Three Steps to Breakthrough Solutions

by Taylor Cone

In my work with SMALLIFY over the last several years, I’ve delivered dozens of rapid innovation labs to public and private sector clients and communities including PBS, Autodesk, Bleacher Report, ChildFund International, and the City of San Francisco. I’ve worked alongside innovative leaders taking on challenges ranging from new product development to brand alignment to organizational culture change. Through these experiences, I’ve found that the most successful innovators discover breakthrough solutions by doing three things. Here’s how you can too:

1. Engage your growth mindset

It’s difficult to be innovative if you never try anything new. And it’s difficult to try anything new if you believe mistakes and failures are signs of your limits as opposed to opportunities for learning and growth.

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, pioneered the concepts of the fixed and growth mindsets. Her work shows those with fixed mindsets believe intelligence and ability is static, while those with growth mindsets believe they can improve and expand their capacities. A growth mindset makes you more resilient, more able to learn from mistakes, and more able to bounce back from failure.

Art: Dave Viotti

When the founders of Instagram realized their original app (called Burbn) was too complicated for users to use and enjoy, they could have considered themselves bad app-makers and given up. Instead, their growth mindset allowed them to learn from this setback, ask “Why?”, and keep pushing forward. Within a couple of years, they sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion.

The first step is engaging your growth mindset. Get comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and learning from your mistakes. It may take some practice, but it’s absolutely critical. That’s how we learn, and that’s how we do it better next time.

2. Bring your ideas to life

Rapidly prototype your ideas, no matter the medium or manifestation. Bring them to life quickly and inexpensively so you and others can experience them. By creating tangible representations of your ideas, you will more accurately learn about them, more easily communicate them, and more effectively test them.

It’s one thing for me to describe an idea to you. It’s better if I show you a real-life version of it — one that you can experience with your eyes and hands rather than just your ears and imagination. This also invites you in to give feedback and improve the design. Moreover, bringing ideas to life ensures we’re talking about the same idea, as opposed to two interpretations of it.

Photo: Dave Viotti

If you want to make an iPhone app, grab some index cards, sketch a screenshot on each one, and stack them up in the order in which a potential user might experience them. If you’re redesigning a space, put blue painter’s tape on the floor to prototype footprints of furniture so you don’t have to move a couch or workbench 4 or 5 times. If you’re trying to optimize a process or workflow, grab some sharpies and some poster paper and sketch out what the input and output of every step looks like (even better, use pipe cleaners, aluminum foil, or blue yarn).

You might be thinking, “Shouldn’t I start with a whole bunch of ideas first, before I build a prototype?” “Isn’t brainstorming a critical part of the innovation process?” Yes and no. Decades of research have gone into better understanding creativity and conceptualization — how we come up with ideas and where they come from. But in practice, it almost doesn’t matter which idea you start with. You probably aren’t going to be right the first time either way. What’s important is that you choose one and make it so you can move forward.

Don’t worry about having a lot of ideas or the right ideas. Pick one and bring it to life in a simple way so you can show it to people. If it doesn’t work, change it and do it again. Your prototype will not be perfect at the start. Embrace that imperfection. It’s a key part of the process. Through testing, you’ll surface insights, discover unmet needs, and converge to your “right answer.” So just choose an idea and make it.

3. Continuously run experiments to test your ideas

The general practice of rapid prototyping outlined above is nothing new. Engineers and designers have always started with low resolution mock-ups of ideas. It’s part of the creative process. What’s fairly novel, however, is the practice of putting those those unfinished, low-resolution prototypes in front of your users for feedback early and often.

Art: Alice Chen

Once you have a real-life version of your idea, outline and execute an experiment to test it. Define how you’ll evaluate your results, then get out and run your test. Ask five people to engage with it and give you feedback. Bring it outside and test it in the street. Run experiments to learn about your prototype, your user, and how the two interact. Remember, your user will help you fill in the gaps and keep you on track.

If you’ve made your index card app prototype from above, ask a user to cycle through the “screenshots” like they would on their phone. Or after you’ve stuck your blue tape on the floor, ask some friends to walk around in the space to see how it feels and what they might “bump” into. Or show your process map to stakeholders and see where opportunities exist to better connect each step. From the feedback you get, make changes and try again.

At SMALLIFY, we call these experiments “small bets.” We encourage people in our labs to ask themselves what they can do “on Monday” to start testing their ideas. If the experiments feel too big and risky, we ask how they might make their small bets even smaller until they feel doable. Why spend time planning when you can start learning?

If you’re not sure where to start, just ask yourself “What’s the easiest way for me to learn something (anything!) about my idea or prototype?” The point is to do something. Taking that first step can be difficult, but it creates momentum that will help carry you the rest of the way.

Do you have a problem to solve? Start by engaging your growth mindset so you’ll be resilient in the face of setbacks. Next, bring your ideas to life by prototyping them quickly and inexpensively. And finally, make a “small bet” to test your ideas in the real world and get feedback from real users.

How will you use these practices to discover breakthrough solutions in your life and work? If you already do, what’s your most valuable piece of advice?

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Taylor Cone is a Partner at SMALLIFY, a rapid innovation firm and methodology based in Silicon Valley. You can find out more at and follow us @SmallifyLabs.

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