Learning to do a backflip on a BMX bike is a lot like launching a new product or service. You’ve got to continue to do things you can already do well, and you’ll have to do some things you (and maybe no one) has ever done before. That’s scary territory. If you mess up, the implications are serious. But the BMX community has developed a way to prototype a BMX backflip (and countless other tricks) in a way that minimizes their chance of injury and is leading to rapid changes in the evolution of that sport. The innovation is called a tramp bike. It’s a “bike” that’s completely non-functioning (no chain, wheels, pedal, brakes, etc.), except when combined with a trampoline; at that point, it becomes a brilliant tool for prototyping risky tricks.
So, what can we learn from these prototyping geniuses? Let’s break it down into 5 key lessons.
1. Deconstruct the challengeFor the BMX backflip, the “product” is broken down into three basic parts, the takeoff, the flip and the landing. Taking off and landing are critical, but neither of those is as risky or difficult as the flip. The BMX riders isolated this element of their trick. When you are looking at your product or service, break the whole into all of its different elements. Then focus on the one that is most critical. For those of you familiar with the Lean Start-up, this would be what Eric Reis calls your "leap-of-faith assumption".
2. Minimize risk
Once they isolated the critical elements of the challenge, they needed to figure out a way to keep from getting hurt. Gaining enough speed to launch your bike and enough height to quickly rotate feels like a physics tragedy about to happen. Velocity * Mass / Bone Density = Hospital. But these folks didn’t approach the challenge in the traditional way. They asked themselves, how might we get enough height to practice the flip without exposing ourselves to injury? As you think about prototyping your offering, brainstorm ways in which you can learn with minimal risk.
3. Use ignored resources
Kids are scrappy, and having limited resources actually helped them out. How many of these riders had a trampoline in the backyard that had probably just been gathering dust as other siblings grew out of it. Combine that with an old bike that might not even function and they were in business. The thing about untapped resources is that no one is going to miss them. It’s another way of minimizing their risk - in this case, not just from injury, but from Mom and Dad.
Think about the untapped resources that you might have at your disposal? Is there a bored developer who’s looking for an interesting project? A space no one cares about? Find them and put them to use.
4. Remove as much as possible
It requires quite a bit of insight and discipline to remove elements from a prototype. It’s tempting to load it up with all the features you want to expose to users. But these kids removed nearly everything from the bike before putting it on the trampoline. This does two things. First, it makes the bike lighter so they can get enough hang time to try these technical tricks, and it protects them and the trampoline.
The kids stripped out the wheels, pedals, brakes and the seat. If it’s not critical to learning, keep it out of the prototype. They could start to add in elements as they gain confidence and proficiency with the basics of the trick and as they get closer to making the trick real.
For organizations, this often means your prototypes will have a lot of throw-away work. But you’ll be moving so fast that it’s actually more efficient than a traditional way of working.
5. Maximize cycles of learning Before tramp bikes, each rider would need to find a rare area with the proper track and ramp, a scarce resource for many folks. Assuming they were able to find an area where they could practice, they would then need to queue up, pedal up enough speed, try a trick (hope it worked) land, then catch their breath and pedal back to start over. In the best of circumstances a rider might get 20 attempts per hour. But tramp bikes accelerate that learning. A rider can try an average of 240 attempts per hour. It’s not hard to imagine that practicing in this way will lead to an accelerated learning process.
As you prototype, think about ways to create an exponential jump in the number of learning cycles.
And when you are done, take the learning forward, not the thing The final lesson is that these kids have figured out that it's about the learning, not the thing. The tramp bike is just a tool to help them progress faster. Once they have learned what they can on a trampoline, they'll bring those lessons to the next progression of the trick. (Most likely in this case, jumping a BMX bike into a pond.)
So as you are thinking about prototyping your next product or service, keep some of these ideas in mind. Here's a worksheet I created that you can download to share with your teams and get a start on applying these lessons to your current challenges.