You can imagine my surprise (and excitement!) when I walked into a workshop at a corporate conference and saw a table filled with colorful Legos, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, and more.

Our task in the workshop, which was part of Marriott International’s internal Innovation Days conference, was to solve a problem—but not in the way most of us office-dwellers do it. No, there would be no user surveys, no deep competitive analysis, no detailed strategic plans. There’d be some discussion, some brainstorming, and then a whole lot of creating with our hands.

After an hour of this process—also known as “rapid prototyping”—I saw groups of employees who had never worked together before come up with creative solutions to big challenges in the travel space. (And have fun at the same time!)

But better yet, I saw just how effective rapid prototyping can be for all of us—whether we’re trying to solve major organizational problems or make our resumes stand out a little more (really!).

So, think about a challenge you’re dealing with at work or in your job search. Then, follow the steps below to start coming up with incredible solutions—while having more fun than you thought possible at work.

The Purpose

In a nutshell, rapid prototyping forces you to start generating ideas to problems you’re stuck on. The goal of building a physical prototype in this activity isn’t to get an accurate representation of the solution, but rather to force you to get off your computer and work with your hands (which can help you see things from a different perspective and, frankly, get away from the distractions of your everyday work), and to give you something to work with when you’re trying to explain your solution to others.

The Prep

The best part is that you don’t need to do much to get started. Just have that problem in your mind.

For materials, yes, you could make a run to the craft store and go crazy, or you could work with whatever you have lying around. Christian Abell, the leader of one of the workshops and the Vice President of Creative Projects for Insight, Strategy, and Innovation at Marriott, shared with me that he had recently made a prototype from some modeling clay, a paper clip, and chopsticks left over from lunch. In fact, he thinks that having fewer materials leads to more creativity. So, gather a few things from around the office—sticky notes, scissors, colored paper, tape, and the like—but don’t feel like you need to load up on gear.

While you can absolutely do rapid prototyping alone, it’s more fun (and you’re likely to get better ideas) with a team, so see if a few of your co-workers are up for the activity, too.

Finally, set up a few ground rules. The first, and most important, is to keep your tech from distracting you. We think it’s easiest to keep it out of the room, but you could also silence it and put it on a table in the corner. Second, you should grab a timer and stick to the allotted times for each step of the activity. Abell says that, by compressing time, you’ll actually get better ideas, faster.

Rapid prototyping materials at Marriott International's Innovation Days.

The Process

Step 1: Immersion

Time: 5 Minutes

Start by reviewing all the information you have about the problem at hand, and taking notes (ideally on sticky notes so you can work with them in a minute). Where are you now? What do you know about what people want or what could be improved? What are other people doing that you like?

For example, in one of the Marriott workshops, people were trying to come up with ideas for how hotels can improve the sleep experience. During this stage of the brainstorming, we talked about what contributes to a good night’s sleep, the best and worst nights of sleep we’ve ever had, and so on.

If it’s not something you feel you have a ton of personal experience with, you could also sneak a phone or computer into the room (for this step only!) and quickly scan any research that’s already been done in the area, such as user surveys or articles reporting on data on the subject you’re discussing.

Step 2: Insights

Time: 5 Minutes

Next, you want to review your notes and look for connections within them. Are there common threads that stand out? Ideas you can group together into a bigger concept? What surprising things stand out to you?

This is where the sticky notes really come in handy, as you can start to move and group similar ideas to help you draw those connections.

For example, in the sleep example above, we noted that distractions—be they light, sound, or technology-related—were one of the biggest impediments to getting good sleep.

Groups of Marriott employees discussing their insights in the company's underground innovation space.

Step 3: Strategy

Time: 10 Minutes

Now, with all of this data, it’s time to brainstorm ways to address your problem. You want to come up with a lot of ideas, and—this is the best part—not be held back by anything that sounds “too crazy.”

Depending on the size of the original question you walked in with, you may need to hone it in a little at this point. For example, while we started with the big question “How can we create a better sleep experience?” based off our immersion and insights we decided to focus in on strategies for removing distractions from the room—and, specifically, the bright light from the alarm clocks that are always in hotel rooms.

Step 4: Design

Time: 10 Minutes

Now, it’s time to get your hands dirty! You’ll pick one of the strategies you find most interesting (ours was a concept for a clock whose screen would go dark as the room went dark, unless you touched it to see the time) and build a prototype of it. Depending on what you’re working on, prototypes can take a lot of different forms: a storyboard, a paper prototype (like the one below), or a physical sculpture.

Now, the prototype you create doesn’t, by any means, have to be perfect or functional. It just needs to tell the story of your solution in a way that’s quick and easy for people to understand and that allows you to start seeing how your solution could play out in actuality. For reference, ours was literally a piece of paper with a drawing of an alarm clock and some black Play-Doh to stick on top.

The Aftermath

Will the solution and design you come up with during this activity be the final answer to your problem? Probably not. But you’ll definitely have started to generate ideas, and you’ll have a solid jumping off point to build on.

As Abell says, “It’s not about what you’re building, but what happens afterwards.”

So take the prototype you’ve created, and think about ways it could be improved or added onto. Take it to your team (or, if you’re brave, your boss), and get their thoughts and ideas. Go through this activity again to come up with more solutions until you feel yourself getting closer.

Ultimately, though, just doing this activity will help you get closer. It will force you to start coming up with ideas and open your mind up to more creative ones.

What problem do you think you can solve with rapid protoyping? Tell us on Twitter with #MarriottInnovates!

Want to join next year’s innovation conference? Check out open roles at Marriott International!

Photo of art supplies on table courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020