the event. The project is appraised against some carefully chosen criteria to see if it was up to scratch. Unfortunately, if you get it wrong, this can feel like the vultures picking over the bones of a once mighty beast of the Savannah (brutal).
Why not apply to ourselves what we happily do to others?
Take out the sting with Ritual Dissent. This is another approach for testing ideas which does a rigorous job and doesn’t upset people too much. I was taught it by Dave Snowden and have used it on several occasions. The idea is that you ritualise the process of testing an idea, and also use active listening techniques. Read more here. I have had some great results using it.
Unfortunately the phrase ‘ritual dissent’ does cause a bit of anxiety. A shame really. If we used it a bit more widely; we might encourage a few more ideas and test them a bit more rigorously.
Finally. Brutal is bad, but in the long-term the alternative of ‘mushy consensus’ with no rigour is probably worse. A relevant Peter Druker quote: “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” It’s all about picking the right idea.
So, what’s the PONT?
- The first ideas that emerge aren’t necessarily the best. The best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas.
- Rigorously testing many ideas will help to find the one that works best in the circumstances.
- ‘Brutal’ evaluation happily gets applied to areas like procurement. Why not apply the approach to service design?
Picture Source: The Post Project Review Vulture.
Thought provoking as ever. I had wondered what you’d been talking about during that drive. I thought it must have been more than just “Don’t forget to wear your vest, Son”!
‘Brutal’ evaluation of an idea can work very well when you’ve got a clear specification for what you want to achieve. How often is that available in public services? I’d imagine it’s more likely to be available when it’s a genuinely new product than when it’s something that’s been delivered continuously, more or less well, and repeatedly refined, since Gladstone was PM.
I’d like to chip in to support ‘Do nothing’ as a realistic option. Terrible things have been done by people who think they have to do something, whether it helps or not.
I’m with you on the lack of working towards a clearly defined specification. That does seem to be the big difference. My Son and his fellow students have very tight specification of what they are trying to achieve, a relatively straightforward objective.
With the complexity of lots of public services there often isn’t that clarity.
I would however suggest that in these complex situations, a good approach would be to try lots of safe to fail experiments of pilots, all run in parallel. Good old Trojan Mice.
The trick is to evaluate what’s happening, learn from them, kill off the ones that don’t work and scale up what does.
A bit like the prototyping activity of the product designers (I think, unless I am being a bit daft).
The point of the post was, I just don’t think there is enough of that rigorous, systematic approach around. To much is a bit mushy. But I guess you might expect me to say that having spent lots of my early working life hanging around clever scientists.
On the do nothing option. I agree that there is always a place for this. I was just being a bit provocative to challenge a bit of custom and practice where it can be a bit of a lazy option, ‘for dramatic effect’.
Thanks for the comment
Great to catch up again after so many years
[…] I remember reading a lovely post by Chris Bolton about a long car journey he made with his son where he seems to have had the same thrill of learning something profound from a…well let’s be honest…unexpected source. (It took me a while but I found it here.) […]
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