Prototype Is The Missing Piece

April 28, 2009

By John Munce, Deployment Executive, The Tatham Group

The bank manager looked at me across the table and said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Bob is an experienced guy who has run several mergers in the past. However, this one was B-I-G. He’s talking to me because he knows I’ve been through it all before. He is looking to buy my experience, scars, stumbles, and mistakes from having been through an enormous painful merger. But he didn’t ask outright for help. He just said he didn’t know what he didn’t know. That set me to thinking.

How do you learn what you need to know when you don’t even know you’re ignorant?

Admit ignorance
The first step seems obvious – admit that you don’t know. This bank manager is very confident in his team and his own abilities. They have been through many mergers together.  But this one is different. Bob is doubling every part of his bank. He has to break up conversions into digestible chunks. He is dealing with familiar subjects suddenly being made more complex. So he took the first step, he admitted that he could not rely purely on his own experience.

Get comfortable not knowing everything 
He is also taking the second step by admitting that he can’t think it all through ahead of time.  There are too many moving parts. Everything is moving fast and there isn’t enough time to slow things down. He needs to gain confidence that the conversion won’t blow up in his face.  How could he get it when he can’t plan everything?

Develop a Prototype
He needs a prototype. We have created a solution that fixes a problem. We know it works 100% of the time. At least it works all the time in theory. How will it work in the real world, when connected into the real systems, the real users and the real customers? The prototype gives us a way to find out. There may be a variable that we have not controlled or even considered. There are always surprises, which are better discovered risking a little instead of it all.

Learn Something
What we learn is something that we didn’t even know we needed to know. Hands on knowledge of your own is more valuable than buying someone else’s experience. You may need a coach to guide you through that experience so you see the learning opportunities as they are presented. However, you need to feel every mistake, surprise and success yourself to build your confidence.

We’ve got the answer for Bob the bank manager. Sadly, he may not like that answer. For a prototype always involves some risk. By definition we can’t predict how everything will work together. Bank managers, heck, most managers don’t like taking risks to learn something.

So, sitting there in front of Bob, I’m thinking “I can tell you how to learn what you need to know but there’s a catch: you have to really want to learn it. If you do, let’s get started on a prototype.”

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