A Metric for Innovation Productivity: The Prototype Death Rate

In this latest in the Censemaking Methods Series we look at the Prototype Death Rate, a metric for assessing innovation productivity.

When an idea has matured enough in our design process, it’s time to create a prototype. This is a tangible or digital ‘mock-up’ of the concept that serves as its first real-world representation. Before launching the final version, a prototype allows us to scrutinize its functionality, identify bugs or flaws, and understand its strengths and shortcomings. It also allows us to find out what’s working, what’s needed, and where the design isn’t meeting needs.

A key ingredient for innovation success is tenacity in design and development. The more we design (and evaluate) the more we learn and the better our product becomes. As the common wisdom in innovation development goes, “Fail quickly and frequently to achieve success sooner.”

The “Prototype Death Rate” is an insightful metric that showcases the innovation attempts and reflects an organization’s adaptability. By increasing the opportunities to learn, test, and refine a design, we increase the likelihood of creating better products and services. Embedded in this metric is an assumption that many of our ideas won’t work and that great success is tied to high amounts of failure.

The Prototype Death Rate looks at the amount of production, testing, and evaluation of ideas into a workable prototype.

Metrics for Production

To calculate this metric, divide the number of prototypes that didn’t progress beyond the testing phases by the total prototypes that move on to advanced testing or final implementation (e.g., a finished product launched into the market or service).

This calculation prompts an important question: What exactly qualifies as a prototype? And, have we even created one? Often, organizations haven’t clearly envisioned what constitutes a prototype. Contrary to some beliefs, prototyping is not implementation. As noted by the UN Refugee Organization, a prototype isn’t the same as a pilot test. The exact definition of a prototype can be subjective, but it should be clearly defined to steer the design approach. Prototypes do not need to be implemented, but they do need to be tested. They are models that guide the next stage of design.

The frequency of prototypes developed mirrors an organization’s innovation activity and the drive to crystallize fresh ideas into tangible products.

Monitoring prototype generation and its subsequent application paves the way for an organization’s development. By noting our innovation attempts and their efficacy, we can trace our design trajectory, actions, and eventual outcomes tied to investments in innovation. It helps us test whether our innovation aspirations are met with actions.

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Image credit: Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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