Teaching Innovation. Notes from Speaking at the Harvard Social Innovation Collaborative

I spoke this week at a conference on Social Enterprise at Harvard College. Run by the Harvard College Social Innovation Collaborative, the conference is a one-week ‘startup scramble’ for international students from China and Harvard undergrads.

I was asked to kick off the second day of the conference by focusing on ‘Refining Ideas.’ I walked students through improving their ideas through both a bottom-up and top-down approach–aka, from the customer perspective (putting yourself in your shoes) and from the business perspective (making strategic business model decisions.)

Harvard Social Enterprise_Refning Ideas

There were a few main ideas in my talk:

People not Systems: Smart, well-educated folks tend to focus on systemic issues, such as ‘homelessness’ and ‘migrant labor’ without often, a keen understanding of how those issues come down to the level of lived experience for people. While being able to think systemically is a huge asset, it can blind people to what the real nuanced issues are, and lead people into cliche responses.

“Data” Matters: We form intellectual models of how the world works, what people want, how they make decisions and access products or services.Those models may not be true, and certainly, we often don’t have a good sense of the nuances, or specificity around amounts (eg. what hours of the day are working parents in service jobs?) Therefore, we need to check those assumptions against reality, through research. I introduced the participants to research methods, mostly drawn from IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit, for researching people’s wants, needs and patterns ‘from the bottom up.’

Be Nimble about Data: People often think that collecting data is expensive and requires a huge research effort and specialized knowledge. Not so. There are so many ways to take advantage of what’s already out there (location check in-data from Foursquare, keyword search data from Google) and to do quick information culls through surveys, experiments and observation. The key, when designing your quick research/experiments, is to be aware of the limitations of your data set (eg. what demographic uses Foursquare, so who are you missing?)

While a lot of my talk was focused on the bottom-up part, we spoke about the top-down as well, where research techniques are also helpful–whether it’s using existing business models to model yours off of, or looking at the competition (both direct and indirect.)

Teaching for Innovation: The Challenges

A few weeks ago, I caught up with Dr. Beth Altringer, whose class at Harvard, introduced me to innovation and design thinking. We chatted about the challenges of her class, in which students go through a human-centered design process to produce a startup that they’ll pitch and can take forward from the class, if they choose.

One of the challenges of the class is that there’s so much freedom: You and your team get to define the problem, run the fieldwork, and make a myriad of product/service design decisions. Students often struggle with all the decisions, and look to Beth to help them make them.

I remember how hard this part of the class was for me. Students are looking for the ‘right’ answer. Yet, the thing about startups and founding a business is that there is no ‘right’ answer. There are definitely answers that wont work, but instead of ‘right’ answers, there are just choices you make, based on the best information, intuition and vision you have, that play out there in the open field of life.

Beth has set up her class so it mimics, as closely as possible, the conditions of being out there in the real world. Students work in teams, which don’t always have great dynamics, and when teams struggle to work together, teaching staff won’t intervene to solve the problem, they coach students on solving their problems themselves. When students come to teaching staff, looking for the ‘right answer,’ the question is put right back at their feet.

Teaching for Innovation: Experience Design

Teaching in a “startup scramble” means not just providing content, but providing process. That’s the way I prefer to teach in my Build Yourself+ workshop, (it must be my history of hanging out in progressive education circles and institutions–shoutout to Francis Parker!) but it’s not as easy as it looks.

Learning is not a simple process of knowledge filling the brain like an empty container. Learning means learning to think in new ways, and there’s only so many new frameworks you can heap on people at a time.

Many of the students came into my talk without ideas to refine, still circling around the set of issues they wanted to address. Part of teaching well is being able to roll with the punches, so I worked with student groups where they were at, but I wonder, even if everyone had come in with an idea, ready to go, did they need to be walked through less frameworks, and more slowly?

When I was a design student, one of my classmates once told me that I was a ‘collector,’ that I collect lots of ideas and hold onto them for much longer than he would, before acting on them. He, on the other hand, would just pick an idea and move forward with it. Our studio projects were telling: My project addressed the nostalgic American notion of camping through an integrated grasslands management intervention and a movable sleeping pods system inspired by historic land survey methods. His project created a new, topographically diverse, ponded and decked landscape inspired by the habitat needs of frogs.

Different people think differently. That’s part of the wonder of teaching, but also the challenge of it. Teaching well means designing an experience that leads students step by step through a process,  but adjusting it and tailoring it, real time, to their needs and unique personalities. And perhaps what those steps should be and how big each is can only be found through “data,” through repeated experience.


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