December 13, 2017

Multco Align Program Management Office. Pictured from left to right: Jodi Ballard-Beach, Jacob Farkas, Tracey Massey, Dan Cole, Barry Zimmerman, Eric Arellano, Jane Williams, Andrew Clark, Macy Langley, Kelley Tralle

Prototyping: Put a Marshmallow On It

Do you have a “go-to” recipe? Maybe it is a beloved meal, brimming with nostalgia, a part of your culinary heritage handed down through generations of your family. Or maybe it is something you made once and, even though everyone raved about it, you smiled silently, thinking, “I know how to make this even better next time!” If you’ve ever improved upon a recipe, you’ve prototyped.

Prototyping is an instrumental part of the Multco Align program, and we are currently in the thick of it. Multco Align involves configuring several new software systems that will integrate to serve as the backbone of our county operations for Finance, Human Resources, Source to Settle (Purchasing & Contracts), and Facilities Asset Management.

In October, we moved from the Architect Phase (think blueprints) into the Prototype Phase (think construction). But what exactly does prototyping mean for Multnomah County?

In software terms, prototypes are self-contained working copies. The cloud-based systems we are currently configuring—Workday, Multco Marketplace, TRIRIGA—are each undergoing several prototypes. This allows us to refine functionality, assess the design of business processes, and fine-tune our data conversions all to reflect our expectations.

For Kelley Tralle, Multco Align’s Change Management Lead, prototyping is easy as pie (or not!) “When making a pie for the first time you check your recipe, gather ingredients, and get to baking. We all get some pie at the end, satisfying our craving, but this first try is likely not the best you can do. So you bake another pie. And another. Tweak an ingredient or two, adjust the cooking time or temperature, and, eventually, you’ve got ‘that pie’ everyone wants you to bring over.”

As Project Manager Jacob Farkas puts it, “Prototyping reminds me of the old carpentry saying ‘measure twice, cut once.’ In prototyping, we get a hands-on opportunity to see if our informed designs are what we need. If not, we can measure again and adjust on the spot.”

Senior Project Manager Tracey Massey adds that by prototyping we can see our future via a “model in action allowing us to identify what works, what doesn't, and adjust accordingly.” A prototype allows for an “iterative, inclusive approach that allows even more people to be at the table providing input and feedback.”

The Multco Align work teams began design in July and were able to see a first prototype (P1) this month. Many expressed feeling exhilarated to finally see the system in action. And yet, there is much more work to do—error lists, data clean up, reconfiguration—to ready for the next prototype (P2). The iterative process of designing, building, reconfiguring, rinse, repeat is resource heavy, time consuming, and can, on the surface, look like repeated failures. The teams wish they had a flawless system to share with their colleagues right now, but that is not how prototyping works.

Rest assured, prototyping does work.

Tom Wujec, a well-known voice in the world of design and innovation, tested the effectiveness of prototyping with more than 70 teams across the globe in what was called “The Marshmallow Challenge.” The challenge: build the tallest structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow. The marshmallow has to be on top.

The discovery: well-educated professionals regularly failed. Why? They meticulously planned and built their spaghetti structures only to find that, when time is up and they finally put that marshmallow on top, their structures crumble under the weight. They didn’t understand the benefit of prototyping. Who utilized prototyping and consistently experienced the most success? Kindergartners.

The lesson learned: prototyping is essential to success.

Tom Wujec explains that the children started with the marshmallow and then iterated, getting constant, real-time feedback so they could constantly improve. They could then step back at the end and say “Ta-Da!” rather than, as many of the adults, say “Uh-Oh.”

We look forward to those “Ta-Da!” moments as the Multco Align program moves through this crucial Prototype Phase and on into February when we enter the Test Phase.

What’s the difference? Stay tuned to find out!