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Letters to a Young Manager

Build the Throwaway, #13
LTYM > Innovation

Dear Sophie,
So you have a new client project to work on. Congratulations! But you're not happy. You note that the time expectations are very high and the specifications incomplete. What do you do?

I faced a similar situation, where a prominent Wall Street customer needed to be able to share research reports quickly with clients. There was no existing application we could use to meet this need (this was before the days of the Internet!). Building a new system would take months.

What we did was build a quick and simple prototype on our time-sharing system to upload and download files. We used some existing functions and wrapped a script around them. The key was getting it priced to match the volume of files moved, rather than the existing storage-based pricing. The client liked it and eventually rolled it out to his branch offices.

This was not a sexy new system, but rather a bit of assembly of existing parts, like a mashup, to use the modern analogy. It also used a method similar to the Silicon Valley approach of building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)[1] We started simple, got client feedback as the prototype was used, and then refined and added features as we moved forward. In some sense, this was like erecting scaffolding, building a structure to build a structure. The thing is, at the end when the building is ready, the scaffolding is thrown away.

[1] See


Build a prototype to meet a basic need; embellish later

Discussion Questions:

1) Michael Schrage , MIT Professor, says that "Effective prototyping may be the most valuable 'core competence' an innovative organization can hope to have." What do you think?
2) What example from the Internet era can you think of that illustrates this problem and solution approach?

For Further Reading:

Michael Schrage, Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, HBR Press, December 10, 1999

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