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How many ideas do we need when designing or innovating? Pinball or Pachinko.

Pinball or Pachinko?

When designing new solutions, there is a question that keeps popping up. How many ideas should we develop? How many should we have in the end? Well, we’re not going to put a number on it, but rather a general principle, called pinball or pachinko. To do this, let’s draw a comparison between pinball and pachinko.

If you’re a millennial, pinball was a coin-operated arcade game popular before the Internet. A player would get three balls to shoot through a course of bumpers, flashing lights and secret passages one by one. The idea was to try to keep the ball in play as long as possible and hit the right targets to get the highest score. A good pinball strategy requires you to carefully manipulate each one of the three balls.

For those of you who are Generation Xers or not fans of the Power Rangers, pachinko is a vertical Japanese gambling machine where a player shoots a bunch of balls simultaneously upward. They come down through a dense forest of pins and the player tries to capture the falling balls in certain locations to earn even more balls. Volume is the idea. The strategy is not to be careful – the more balls shot, the more chance of winning.

By applying this to creating Design Directions, we could say that pinball is more like a traditional stage-gate process, where the idea is to eliminate ideas as early as possible. Using this approach, you can be sure that scarce R&D resources can be aimed very efficiently at a few potential winners. And there is nothing wrong with this principle of efficiency in some cases.

But if you are truly looking for Radical Design, this is not the way to go. The approach is too cautious. To start, there are usually a predefined arbitrary number of ideas that get the green light, killing other perfectly good ideas. A second issue is that in order to pass to the next stage, the idea must have a proven potential for success. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough information to prove this. And thirdly, what if you invest everything in a single idea that proves to be fool’s gold?

“Ideas are hypotheses. They should not be killed unless proven wrong.”

A better match for Radical Design is the pachinko approach. We don’t want to kill ideas for efficiency’s sake. We only kill ideas if there is proof that they won’t work. All other ideas should be run through the iteration loop some more. Why? Because at the early stages, iteration is cheap. But let’s be realistic. It would be a daunting task to develop fifty Design Directions. If we have too many ideas, you are going to have to kill some, if not many. There are several approaches to consider before the bloodbath begins.

At Studio Peter Van Riet, we have had quite a few discussions about how to make the best decisions when it comes to downsizing ideas. A lot of times, we combine related Design Directions. We try to avoid arbitrary decisions based on personal preferences. You cannot kill an idea because you would never use a product or service yourself, or your wife would never buy it, or you don’t like the color scheme.

Design Directions don’t just pop up out of the blue. They have taken time and investment. They have grown from simple ideas with research, thought and discussion. So even if we have a hunch about a Design Directions, we always try to be aware of our individual biases and involve people with opposing views. It is better to err on the side of caution than leave a Design Direction with potential behind at this stage. So, when it doubt, select it.

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This article is an excerpt from our book Create Meaningful Stuff. It deals with the question: how do we, as business leaders, entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, innovators and marketeers create products and services that add value to our lives, that are smart, sustainable and meaningful?
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tags    Book , Design , Innovation