Where are U: 

Prototyping moves the group or individuals up the right side of the U-process.

At a Glance: 

Prototyping moves an idea or innovation into a concrete next step. After a group goes through the left side of the U-process and completes the sensing and presencing stage, the next step allows the group to crystallize ideas and prototype them. Prototyping translates an idea or a concept into concrete action. Prototypes are an early draft of what the final result might look like which means that they often go through several iterations based on the feedback generated from stakeholders.


The purpose of prototyping is to create a microcosm that allows you to explore the future by doing. Prototypes work on the principle of “failing early to learn quickly.” (see

Uses & Outcome: 

Prototypes translate an idea into a concrete first step. This step is not meant to be the final product but it allows you to generate valuable feedback from stakeholders. This feedback is then the basis for refining the concept and its underlying assumptions. A prototype is a practical and tested mini-version of what later could become a pilot project that can be shared and eventually scaled.

Set Up: 

People & Place
Prototyping is a process in itself, and it is really specific to the idea or concept that is prototyped. Some prototypes are concrete products, others are meetings, processes, services or experiments. Whatever the prototype will look like, there is an underlying process that participants go through. The first step is systems sensing which means to see a system through the view of all key stakeholders such as the user, the customer or the group that the idea will serve.  The next step is systems thinking which takes a systems perspective on the prototype in order to identify  root causes and leverage points for change. After this “sensing journey”, the group or the individual stops and embraces a moment of shared and/or individual stillness before brainstorming and selecting possible prototyping ideas.

Timing will depend on the context and differ depending on the project: a prototype can take a few days, weeks, months or years.

The materials you will use depends on the project. Go here to explore some ideas:


The process of prototyping is a mini U in itself and follows the three stages of Co-Sensing, Co- Inspiring, and Co-Creating.

Note: Prototypes can differ in scale and scope. The following steps describe the core milestones in the process but the process needs to be adapted to the specific situation.

Step 1
Clarify intention. If you are working in a team, form a committed core teams that truly care about the purpose of the prototype project.

Step 2
Explore the perspective of the user, stakeholder, or person who will be served by the prototype. Step into their shoes. This is best if done physically, e.g. become the customer. The longer and more concrete this exploration, the better.

Step 3
Begin to brainstorm ideas. Again, the details of this brainstorming phase highly depend on the project or idea. Small post-it notes are often used for this brainstorming phase. Anything goes. Collect the ideas and post them on a board in front of you.

Step 4
Now you need to step from a broad and open brainstorming phase into a decision-making mood. You need to select the project. Here are seven questions to ask yourself as you select, and evolve an idea for prototyping:

  1. Is it relevant? Does it matter to all the key stakeholders involved individually (for the person involved), institutionally (for the organizations involved), and socially (for the communities involved)? Very often, the relevance for each stakeholder is framed in a quite different language and way.
  2. Is it right? Meaning does it have the right size and scope. One criteria to answer this question is whether microcosm of the challenge that you are exploring is represented or reflected in the prototype. Does this prototype have the right dimensions? Is it too big or too small? Is the root cause of the challenge addressed rather than symptoms? For example, ignoring the patients’ perspective in a health project, the consumers in a sustainable food project or the students in a school project misses the point.
  3. Is it revolutionary? Is it new? Could it change the game? Does it change (some of) the root issues in the system?
  4. Is it rapid? Can you do it quickly? You must be able to develop experiments right away, in order to have enough time to get feedback and adapt (and thus avoid analysis paralysis).
  5. Is it rough? Can you do it on a small scale? Can you do it locally? Let the local context teach you how to get it right. Trust that the right helpers and collaborators will show up when you issue the right kinds of invitations “to the universe”.
  6. Is it relationally effective? Does it leverage the strengths, competencies and possibilities of the existing networks and communities at hand?
  7. Is it replicable? Can you scale it? Any innovation in business or society hinges upon its replicability and whether or not it can grow to scale. In the context of prototyping, this criterion favors approaches that activate local participation and ownership and excludes those that depend on massive infusions of external knowledge, capital, and ownership.

Step 5
After you have selected key ideas for prototyping initiatives, form a core team for each of them. Often at this stage you need to bring in new people to complement the existing competencies and players that are necessary for co-creating a successful prototype. In cross-sector work this phase often takes some time because you want to bring the right people on board and because you need a process for “onboarding” them. At this stage it is often best to take another sensing journey to the places and partners of most potential that you want to connect with in your prototyping initiative. This is an iterative process.

Step 6
Each time you return you share everything that has been learned with your core team. After you have finished the sharing, when you have the time, move into a period of stillness and deep reflection. Allow the inner knowing to emerge. Options: Take a solo walk, do individual journaling, move into a moment of stillness. Then, share with the team what is emerging and speaking to you from that stillness.

Step 7
Jointly crystallize the results of the co-sensing and co-inspiring phases and then reframe your prototyping idea.

Step 8
Evolve your prototype by creating a small living example quickly (particularly by connecting and relating to people in the community and in the field who are already doing some of this work) and then learn from the feedback you are receiving. Always be in dialogue with the Universe and continue to iterate, iterate, iterate.

  1. Connect to the inspiration: First and foremost, when prototyping you need to stay connected to the idea, the inspirational spark that got you started on this prototype - the spark of the future.
  2. Stay in dialogue with the context: a prototype has to be grounded in purpose it is serving. So, every prototyping process requires a constant feedback from the reality.  The IDEO teams calls that “Fail Early to Learn Quickly”.
  3. Supporting infrastructure: Prototyping teams need different types of help:
    A place (a cocoon) that helps the team focus on its creative work with minimal distractions;
    A timeline with strict milestones that forces the team to produce preliminary prototypes early on and generates fast-cycle feedback from all key stakeholders;
  4. Content help and expertise at important junctures and process help that enables the team to go through rapid experimentation and adaptation every day (after-action reviews), and to benefit from peer coaching that focuses on the key challenges of the way forward.
  5. Linking head, heart, and hand:  In the novel and 2000 movie Bagger Vance, a coach played by Will Smith helps a golfer to find back his lost swing: “Seek it with your hands-don’t think about it, feel it. The wisdom in your hands is greater than the wisdom of your head will ever be.” That piece of advice articulates a key principle of prototyping. Moving down the left-hand side of the U is about opening up and dealing with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will; moving up the right-hand side is about intentionally reintegrating the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand in the context of practical applications.
  6. Core team: Form a highly committed prototyping core team and clarify essential questions. It is important for the prototyping core team to reflect the diversity of players and stakeholders mentioned above and to commit itself to making the prototype projects the number one priority over a certain period of time.

At Cisco Systems, a leader in networking equipment, the prototyping imperative begins with what that company calls principle 0.8: regardless of how long-term the project, engineers are expected to come up with a first prototype within three or four months - otherwise the project is dead. The first prototype is not expected to work like a 1.0 prototype - it is a quick-and-dirty iteration that generates feedback from all key stakeholders and leads to the 1.0 version.


C. Otto Scharmer, (2009) Theory U: Learning from the Future as it emerges. Berrett- Koehler: San Francisco. Chapter 21.