For Rapid Prototyping Visionary, "Doing Is the Best Way of Thinking"

January 2019
Topics: Modeling and Simulation, Collaborative Decision Making, Decision Support Engineering, Decision Theory, Human Factors Engineering, Innovation
Tom Chi, former head of product experience at Google X, contributed breakthrough technologies to innovations that include Google Glass and Google's autonomous vehicles. He shared his approach to rapid prototyping, visioning, and leadership at MITRE.
Tom Chi speaking at MITRE

At a special presentation at our offices in McLean, Virginia, MITRE Visiting Fellow Tom Chi told a story about how the best meeting of his career turned into the worst about 45 minutes in.

Chi is an entrepreneur who's played a significant role in developing global digital products and services, including Microsoft Outlook and Yahoo Search. He recently served as head of product experience at Google X, contributing breakthrough technology to innovations, such as Google Glass and Google's autonomous vehicles.

The best-to-worst meeting occurred during his tenure at Google. For the first 45 minutes, Chi marveled at how the team went wide with ideas and then decisively narrowed upon several possibilities, including some sort of vision-based device. (The idea ultimately became Google Glass.) 

But the second half of the meeting went downhill fast, with the team debating the color of the device's typeface. Finally, the boss declared that it must be red—because red was least likely to cause eyestrain and "it's what they always use in science fiction." 

Because at least one of the points sounded logical (and because he was the boss), the team appeared to accept this as a final decision.

Chi said, "I walked out of that meeting thinking 'I am not going to work that way.'" 

Make Better Decisions with Real Information 

Chi has pioneered a unique approach to rapid prototyping, visioning, and leadership that he's brought to more than a dozen industry-leading companies. The underlying idea behind rapid prototyping is that you make better decisions with real information. 

He said that discussions like the last 45 minutes of that Google meeting are "guessathons." The best way to gather real information instead? Experiment—and do it fast. 

For example, the first prototype of what eventually became Google Glass took less than an hour to construct out of a coat hanger, a small projector, and a piece of plastic. The team quickly learned one of the bigger challenges of the concept: it's quite difficult for users to read type so close to their eyes—particularly while walking around in the real world. 

Doing Is the Best Way of Thinking 

In another prototype—again, heavy on the use of what he called "materials that move at the speed of thought," such as coat hangers, tape, fishing line, projectors, chopsticks, and a presentation clicker—they learned that the Minority Report style of interfacing with a computer by swiping with your hands at images was actually a poor idea. 

While people loved trying out the prototype, even the strongest found that their arms and shoulders soon began to hurt. As for that red typeface, the team eventually tried different colors within the prototype. Hands down, everyone—including the boss who had once declared it the best choice—agreed that red was the worst. 

Chi pointed out the value of learning fundamental problems like these early and at a minuscule cost, rather than investing years and millions of dollars in research and development. 

Rapid Prototyping Meets Human Relations 

While it could be easy to think that these ideas may be useful only for research engineers, Chi also provided an example of an assignment with a large multinational company enduring a human-relations problem. For several years, they lost 70 percent of their executives when they were passed over for the few top slots. 

The company developed a variety of different plans to address this problem, involving alternative offers, such as a lateral position overseas. However, they hadn't tried any of them, for fear of making a mistake. So, Chi had them try out the plans immediately, with the members of the group breaking into pairs for roleplaying. One member acted as the manager, and the other acted as the receiver of the "I've got some bad news and some good news" message. 

The result? Executive after executive "quit" when they experienced what it was like to receive the offer themselves. 

Chi pointed out that negative energy was almost as revealing as positive energy. "Think about what you cared about so much that you hated to lose it." By being clear about what people deeply cared about, they focused upon solutions that tracked directly to it. Within the meeting, the group came up with an idea that has substantially reduced the company's executive attrition. 

Learn from the Bright Spots

Chi said that the often-quoted "Fail Fast, Fail Often" concept has some value, particularly regarding "fast" and "often." But it misses the point with "fail." 

"To maximize the rate of learning, you want to dramatically minimize the time to try things." For instance, he demanded 15 hardware prototypes a week for the Google Glass project, over a period of 10 weeks, for 150 in total. However, the "fail" part of the phrase causes bad feelings, which get in the way of focusing upon learning why the experiment didn't get the expected result. 

But even more important from the "learn from your mistakes" mantra that we all grew up with, he said, "Look for what I call the '10 percent bright spots.' What are the things that worked—even if they're small—that give you more material to carry into the next experiment to build toward a successful outcome? 

"I've managed enough teams working on innovative things to know that the speed at which a team advances is basically the number of bright spots they have in their collective brains and how well connected those bright spots are." 

MITRE senior vice president Richard Byrne hosted Tom Chi's presentation and said that MITRE is incorporating many of Chi's ideas, including working with him on a series of projects. 

To learn more about Chi's ideas regarding rapid prototyping, check out his recent presentation at Mind the Product in May 2018. We also invite you to meet the other MITRE Visiting Fellows, who are helping us solve problems for a safer world.

—by Bill Eidson

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