“The simplest & easiest form of prototyping is a conversation”

That’s a quote from Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, an excellent book that applies design thinking to life decisions, particularly career choices. Yet the quote could actually apply to any step you want to take.

A process for problem-solving

The book is based on a course the authors taught at Stanford University. Bill Burnett was the head of the Stanford Program in Design, and Dave Evans was teaching at UC Berkeley, including a course called “How to Find Your Vocation.” They combined their interests and experience to use design thinking - “a method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions” - to help students design their life after university.

Throughout the book, they advocate the use of prototypes.

“Prototypes should be designed to ask a question and get some data about something you’re interested in. Good prototypes isolate one aspect of a problem and design an experience that allows you to “try out” some version of a potentially interesting future.” 

As an example of what happens when you don’t prototype, they told the story of Elise. 

Don’t do this with your life

After a long career in Human Resources, Elise was ready for something different, and she knew exactly what it would be: an Italian deli and cafe that served “wonderful coffee and authentic Tuscan food.” She had visited Tuscany and loved the food and cafes there, and she dreamed of creating something just like it.

“She had saved enough to get started, collected all the recipes she needed, researched the best place near her home to locate such a business, and did it. She rented a place, totally renovated it, stocked it with the best products, and opened to great fanfare. It was an immense amount of work, and it was a roaring success. Everyone loved it. She was busier than ever. And in no time she was miserable.”

She liked the idea of an Italian deli and cafe, but didn’t know what she didn’t know. She simply never imagined the problems hiring staff, managing inventory, and maintenance of the store. 

Not what, but who!

To help people like Elise avoid making costly mistakes, the authors advocate prototyping instead, trying small experiments that will give you knowledge about your idea before you spend a lot of time and money fully implementing it. “The simplest and easiest form of prototyping,” they wrote, “is a conversation.” They called those conversations “Life Design Interviews.”

“You want to talk to someone who is either doing and living what you’re contemplating, or has real experience and expertise in an area about which you have questions.”

I was struck how this advice relates directly to what people practice in Working Out Loud Circles. In a Circle, people ask themselves three questions:

  1. What am I trying to do?
  2. Who is related to that goal?
  3. How can I contribute to them to deepen the relationship?

I was reading Designing Your Life in Germany, while working with an engineering firm there. We have adapted Circles to help employees develop a prototyping mindset. The company wants more ideas and more efforts to implement them. I’m trying to help them have more conversations and build deeper relationships.

Whether your idea is for a new product, a new process, or a new Italian deli, sometimes the best question isn’t what to do, it’s whom to talk to about it. When you offer your genuine attention and vulnerability in exchange for information, the things you learn can change your idea - and your life.

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)

This group of people from 8 German companies has bold ambitions, and the conversations help them be more effective. (On a bus, no less! Click on the image for the full story.)