Mark Brinkerhoff: Starting With a Sketch Saves Money

A great short briefing by Mark Brinkerhoff on how starting with a sketch saves money; he uses a simple HVAC design example but the technique is broadly applicable.

Mark Brinkerhoff: Starting With a Sketch Saves Money

So time is money. Sketching saves time, so sketching saves money.

Imagine that you have an idea and want to explore possibilities with that idea. You have a couple of choices. You could draw it on a CAD system, as many engineers do. Or you could sketch the concept on a whiteboard or a piece of paper very quickly and study the concepts.

So let’s take an example. Imagine that you wish to invent a device that redistributes heat in your home to save energy. Maybe some of the rooms in your house get too hot, and others stay too cold. Maybe the room has a window in it. And in my house, there are registers on the floor. But sometimes they’re on the ceiling or the wall. Those registers pump out cooling air or heating air.

Let’s imagine this room is overheated or overcooled, depending on summer or winter, and you want to create a device that works in the register like a valve.

What would the valve look like? The side facing the room would still look like a register. But on the back side, you could have a flapper valve controlled remotely by a thermostat in the room.

You could then walk up to the thermostat and select how hot or how cold you wanted the room to be. And when the temperature in the room reaches that point, the thermostat will shut off the valve, and other rooms could get the extra cooling or extra heating they require. Overall you save money.

Again, continuing with our sketching: what’s inside the sketch? Well, maybe it’s got two parts. So this part would be the grill. And this part would be the valve. If we want it remote so that it’s wireless communication between that and the wall, we would imagine a motor drive system that links these–valves, shutters, or louvers–to rotate in and out. So in Sketch form, we’ve communicated the idea very, very quickly.

We could have gone straight to the CAD system with this, but the time to create a CAD model would have taken much longer than what you just saw. Depending on how much detail you create, it can take the better part of a day.

Edited transcript for Mark Brinkerhoff’s “Starting With a Sketch Saves Money

SKMurphy Take

Mark’s approach to sketching offers several advantages in exploring requirements and negotiating a project. His focus is on capturing meaning and intent before detail. He outlined a system and the key relationships between different elements that would work together to solve the customer’s problem.

It’s natural at any point in the sketching process to ask questions to clarify requirements or constraints and solicit feedback. You can also hand the pen to the prospect and ask them to extend or amend the sketch.

Because the graphic is clearly a draft, the prospect can erase it and start over, but that is very different from asking them to start with a blank sheet. Asking someone to draw will often unlock an insight or critique that was difficult to put into words–it also encourages them to speak.

Mark is wise to resist the “premature elaboration” that a CAD system will require. This applies to any support tool that provides valuable accuracy but requires you to enter a lot of detail. For example, suppose you are defining your business model. In that case, I think it’s harder to capture your high-level view–and key uncertainties–in a spreadsheet instead of sketching a basic value stream, a process flow, or a block diagram for critical functions.

“If you talk with a pen you can offer richer insights.
If you listen with a pen you can unlock more insights from a prospect”
Kate Rutter (@katerutter)

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