Innovation Lessons from Building a Playhouse
Six years ago, my wife and I built a playhouse for the kids. Thinking back on it now, much of our experience mirrored the journey one takes in innovation.
We started by trying to find a design. Scanning the web, our exploration was like the story of Goldilocks, but without the "just right" moment. There was the too small playhouse, sold at Walmart or Target and made of plastic. There was the Costco swing set/fort type of playhouse, which was mostly swing set, with a tiny fort. Then there was the overachiever playhouse, custom built, with glass windows, drywall, electric, sometimes even air conditioning.
Thinking we'd find dozens of good ideas, our search instead left us feeling frustrated. Why couldn't we just find a good design? This frustration revealed our first challenge: In our initial search, we never raised the question "what do we want?" It was easy to reject the designs we didn't want, but we needed to force ourselves to list what we did want. We decided to make a wish list, with the expectation that we wouldn't get all of our wishes:
Room with a door, windows, and a ceiling
An unfinished interior; something kids could bang on, hammer on, write on, and make their own
Enough space for a kitchen set
Swing of some sort
Nice looking exterior, so the playhouse wouldn't be an eyesore in our yard
So who wanted all of these things? The kids were definitely consulted, but the "we" in our case was really a combination of kids and parents. You won't find too many 5 and 10 year olds setting criteria like "fits in with the look of our neighborhood", after all.
When our criteria were set, the search suddenly became easier. We quickly figured out that nobody offered the right playhouse design. We had a need for a certain design, and there was nothing on the market that delivered. We'd have to build our own.
We sketched out a design for a two story structure, built on a foundation of four posts anchored into the ground. We had total freedom to do anything we wanted in the design, so we created windows on each wall, two secret doors, a trapdoor to an upstairs, a tire swing, a pulley system to send things up or down, and a door upstairs that could swing open as a launch platform for a zipline. At this stage, we could plan anything. All we had to do was dream it up.
Next came building. Neither of us work in construction and we must have made every mistake imaginable. I was just a lunatic with a blueprint and a hammer, who couldn't true-up a square if my life depended on it. The posts went into the ground straight-ish. The framing went up in such a way that the floor we'd designed wouldn't fit in, and the foundation could become a permanent home to squirrels, rabbits, mice, and whatever other critters are about.
We planned to use fence boards for the walls. My friend's father, an engineer, took one look and said, "Why don't you use siding instead of fence boards for the walls? It'll strengthen the entire structure, supporting the posts and framing." Hmm, that was a good question. We had done all kinds of research on the design, but never actually talked to a builder or an engineer about the construction. I knew plenty of people in the construction field. It would have been a lot smarter to research each aspect of the project, instead of just doing research on the design.
I took his advice. The house went up. We hadn't quite figured out the zipline yet, and decided we'd add that on later. The kids and all their friends spent countless hours in the playhouse that summer.
We planned the zipline for year two. I described my plans to another engineering friend (getting smarter, now), explaining that I wanted to mount the bolt (for the launch) off of the main roof beam. He looked at the structure for no more than 4 seconds, then turned to me and said, "It'll rip the roof right off the house the first time you zip off of it". He further explained that when you hang weight from a line, the tension applied to the end points of the line is ten times the weight of the hanging object.
There went my great plan for a zipline, but at least I'd figured it out before destroying the house. Had I learned this earlier, I would have simply moved the playhouse about 5 feet back, so that the upstairs exit would lead to a tree, where we could build a simple platform for the zip launch. It was too late to move the structure, so we improvised, and adjusted our plans. A friend who works as an electrical lineman found us an old, unused electrical pole that could handle the weight. We anchored the pole next to the playhouse and started to work on the zipline. I found an excellent resource for equipment and advice at Ziplinegear.com, where I bought all of the equipment and got properly trained on zipline physics.
The zipline was the first addition, and we continued each year to add something new. The playhouse was never done. Each summer I'd go out to tighten all the bolts and make sure nothing was falling apart. The kids had other ideas for improvements. Some were as simple as interior shelves for their potions and pots & pans. One summer they asked for shudders that could open and close on each window. Chalkboard paint on the inside gave them places to write down menus, special orders, magic formulas, or whatever else they were playing. Later, we added canvas beds that could roll up and clip to the walls (once again, spending hours sketching out different designs).
You might think that with our missteps, the playhouse project would have been a disaster. It could have been had we given up to frustration or scrapped our wish list, but the project wasn't a disaster. It was a great experience and resulted in the right end-product. If you work in the field of innovation where you need to create new products, here are a few lessons from this experience:
Know what you want
We started without knowing what we wanted. It's hard to solve a problem when you don't know what you want. When innovating, you need to focus your energy toward a particular problem. It's harder to come up with brilliant ideas, when you shoot too broadly.
Know your audience
When building our playhouse, we had two audiences to solve for…the kids (end user) and the adults (gatekeeper). Many businesses have a similar dynamic. In b2b, you may have a user (e.g., sales rep) and decision maker (IT or Finance). Medical categories are similar, with an end user (patient) and influencer (doctor). Even regular household purchases can work this way, with husbands or wives influencing one another or playing a gatekeeper role.
Address a need
We had an unmet need. During our search, we discovered that nobody offered designs that worked for us. Had we found a design, we wouldn't have needed to create something original. When innovating, it's important to do the same. Develop something that fills a gap.
Creating new product ideas is one aspect of business that should truly be fun. Come up with wild ideas and things nobody else would try, just because you can. When ideating, push the limits, without fear of what is realistic or reasonable. As George Bernard Shaw said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Do your research from every angle
We'd spent plenty of time thinking about playhouse designs, but neglected to investigate materials or structural integrity. It's easy to get trapped into one way of thinking about a problem. Marketers look at product and promotion. Engineers grapple with the technical feasibility. Finance looks at money. The best work happens when people from different practices work together.
Improvise and adjust
We had to overhaul our zipline plans, mostly due to poor planning. Innovation is often messy, even with the best of plans. Setbacks are normal. When things don't go to plan, keep true to the vision, and roll with the punches. If all of your wish list doesn't make the first cut (like our zipline), keep moving forward.
It's never done
A product has a life. We maintained the playhouse so that it wouldn't fall apart, but we also found new ways of making it better each year. Innovation is similar. You don't just put your product out there and hope it lasts a few years. You build. You tinker. You try new stuff to keep it exciting.
You can make mistakes...
And still create the best thing in the world. It wasn't always fun going back to the drawing board to fix our screw ups. Had we penalized ourselves, or stopped with each failure, who knows what kind of monstrosity we would have built? Businesses can place a great deal of pressure on their employees, often penalizing people for mistakes. Cultural perceptions, like "heads are gonna roll if we mess this up," practically guarantee that people will play it safe rather than push the boundaries.
Great things are created by taking chances, and doing things that you may not know how to do right now.