How Not to Make a Catapult

With a soaring twenty-foot throwing arm, a hulking wooden frame, and three hundred pounds of sand hanging pendulously in its belly, our catapult made for an impressive school project. Mike and I had been working for weeks, but despite the machine’s fearsome appearance there was still plenty of work to be done. The latch that released the projectile was in particular giving us no end of trouble, alternately flinging its payload into the ground at our feet or sending us scampering for cover as potatoes and cantaloupes rained down from above. We put in countless afterschool afternoons and no small amount of engineering effort, but in the end were defeated. Where had we gone wrong? 

Let start by stepping back. Designers often talk about “Ah Ha” moments, where the problems that had been bedeviling them are suddenly resolved and a brilliant design makes itself known. Mine came a bit late, about twelve years late, after dozens of engineering courses, an undergraduate degree and a masters, and half of a PhD. It actually hit me last week, when I came across this picture in MAKE Magazine:



And here’s the big realization: Mike and I had been asking the wrong question. We had been looking for the best latch design that we could find, when what we actually wanted to do was fling a cantaloupe across a field. Since we cared about throwing fruit, that’s what we should have been asking how to do.

This is actually a hugely important lesson for creative work: getting the question right matters. And although there are about a million models out there for how to design products, the importance of framing the problem correctly is a common theme for all of them. By jumping straight to the issue of latch design, we were failing to think holistically about the task and had thus baked part of the solution (a reusable sling) into the question (how to fling a cantaloupe). If we had stepped back, we might have realized that we didn’t need a latch at all. MAKE's catapult gave the projectile itself a handle, and then hung the entire assembly from a peg on the throwing arm - no troublesome latch involved.

For exactly this reason, Stanford’s design school teaches its students to start their design process wide and identify as many crazy, off the wall ideas as possible before narrowing down to potential solutions. The visualizes the design process as an hourglass, moving from broad ideation into initial prototyping and then back out to testing and experimentation. Famed design firm IDEO follows a similar mantra, encouraging brainstormers to build on one another's crazy ideas and even using a bell to gently admonish people when they begin to critique ideas too early in the process.

Both the hourglass and the bell are intended to encourage divergent thinking in terms of the problem and its constraints. Once a universe of potential solutions have been explored, the designers then converge inward on the most promising ideas, which are now far less likely to have sub-optimal assumptions baked into them. In contrast, Mike and I started narrow and stayed narrow, and ended up with a pretty ineffective siege weapon. Asking the right question might have made all the difference.

Although this sounds simple, it isn’t. Business school classrooms are replete with examples of world-class firms that asked the wrong questions and suffered for it. Back in 2006, Nintendo had been all but counted out of the arms race between Microsoft and Sony, as the industry raced ahead to develop ever more innovative and powerful gaming consoles. But while Microsoft and Sony were asking how to improve the gaming experience for their existing customers (nerds), Nintendo stepped back and asked the right question: how could they sell more consoles? In doing so, they realized that there was a huge market associated with families who wanted to play fun games with one another, not kill photorealistic aliens. Upon its release, the Wii was named one of the most innovative products of the year, and has now sold over 96 million units - 40% more than either the Microsoft XBox or the Sony Playstation.

It’s a lesson that we might all do well to remember. For me and Mike, it would have meant winning the high school Latin Fair, and for Sony it might have meant capturing some of Nintendo’s $10 billion slice of the gaming industry. So the next time you find yourself stumped or stymied, step back. Are you even asking the right question?