Skip to main content

When you learned to drive, did you first learn how to turn the car on and drive around a parking lot practicing acceleration, braking, and turns? I sure did.

When you try to do something new for the first time, wouldn’t it be nice to try something similar on a smaller scale first? In most cases, I’d say yes! This is the exact idea behind running a proof of concept in project management.

A proof of concept is an opportunity to test, run an experiment, and discover tips and tricks for solving the problem or opportunity your project looks to address at a smaller scale before going big for prime-time implementation. 

In my experience, proof of concepts (sometimes called pilots) can often mean the difference between falling on my face in leading a project or being successful in getting to the root of the problem and leading the project to a successful implementation and conclusion. 

In this article, I’ll share some of my secrets to successful project execution, focusing on running small proof of concepts, pilots, and experiments.

Proof of Concept: A Definition

A proof of concept (POC) is a series of activities intended to demonstrate the potential effectiveness of a proposed project or change, including testing a business idea.

In essence, the POC proves that the project can work at a small-scale and provides a small data set or results that project leaders can then use to further iterate on the project plan to increase the likelihood of success for the larger-scale project. 

Proofs of concepts (sometimes called pilots) are super helpful to validate the potential success of a project, especially in cases where what is being attempted is new or novel, such as the creation of new products, technologies, and services, or changing processes.

Proof of Concept vs Proof of Value

While a proof of concept is intended to demonstrate the feasibility of a concept, idea, or change, a proof of value goes further to quantify the impact and benefits of the proposed solution.

In a proof of value, not only is feasibility tested, but the value of the change is measured, enabling quantitative analysis of the project’s intended outcomes. 

Let’s compare the two: 

Proof of ConceptProof of Value
Does it work?Does it work?
Does it deliver value? If so, how much? 

In practice, let’s say we’re considering implementing a new type of guest tracking system at a swimming pool.

Frequent swimmers buy a set of swims at a time and need to keep a punch card with them that is punched at the counter each day they come to swim. The pool is having a problem with swimmers (especially kids) sneaking past the admission ticketing window when the pool gets busy. 

The pool owner is considering switching to a different system for admission using self-serve ATM-like machines to issue tickets and a digital turnstile to admit swimmers after they scan their tickets.

The hope is that this process will reduce the number of sneaky swimmers while also minimizing the need for an employee to sell tickets during the day. 

A proof of concept for this change might include adding one ticket sales machine and turnstile along with having one of the swim sessions per day use the new method over a 1-week period, with an employee monitoring the entire process in the event that the digital tools fail.

Under the proof of concept model, if the ticket machine and turnstile admission process was successful, the POC would be considered a success!

Under the proof of value model, not only would the test be considered a success, but measurements for time saved on ticket sales and a decrease in sneaky swimmers would contribute to the proof of value measurement. 

In this example, I would actually suggest a proof of value test be conducted as the demonstrated value in implementing the new system would be a key consideration in budget allocation for implementing the new system. 

Proof of Concept vs Prototype

Prototypes are early physical or digital iterations, versions, or representations of a potential solution or tool. Prototypes are often found in software development or the product development process of physical or digital items. 

Similar to a proof of concept, a prototype tries to demonstrate how something could work but is not required to actually work in a test. Prototypes are most often seen in product creation, both physical and digital products. 

In our example of the ticket-selling machine for the swimming pool, a prototype application may be created to demonstrate the user experience of buying a ticket.

This prototype might not actually include the functionality of connecting to credit card services or accepting cash via a bill reader as those features would come later, once the prototype receives feedback and progresses to the next stage of product development. 

In contrast, a proof of concept is a bigger initiative than a prototype and looks to demonstrate the viability of the project or change. 

In this case, the proof of concept would be a deeper test of people using the digital ticket system to enter the pool area, where the prototype of the software would be much more limited in scope and function. 

Proof of ConceptPrototype
Does it work?How could this part work? 
What could this part look like?

chart showing differences between proof of value, proof of concept, and prototype
Proof of value, proof of concept, & prototype are related concepts, but in practice there's some differences in how they are used.

What about MVPs?

MVPs, or minimum viable products, are about building a working model that can function in the real world. 

An MVP takes a product idea and looks to build the simplest, lightest version of it that can still deliver value to the target audience, user, or stakeholder. Building an MVP is more like building an early version of a product and is best used for validation instead of concept testing or validating a use case. 

In my personal experiences working with development teams building new software products to meet market demands, an MVP might be built after a successful proof of concept has been validated and the idea is considered worth pursuing. When the MVP is built by the team members, it is closer to a light version of what they intend the final product to be. 

MVPs are great for collecting early user feedback and performance metrics on products, especially when teams want to better understand potential pain points and collect data on the usability and performance of a new product. 

MVPs, if done well, can also be a tool for business development, especially for early-stage companies.

If a startup or early-stage company can demonstrate value with an MVP, potential customers, and potential investors can get a better sense of the whole scope of the idea and product beyond what can be articulated and understood through presentations, videos, prototypes, and mockups. 

Sign up for our emails and be the first to see helpful how-tos, insider tips and tricks, and a collection of templates and tools.

  • Hidden
  • No spam, just quality content. Your inbox is safe with us. For more details, review our Privacy Policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

What Is The Purpose Of Proof Of Concept?

The purpose of a proof of concept is to demonstrate the potential success of a project idea or change. By completing a proof of concept, stakeholders get to see the result and assess the feasibility or viability of a project before investing the full allocation of resources. 

For project managers, completing a proof of concept is a smaller-scale experiment that can greatly assist further stages in the project because POCs allow for data collection and experimentation specific to the project initiative. 

As I always say, “I can’t fix what I don’t know about…” and running a POC allows project managers to learn about issues they might not learn about without trying a smaller-scale version of the project or change. 

Pro Tip

If you are running a project or change that impacts a large group of people such as implementing a new process, a POC can greatly help build awareness and champions within the target market for the new process while also pointing out many issues that might completely ruin your change if not addressed prior to launching at larger-scale.

Running a POC helps support long-term project success by identifying issues early which minimizes risk for your full-scale implementation and may even reduce costs while also building stakeholder engagement and confidence because they got to see the idea work on a smaller scale before moving to prime-time large-scale implementation. 

5 Proof Of Concept Examples

Here are a few examples of proof of concepts at work in various disciplines.

1. Software Engineering

Proof of concept practices is exceptionally common across STEM. In software engineering, proof of concepts is implemented to validate the need for new systems or services.

New software startups often produce a pre-production version of their app to have a select population give it a try and provide feedback—this is a proof of concept!

2. Product Development

In product development, proof of concepts might include testing new material for apparel.

Nike is famous for their various proof of concepts over the years, starting from the famous waffle sole running shoe, and later moving on to developing new materials such as Flyknit and even integrating running shoe sole surfaces with prosthetic legs for runners

3. Television Production

In television production, TV series often produce a pilot episode at the first initial episode to get feedback from and to validate that the concept, actors, and topics are relevant and important to viewers.

These pilot episodes often become the first episode of the series, and this is often the reason that some pilot or first episodes feel so different from the following episodes; some even have different characters or actors! 

4. Pharmaceuticals

In pharmaceutical development, proof of concept processes are carried out through pilot studies, and various levels of clinical drug trials. These processes give feedback to the drug creators which helps them to create a safer, more effective drug for the masses! 

5. Process Change

One of my favorite examples of running a proof of concept on a process change was in a project I led at a large software company where we ramped up hiring in 2020 and 2021 and needed to completely change the way we executed onboarding, but there were so many teams and people involved we didn’t know where to start. 

Instead of overhauling everything at once, we created a small team to define and build a proof of concept, a new process that was used on a few specific new hires. We executed the changes and tested the process on a few folks and collected feedback along the way. 

What we learned was so incredibly valuable that we were able to shift the way we were thinking about the process entirely, leading to a much better long-term outcome that was more sustainable, more automated, and produced a better result—bravo POC!

While these are all great examples of how a proof of concept can help support project success, not all projects require a PoC. 

For instance, if a project involves implementing a well-known technology or process, a pilot project or a feasibility study might be sufficient to test the concept's viability. POCs are most helpful when doing something new, for the first time or in a new context. 

How To Plan And Execute A Proof Of Concept

Proof of concepts can happen within an existing project or change initiative or might be a standalone project on their own, depending on how the development of the concept has been progressing thus far.

Either way, when planning and executing a proof of concept, follow these steps to get started in determining if the idea will work!

1. Identify the Problem or Opportunity

The first step in planning a proof of concept is identifying what it is that you want to try or test. Figure out what you think can happen, and how. Build the beginnings of a project plan, including scope, schedule, and cost. 

When getting started in this step, I like to go for a full-on project charter or overview document to share with anyone and everyone that will be related to or working on the project and POC.

Remember, just because a POC is smaller than a full-scale implementation doesn’t mean people don’t need thorough communication about it. 

2. Define Success Criteria for the POC

Once you have the problem to solve and you have an approach you want to test, it’s critical that you define success criteria for the POC. When you execute the POC, you do not want it to be up in the air as to if you were successful or not. 

Defining success criteria will help everyone understand not only what you are trying to achieve, but they will have a clear understanding of when you have achieved the goal because the desired outcome is detailed in the success criteria. 

Success criteria can be both experiential and outcome-focused. For example, your success criteria could include identifying if a new process can work on a small scale, or it might simply include gathering 5 key takeaways from the experience to inform the next steps in project development. 

3. Build a Plan for Implementing and Executing the POC

Once you have an idea of what you are trying to accomplish and how the success of the POC will be measured, it’s time to build a plan that reflects the opportunity you are trying to test and works to achieve the success criteria outlined in the previous step. 

The plan for implementation and execution must be time-boxed and must be a representative sample or test for what could be implemented at larger scale to address the problem or opportunity identified. 

Pro Tip

In your planning for the POC, be as specific as you can and over-communicate! While a POC might seem like a small step on the way to project delivery, successful completion of the POC is often a critical milestone to gaining full approval and funding to move forward with the larger scale project or implementation.

Don’t take the POC lightly—it can mean the difference between moving forward or canceling your project! 

4. Determine Required Resources

Once your plan is defined, you’ll need to gather the required resources. Work with your core project team to figure out who needs to be involved, then work with the various managers of resources or teams within your organization to gain approval for folks to be involved. 

I find it is easier to get commitment from managers across an organization when the ask is time-bound and specific, such as it is with a POC!

When talking to managers, I often talk about testing a new idea, finding out if something will work, and the opportunity for them or one of the people on their teams to be included in ensuring the solution works for their part of the organization. 😀

5. Run the Experiment and Collect Feedback!

The next step in your POC journey is to run the experiment! Run the POC! Kick it off with a joyful celebration and communication. Pay close attention to everything as it gets started. Remember, this is a test, so anything you observe, correct, nudge, or support along the way should be noted in a lessons learned template so that the full implementation is better than imagined! 

When you run your POC, be sure you have a timebox and everyone involved understands the success criteria not only for their area of the POC but for the POC overall.

When the POC ends, celebrate the involvement of all resources and teams as you collect feedback and lessons learned to be incorporated into your results and project plan for the full-scale implementation.

6. Share Your Results

Finally, once your POC has concluded and feedback is gathered and organized, it’s time to share the results of your POC experiment with project stakeholders, sponsors, and interested parties. 

Share about the problem you tried to address, how you went about it, what resources you engaged, the success criteria for the experiment, how the experiment went, and what lessons learned you gathered. 

Going through these results both in written and verbal (yes, a meeting) format will not only help people understand the POC and that it has ended, but it will inspire confidence in your ability to lead POCs and their positive impact on making longer-term projects implementations a success. 

Getting Started On Your POC

As you get started planning your proof of concept, don’t forget to stick to the project management basics of planning, communication, documentation, and collaboration

Many of the principles of full-scale project management apply to a POC, just at a smaller scale and hopefully in a shorter time. 

Next, and as usual, please consider subscribing to The Digital Project Manager newsletter so articles like this and more are delivered to you, hopefully when you need them most!

By Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is an agilist and digital project manager with a passion for people, process, and technology. In her day-to-day, Liz works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR software company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. Liz also teaches an Operations Leadership course in the MBA program at the University of Portland, and is working towards completing a Doctorate at the University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership. Liz holds numerous project management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work. Liz has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting, and technology firms.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.