Look, But Don’t Touch

Monday, January 7th, 2008

I’ve been discussing Michael Schrage’s Serious Play, which examines how organizations use models, simulations, and prototypes to stimulate innovation:

Can Detroit’s lagging competitiveness in the 1980s be blamed in part on its prototyping media? Absolutely. Intricate and expensive clay models didn’t lend themselves to easy modification or rapid iteration. The sheer effort required to craft them actually made them more like untouchable works of art than malleable platforms for creative interaction. The medium’s message is, Look but don’t touch. “American automobile companies didn’t have an iterative culture,” says IDEO’s David Kelley. “Clay…was like God’s tablets.” GVO’s Michael Barry agrees: “When a model starts to harden up,” he says, “so does a lot of the thinking.” Clay was more than a medium; it was a metaphor for management.

Daniel Whitney of MIT’s Draper Labs, who has studied the use of computer-aided design tools in Japan, observes that until the 1990s, U.S. car companies attempted to use clay models as inputs for their computer-aided design systems. This approach combined the worst of both media worlds: it was labor-intensive and imprecise, analogous to typing a handwritten novel into a word processor, editing the printout by hand, and retyping the final version into a computerized typesetting system. The cost in time, labor, and errors in painfully high.

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