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A couple of weeks ago, my brain was treated to a Pint of Science in the form of a talk by Dr Eileen Gentleman on making body parts. Dr Gentleman whooshed us through a brief history of genetic engineering, including how eye injuries to World War II pilots led to the invention of contact lenses and why golden plates sealed in an ancient skull proved that not all alien materials are rejected by human tissue. And we were, inevitably, shown a photo of a mouse with an ear on its back...

The Vacanti mouse was (is) famous, and not just in the scientific community. In 1997, it was splashed across front pages, causing the world to marvel at protest about the genetic modification of the poor rodent... wrongly. Gentleman corrected the story for us: the ear had not been ‘grown’ on the mouse. And it contained no human DNA - another public outrage - it was cow cartilage, grown on biodegradable scaffolding in a lab. The point of the experiment was to see if the cow cartilage would bond with the mouse’s tissue, a clarification delivered with visible satisfaction in the eyes of our speaker. She urged us to read the ‘real’ papers, not the newspapers and went on to dispel other myths propagated in the media. Which was a bit sad, really. Genetic modification is not as far forward as we might have thought.

I asked Gentleman if the hyperbole had any positive outcomes; whether a little hype might put more wind in the sails her peers. Her stories about the rise of genetic modification showed that each new glimpse at the future got people more excited and motivated to find out more, regardless to how close to the truth they were. She agreed. And even said that the funding she receives is largely thanks to the raised profile of her field in light of these media stories. 

It didn’t take much of a leap to start thinking about our own field of innovation. And to be reminded of the same dual impact of prototyping anything: learning & selling, both of which are critical for success.

A purist could be tempted to see a prototype as simply a learning tool, to get fast feedback on a minimal product - or aspect of a product. But whether you like it or not, when people see an actual ‘thing’ it will have an emotional impact too. It will excite, or concern them. Despite any effort not to, stakeholders will imagine a more advanced version of that thing, based on their own biasses. And that’s not entirely a bad thing: it can be exactly what’s necessary to get suppot for the project, both operationally and financially.

On the other side, a salesperson might view a prototype as a pure selling tool: show the board something flashy; demonstrate capability — we can always change the product later! But that’s a dangerous route to go, undermining the process and skewing perceptions of the results by bowing to an unvalidated strategy. If you mis-educate people about the role of learning in favour of the sell, you’re going to hit more roadblocks in the future.

I think the mistake is to assume everyone is looking for the same signals. Some people want to make meaningful progress, others might want a mouse that can grow ears on its back.