So Here’s What I’ve Been Thinking…

I was interviewed at the Stanford Business School and in listening to the podcast, I realize I repeated some of my usual soundbites but embedded in the conversation were a few things I’ve never shared before about service.

Listen here:

Steve Blank on Silicon Valley, AI and the Future of Innovation

Download the .mp3 here:

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What the Harvard Business Review and The People’s Daily think about leadership succession

I had to laugh when my post about what happens when innovative CEOs retire or die appeared in both the bastion of capitalism– the Harvard Business Reviewand in the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party – The People’s Daily.

Then I didn’t.
hbr-and-peoples-daily-2
A Story is Just a Story
Why the Harvard Business Review published the story has a pretty simple explanation. In an increasingly disruptive 21st century CEO succession has a major impact on a company, its employees and shareholders. I offered my view of what happens to innovative companies and why it happens, and used Microsoft and Apple as examples.

Reading the Tea Leaves
It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime I’ve seen entrepreneurship go from a crime to an aspiration in China. Why the People’s Daily published the story also appears to have a pretty simple explanation. While the paper is the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, and read mostly by members of the party, the paper’s business section is now the voice of state-directed capitalism. CEO succession is an equally important issue in China, and the story has equal relevance there.

However…

The People’s Daily is not your average newspaper. The paper’s editorials are major policy announcements. Party members and seasoned China watchers read it carefully to gauge which way the political wind is blowing. Often the story is written “between the lines.”

A Party In a Hotel
A month ago the 370 full and alternate members of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee met in a hotel in Beijing. Since China is ruled by the Communist Party, these meetings are where major policies and the long term direction of the economy and country get hashed out. Party leaders jockey for position, and existing players try to retain control and silence competing factions, and new players try to gain power.

This plenum is a run-up to next years 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China which will be held in Beijing in the fall of 2017.  Next year’s Party Congress is essentially China’s national election. There, the 2,300 party delegates at the congress, representing 88 million Communist Party members, will elect the new leadership of the Communist Party of China, including the Central Committee and General Secretary, Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee (the top decision-making body) and Central Military Commission.

A Story is Just a Story – Until It’s Not
So what does this have to do with the story in The People’s Daily? Probably nothing.

However …

The Sixth Plenum gave Chinese President Xi Jinping the title of “core” of the leadership. Calling Xi “core” means that he may use it to ignore the term limits, tenure or retirement age that Chinese leadership has used for the last 30 years. Tightening his grip on the party leadership means Xi may rule China for at least three terms – 2012 until 2027.

Rumor has it that this didn’t sit well with others in the party. Some said Xi “has amassed too much control and has eroded traditions of collective leadership, built up to prevent a return to the arbitrary abuses of Mao’s final decades.”

Succession planning was certainly a topic of discussion among the party leadership.

The last line of my article on succession, on the front page of the business section, said, “然而,具有讽刺意味的是,今天,你把手中的产品 和市场握得越紧,往往越容易失去。”

Ironically, today the tighter you grip your product and market, the easier it is to lose.

I wonder if someone was sending a message?

Hacking for Diplomacy – The State Department Takes Notice

h4dip-screen-shotWe’ve just held our seventh and eighth weeks of Hacking for Diplomacy at Stanford, and the attention our course is getting from Washington – and around the world – has been interesting. Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with the students early in the quarter, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken paid a visit to the class in Week 7 and four foreign ministers in week 8

If there was any doubt among the teams about the value of what they’re learning, Blinken put it to rest with a compelling overview of how so many of today’s complex global problems – from stopping Ebola to monitoring cease-fires and improving food security – demand innovative, tech-based solutions.

Students got the chance to ask Blinken directly for his take on their challenges, such as  countering violent extremism and improving data on refugees who perish on their journeys. Their presentations hit the mark with the deputy secretary:

blnkken-tweetIn Week 8, we were joined by a powerhouse panel of four veteran diplomats: Alexander Downer, Australia’s current high commissioner to the United Kingdom and former foreign minister of Australia; Borys Tarasiuk, former foreign minister of Ukraine; Jaime Gama, former foreign minister of Portugal; and Don McKinnon, former foreign minister of New Zealand. They shared their experiences of how technology has enhanced – and threatens to undermine – diplomatic work.

foreign-ministers-in-h4dip

Hacking for Diplomacy takes the Lean Startup methodology and applies it to problems sourced from the State Department. Teams are continuing their relentless interviewing of customers, or beneficiaries as we call them in this class. For our students, that can mean anyone from a Syrian refugee trying to make contact with his family back home, to a supply chain manager for a major apparel brand who wants to make sure his contract factory in Bangladesh doesn’t use forced labor.

The students “get out of the building” and test their hypotheses in front of potential beneficiaries using the Customer Development methodology, all while building and updating their Minimal Viable Products. By the time the quarter is over, we expect our seven teams will have interviewed close to 700 potential beneficiaries around the globe. What we’re driving at is evidence-based, entrepreneurial solutions to big diplomatic challenges.

Each team continues to capture its work on a Mission Model Canvas – a modified version of the Business Model Canvas that’s at the heart of the Lean Startup methodology.  The nine boxes of the canvas help students visualize all the components needed to turn beneficiaries’ needs and problems into a solution.

mission-model-canvasOver these last two weeks, teams began to transition from the right side of the Mission Model Canvas to the left. They’ve been puzzling out what they would need to do to deploy their value proposition (a product, service or both). And they’ve been figuring out the feasibility of how they deliver the value proposition on the right side of the canvas. Feasibility requires the teams to figure out what are the key activities, resources and partners they would need to deliver their product or service to their beneficiaries and their State Department sponsors.

desire-feasible

  • Activities are the strategies of what the team needs to do to deliver the value proposition on the right side of the canvas to the beneficiaries. Activities might include hardware or software development, mastering a 10,000 mile supply chain, low-cost manufacturing, or to provide services in a foreign country.
  • Resources are what the team needs to hire or own inside their company — the team’s physical, financial, human and intellectual property.
  • Partners are the third parties also necessary to execute the activities, which in the case of our students’ challenges might include nongovernmental organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross working with refugees, amateur astronomers tracking space junk, and even former Islamic extremists who have left terrorist groups and now want to help dissuade others from going down that path.  In the context of the State Department, partners are particularly important because State rarely has the financial resources to push forward an innovation, though the U.S. government does have some unique convening power and the ability to tap external talent and resources.

Teams have been working their hearts out, and some have had to pivot hard when their hypotheses were invalidated and their minimum viable products (MVPs0 were met with shrugs of apathy. In these final weeks, they have to dig deep.

At this point in the class, it can be tempting for those who have momentum to get a little complacent, believing they’ve got a good handle on their problem. Others have had their enthusiasm curbed by frustration, and are still casting about for a fresh value proposition after striking out with their MVPs thus far.

Each team stands up in front of the class each week and reports on its progress and setbacks. The teaching team delivers comments, pulling no punches. It’s tough. But it ensures that students really see, warts and all, the complex process it takes to conceive and deliver a successful product or service.

L.A. Times China bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, and is part of our mentorship team, has been taking notes on Weeks 7 and 8. She shares her observations below.


As America’s No. 2 diplomat, Tony Blinken isn’t the kind of guy who has lots of spare time to help students with their homework. But there he was on a Thursday evening in early November, sitting down for several hours with undergrads and graduate students in Stanford’s Hacking for Diplomacy class, answering their questions about the tough challenges the State Department is grappling with: the largest wave of human displacement worldwide since World War II. Tony_BlinkenTerrorists harnessing the internet to radicalize and recruit new members. The rising international competition in space and escalating potential for collisions that could knock out critical military and commercial satellites.

For the deputy secretary, such a dialogue in Silicon Valley is not a matter of charity, but necessity. After a quarter-century in government – serving with the National Security Council, the Senate Armed Services Committee and now State – Blinken says Washington can no longer afford to pretend it can solve such complex problems alone.

“We have stakeholders two or three times a day in the White House situation room, grappling with everything from the crisis in Syria to Ebola to the refugee crisis around the world,” he said. “The thing that struck me so powerfully then was that virtually everything we were doing was at the intersection of foreign policy, and technology and innovation…. And yet, most of us responsible for trying to develop foreign policy don’t come from that background” of technology and innovation.

“We don’t have that mindset or that expertise,” he admitted to the class. “We need technologists and innovators in the room just to tell us if we need technologists and innovators in the room.”

Hacking for Diplomacy is an attempt to get some of those technologists and innovators into the room, at least figuratively, for a 10-week academic quarter — and maybe longer, if the class piques their interest in public service. At the same time, it’s a chance to expose some career State Department employees to Silicon Valley thinking.

Since late September, seven small teams of students from diverse academic backgrounds – computer science, law, engineering, business and more – have been working closely with mentors from the State Department to tackle difficult problems vexing Foggy Bottom.

Eight weeks in, the students and their State Department mentors are now deeply steeped in the Lean framework, which Steve Blank and his four fellow teachers have modified slightly to the peculiarities of solving problems in the realm of diplomacy. (Customers, for example, are recast as “beneficiaries,” and instead of identifying revenue streams, these diplo-preneurs are interested in defining “mission achievement.”)

The student teams have learned tons about how the State Department is organized and how it works (or doesn’t). And they’ve absorbed and analyzed incredible amounts of information about their topic of concern.

But students are learning how hard it is, even once you have amassed a fair bit of knowledge about your target market and prospective customers, to come up with a product or solution that anyone wants to “snatch out of your hand,” as Blank would say.

A giant fork in the road
Team Space Evaders, for example, which is working on preventing collisions in space, arrived in class on Week 8 with a funny slide that featured a picture of a giant fork planted in a roadway.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

The message: They’re facing a crucial decision of whether to continue with their previous Minimal Viable Product (MVP) – crowdsourcing data on the size and shape of objects in orbit to create a basic data platform – or pivot hard to a new idea. The previous MVP, they admitted, was “looking shaky” for a variety of reasons, particularly how to source the data, and had generated mixed reactions when they showed it to potential customers/beneficiaries.

So the team is looking to pivot hard to a new idea – creating a “debris footprint index” that would rate or rank items already in orbit (and those being launched) on their potential for becoming a hazard to other objects. Think of it as sort of a carbon footprint-type schema that would be based on metrics such as time the object is to remain in orbit, its specific orbital location, and its mass.

The team drew its inspiration from the environmental realm after noting some similarities between the problems of space junk and greenhouse gas emissions. Both are “global commons” problems. When the world was just waking up to the issue of global warming, for example, many countries claimed that they were acting responsibly, but emissions data was shaky. Bad actors/big emitters were not punished, and good actors were not rewarded.

Today, the problem is much the same in space – and the orbits above the earth are getting more crowded by the day as more countries and private countries launch satellites. Could a “debris footprint index” serve to raise awareness of the space debris issue – and give regulators or treaty negotiators some kind of common ground from which to start discussions, the same way carbon footprints did? That’s the team new hypothesis.

Blinken in Week 7 had encouraged the Space Evaders team to consider coming up with a product that would illustrate the growing severity of the problem and encourage other countries to more proactively share data and agree on norms.

“Ironically for the U.S.,  given the dependence of our economy and military on space and satellites, we face greatest risk of all,” he said.

“Drawing that picture, of  what space looks like without [action] would be a good way to start. …. We need to show the benefits to different countries, and show them that this is not going to undermine their interests, including their security interests,” he said. “I’ve got to admit it’s one of the things we’ve been struggling with.”

Space Evaders will be testing their new MVP with potential beneficiaries over the next two weeks.

Hacking Counter Terrorism
Another team that has pivoted hard and employed analogous modeling to come up with a new MVP is the one working on countering violent extremism. Back in Week 6, the teaching team had unceremoniously “fired their idea” because their MVP was deemed to be too far afield from the original problem sourced by the State Department.


If you can’t see the presentation click here


In Weeks 7 and 8, this team has gone back to the drawing board and taken inspiration from suicide prevention hotlines. Could a similar type of hotline system serve as a means to intervene with people who are expressing interest in joining radical groups? Could such a hotline also be a resource for the friends or family members of people who are expressing an inclination toward joining organizations like ISIS?

From Sharpies and T-shirts to ID bracelets
Other teams are moving ahead and iterating on MVPs generated in Weeks 4 and 5. Team 621, for example, which is tacking the problem of how to identify refugees who die en route to their destinations, several weeks ago proposed an elegantly simple solution: What if we could just convince migrants to write the phone number of a friend or relative on their clothing with a Sharpie permanent marker? Not their own name, or any other identifying information.


If you can’t see the presentation click here


That way, if tragedy were to strike the migrants en route to their destinations and their bodies were found, those authorities handling the corpses could use this contact information to inform the deceased’s loved ones.  Last year alone, more than 3,700 people died at sea in the Mediterranean and only about a third of the bodies were identified.

The initial MVP generated a significant amount of intrigue both in the classroom and outside. But Blank and the teaching team encouraged the students to keep “getting outside the building” and iterating their MVP – particularly with refugees themselves and the first responders tasked with handling corpses in front-line countries like Greece and Italy.

In Weeks 7 and 8, Team 621 expanded on the T-shirt idea by proposing ID bracelets that could be encoded with more complete information registered via a smartphone – and possibly be of benefit not only in the case of migrants who perish but those who survive the journey.

The team created an elaborate map showing the transit and smuggling routes from dozens of African countries to the Mediterranean, and possible distribution points for such bracelets in hubs served by groups like Red Cross/Red Crescent.

team-621-week-8

They tested this updated MVP with refugees and made some surprising discoveries. Contrary to their expectation that migrants might be reluctant to provide birthdates and other more detailed identifying information on a bracelet, refugees they interviewed expressed a willingness to do so if it would mean their family could be notified in the event of their death.

But their hypothesis that migrants could or would use smartphones was invalidated – their Customer Discovery interviews revealed that many migrants use only basic mobile phones because they fear that more expensive models may be stolen by smugglers.

In the final weeks of class, Team 621 is focusing on the critical activities they would need to do deploy their product — including how to get the bracelets to migrants and get them to wear them, and how to incentivize first responders to use the data on them. They’re also focusing on developing relationships with and getting buy-in from key partners like the Red Cross and other NGOs. Over the next two weeks, they’ll be drilling down on potential costs to deploy the solution – initial research indicates that the bracelets would cost $0.19 each while Sharpie markers run $0.375 apiece.

Looking ahead
With just two weeks left in the class, students know that not all teams will come up with a product/solution that will be deployed to the field. Nevertheless, many say they can see themselves applying the Lean LaunchPad techniques they’ve learned to their future endeavors.

Christos Makridis, a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Economics and Department of Management Science & Engineering who is on the team tackling how to better evaluate peacekeeping forces funded by the United States, said he signed up for Hacking for Diplomacy to “push the envelope” on his learning. christosHe’s hoping to take some of the Lean methods back to his work in economics.

“I think my catalyst for taking the class was: How would some of these business ideas be useful to generate new ideas in the academic economics community? How do we bring some of these best practices over to academia?” he said.

“For example, I love the idea of prototyping. Why can’t academics prototype their papers more often instead of passing them by people once a year after they’re almost entirely written?” he asked.

Makridis said while the class has been a much greater time commitment than he ever anticipated, he’s been energized by the potential to make a dent in a real-world problem.

“Sometimes you think, oh, the U.S. government, they must have state-of-the-art data scientists on this problem or that problem. But no, they don’t and in some cases, they don’t know certain meetings are going on” that could help them solve their issue, he said.

His team, for example, found out through their customer discovery interviews that some critical data that bureaucrats in Washington needed was actually available at the United Nations but wasn’t being transmitted to D.C.

“There is so much room for improvement,” he said. “It’s cool to be able to spot these kinds of opportunities and possibly make a real contribution.”



Machine Learning Meets the Lean Startup

We just finished our Lean LaunchPad class at UC Berkeley’s engineering school where many of the teams embedded machine learning technology into their products.

It struck me as I watched the teams try to find how their technology would solve real customer problems, is that machine learning is following a similar pattern of previous technical infrastructure innovations. Early entrants get sold to corporate acquirers at inflated prices for their teams, their technology, and their tools. Later entrants who miss that wave have to build real products that people want to buy.

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I’ve lived through several technology infrastructure waves; the Unix business, the first AI and VR waves in the 1980’s, the workstation wave, multimedia wave, the first internet wave. Each of those had a set of common characteristics that the Gartner Group characterizes as the Hype Cycle .

hype-cycle-gartner

The five stages of the hype cycle are:

Stage 1: The Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Stage 2: Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; most don’t.

Stage 3: Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.

Stage 4: Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.

Stage 5: Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

Shiny Object meets First Mover Advantage
What’s become apparent in the last few technology hype cycles is that for startups and their investors there is a short multi-year window of opportunity (at the Peak of Inflated Expectations) to sell a startup at an inflated price. This occurs because large technology companies (Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, Twitter, Apple, Salesforce, Intel, et al,) and increasingly other non-tech firms, are in an arms race to stay relevant. For example, according to CBInsights nearly 140 machine intelligence have been acquired since 2011, with over 40 being bought so far in 2016.

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Most often the first acquisitions in a hype cycle are for the “shiny objects” – the technology, the team and the tools. The acquired technical teams usually start up or complement the company’s research group in a specific new technology area.hype-cycle

If you’re a startup (or their investors) getting acquired at this point in the hype cycle is exactly where you want to be – short time in business, large acquisition price, value based on a frenzy, perceived scarcity of expertise, and fear of a competitor getting the key talent.

History shows that the acquirers often overpay buying this expertise early. While these acquisitions have teams of great researchers, they rarely contribute actual revenue generating products (because most never reached that stage when they were acquired.)  The irony is that the acquisitions made later in the hype cycle – when companies have built real products that customers want, are the ones that generate revenue and profit for the acquirer.

I had all that in mind as we watched our teams present.

Machine Learning Meets Lean – Berkeley Lean LaunchPad Class

Each of our teams in this class followed the canonical Lean model:

  1. Articulate your hypotheses using the business model canvas
  2. Get of the building and test those hypotheses using customer development
  3. Validate learning by building minimal viable products and getting them in front of customers

Each week the teams got out of the classroom and talked to 10-15 customers, testing a new part of the business model canvas.  And after week two, they had to build and then update their minimal viable product weekly. And present what they learned each week in an 8-minute presentations.

The presentations below are their final Lessons Learned presentations, along with a 2-minute video summary.

SalesStash
Three Berkeley PhD computer science students and an MBA working on machine learning. How can you not hit out of the park on day one?

This team epitomized rapid learning. Once their initial assumptions ran into the wall of actual customer feedback they rapidly built multiple minimum viable products (MVPs) and kept pivoting until they found product/market fit (i.e. a customer segment that was grabbing the product out of their hands.)

If you can’t see the video click here

If you can’t see the presentation click here

Delphi
Before this class this team had spent three months in an incubator building the product after talking to only one customer. After  week two of the class they realized they had wasted three months building something no one actually wanted. What they next learned was pretty amazing.

If you can’t see the video click here

If you can’t see the presentation click here

Homeslice
Homeslice had a great journey. They came together over a personal pain – the inability to afford a house in Silicon Valley. Their initial plan was to provide fractional ownership to solve that problem. But they found that first serving an adjacent market – slices of investment properties – could serve as a launchpad for their initial idea of fractional home ownership.

If you can’t see the video click here

If you can’t see the presentation click here

Exit Strategy
Exit Strategy was building the penultimate planning tool. This teams learning that this wasn’t a business was as important as finding one that is. Really impressive process.

If you can’t see the video click here

If you can’t see the presentation click here



This class this was a team effort. Professor Kurt Keutzer and Errol Arkilic (former program director for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps), now founder of M34 Capital) were the lead instructors. Steve Weinstein (CEO of MovieLabs) and I assisted. Thanks to our TA Kathryn Crimmins and all the team mentors: Lev Mass, Kanu Gulati, Ewald Detjens, James Cham, Kanu Gulati, Patrick Chung, Rick Lazansky, Ashmeet Sidhana, Mike Olson, Michael Borrus, Fabrizo De Pasquale, Amit Kumar, Rob Rodick, Mar Hershenson.

How The Marine Corps Builds an Innovation Culture

marine-corps-logoJennifer Edgin is the Chief Technology Officer of the Intelligence Division at the Headquarters of the Marine Corps. As the Senior Technical Advisor to the Director of Intelligence, she is responsible for building and infusing new technologies within the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE). Jennifer is one the “innovation insurgents” inside the Department of Defense driving rapid innovation. Here’s her story of the Lean innovation accelerator she’s built for the Marines.


If you asked 100 people to describe a United States Marine, they would probably use words such as “Warrior,” “Fierce,” “Patriot,” “Honorable,” and “Tough.” Marine Corps culture transcends generations and is rooted in the values of courage, honor, and commitment.  Marines are known for adapting to change and overcoming obstacles and adversity to meet new mission requirements continuously.  Three years ago, Marine Corps Intelligence outlined a mission to harness the disruptions occurring in the new frontier of warfare, the Electronic battlefield. To achieve this mission, we established a framework that leveraged Marine Corps tenacity, agility, and adaptability to create a persistent culture of innovation.

One of our primary goals in establishing this framework was to keep the user front and center, and to quickly deliver solutions to their challenges. To achieve this, we stood up the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE) Accelerator. Like a tech startup accelerator, the MCISRE Accelerator assembles a cohort of active duty Marines of all ranks, experiences, and disciplines and pairs them with developers, designers, and mentors through a 12-week “Design—Develop—Deploy” cycle.  Marines are taught tools and methodologies from the Lean Startup, Design Thinking, and Service Design practices, which are then used to zero in on a problem; identify the target customer segment; validate the problem and solution by “getting out of the building” and submitting their problem and concept designs to peers for feedback, designing wireframes and prototypes, developing a minimum viable product (MVP); and finally pitch the MVP to the Director of Intelligence (DIRINT) and other leaders and stakeholders for a go/no-go decision for release.

Over the course of the last year, we have carefully measured and monitored our framework so we could quickly identify what was working, what was not working, and tune accordingly so that the end result created value for both the Marines in the cohort and the larger community of Marine Corps Intelligence. Below are the top 5 factors we found are necessary to successfully innovate.

1. Understand Your Customer and Teach Them to Solve Real Problems
Innovation begins and ends with understanding the customer and the specific problems they are facing. Too often in government, problems are talked about in generalizations, users are not part of the design and development of solutions, and anecdotal information gets passed around without data to validate it until at some point it becomes “truth” and is accepted without verification.

distributed-common-ground-surface-systemOne of the most difficult exercises for our cohorts is distilling “world-hunger”-level challenges into discrete, focused problems we can solve in 12 weeks. We learned that if you cannot define your problem in one sentence that a 7 year-old can understand, you don’t understand the problem.  If you want to create innovative solutions, you must start by defining real problems. Real problems—when defined properly—have metrics that quantify the scope, magnitude, and impact.

Before we launched the MCISRE Accelerator, we conducted site visits, and spoke with Marines from around the world to hear from them what wasn’t working and what was.  After our site visits, we identified common issues across each of the sites, disciplines, and ranks, and launched data surveys to explore and quantify problems.  The data showed us how users were currently performing a mission, where deficits existed in enabling technology and processes, and which anecdotal problems were actual problems and which were not. We then compared the results of the surveys with the site survey interviews and prepared a list of the top issues and challenges facing Marine Corps Intelligence. When we launched the MCISRE Accelerator, we used this information to quickly move the focus of the cohort from the world-hunger view to zeroing in one or two key issues that caused major disruptions in their tasking and productivity.

One of the biggest benefits to this process was that it helped shift the focus of the Marines from nebulous systems-centric thinking—“The network architecture sucks”—to identifying specific pain points impeding their productivity on the job. Because the tools and methodologies we use are simple but highly effective for analysis and problem solving, many of our cohort Marines take them back to their units so that they can reframe problems within their communities of practice.

2. Always Be Shipping
If vision without execution is hallucination, frameworks that don’t produce tangible products breed insanity.  Within the MCISRE we have two frameworks that engage Marines. Our yearly technical design meeting (TDM) brings together Marines to identify and address challenges and issues across the MCISRE. The outputs of the technical design meeting are used as primers for defining the problem themes that each MCISRE Accelerator cohort will work on.  The MCISRE Accelerator pairs Marines with developers and designers who work collaboratively both in person and virtually to design, prototype, and then develop and build a minimum viable product (MVP) in 12 weeks.  These two frameworks allow us to continuously innovate from within, creating a pipeline of challenges to be solved over the long term and implementing against them iteratively and quickly.  This rapid implementation creates real metrics that allow us to create quick, measurable value and kill bad ideas before too much time, money, and human capital has been spent on them. Rapid implementation also allows leadership to make quicker decisions on where, when, and how to apply resources.marine-map-photo

3.  Always Be Measuring
Big idea fairies live everywhere, sometimes for a very long time. This can be particularly true in the government where the acquisition lifecycle imposes “shipbuilding timelines” on information technology systems. Successful innovation requires one simple act: always be measuring. Using the Lean Startup methodology to build, learn, and measure in a 12-week cycle provides quantifiable data and user feedback that allows us to validate problem/solution fit quickly. By the time our cohort is pitching to the DIRINT and other leaders and stakeholders, the minimum viable product (MVP) has metrics that validate its value to users as well as prevent redundancy, loss of, or misalignment of capability, funding, and other key resources.

4.  To think differently…be different
Most meetings within the government involve PowerPoint, a conference table, and a bunch of subject matter experts espousing the relative merits or demerits of a point. These meetings can last hours to weeks, and at the end, there might be nothing tangible to show. When we set out to create this culture of innovation, we knew that to get people to do things differently, we had to get them to think differently.

Our first mission value was to create an experience for our Marines, stakeholders, and mentors that was counter to the typical meetings they were used to and focused on establishing a co-creative environment where everyone’s input had value regardless of rank, experience, and skill.  Our technical design meetings and Accelerators use little technology; are not set up as lectures; encourage jeans and your favorite T-shirt; and require constant, active participation. When you walk into our rooms, you will see Marines on their feet, Post-It notes and markers in hand, diagramming, sketching, and plotting furiously on white boards, flip charts, and any other available surface.  They paper the room with problem statements, lean canvases, journey maps, value proposition canvases, process flows, wireframes, and Pixar-worthy storyboards. By the end of the week, you can walk the walls and see the progression of problem to solution in their words, through their eyes, from their point of view. This process takes Marines outside of the normal rank structure that they are accustomed. It is admittedly uncomfortable for them at first. But within hours of the kickoff, these simple tactics result in ideation, collaboration, and production that is evident to them and fundamentally changes how they approach problem solving and conduct meetings when they return to their units.marines-hit-the-beach

5.  Do It Again… and Again… and Again
With any new skill, repetition is important.  Marines don’t learn close order drill with a one-time explanation, they spend countless hours on the drill field until they have mastered it.  We apply the same repetition mindset for our innovation methodology because it creates an environment of continuous learning.  With every repetition, we learn more about our problems and how we can solve them.  We learn which solutions are working and which ones are not.  We learn what techniques for engaging Marines are working and which ones are not. We learn how the operating environment is evolving.  Continuous learning is the objective of our innovation activities, and it is more powerful than the solution itself.  Learning means successes, learning means failures, learning means growth.

November 10, 2016 marks the 241th anniversary of the formation of the Marine Corps; 241 years of adapting to changes and 241 years of innovation. Innovation does not mean that it has to come from external entities.  Sometimes you just need to put Marines in jeans, challenge them to think differently, and give them another opportunity to adapt and overcome.

Hacking for Diplomacy at the State Department – Breakthroughs, breakdowns and relentlessly direct critiques

Time flies. We are already past the midway mark in our new Hacking for Diplomacy course at Stanford, and for both students and instructors, it’s an intellectually and emotionally charged period.

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Having logged more than 550 interviews of potential beneficiaries, the teams have delved deep into understanding the problems sourced from the State Department. The challenges are tough – such as how to improve data on refugees who go missing or perish on their journeys, and how to better evaluate the effectiveness of peacekeeping forces. Each team of three to five students is being asked not only to become an expert on these complex topics in 10 short weeks, but also to learn and apply Lean LaunchPad methodology to put forth a solution.

Some teams have produced surprising and delightful minimum viable products (MVPs)  — one is a simple T-shirt, another is an app. These are generating actual customer feedback, which is accelerating the teams’ learning. Other teams are confronting the reality that they are off track and need to zag hard, or step on the gas and push past their comfort zones with their MVPs, before the quarter runs out.

In Weeks 5 and 6, we’ve encouraged students to make leaps and put forth concrete MVPs and get reactions – a scary process. We’ve challenged them to consider how they will acquire, keep and grow their “customer base” – whether those customers are Syrian refugees or U.S. government bureaucrats. We’ve asked them to think about how to get buy-in from beneficiaries, sponsors and other influencers – and to identify potential saboteurs.

As educators, it’s a sensitive inflection point. Besides myself, the teaching team includes Jeremy Weinstein, former deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Stanford professor of political science; Zvika Krieger, the State Department’s representative to Silicon Valley and senior advisor for technology and innovation; retired U.S. Army Col. Joe Felter, who co-created last spring’s pioneering Hacking for Defense class and is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford; and Steve Weinstein, chief executive of MovieLabs who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford and UC Berkeley.

With just four weeks remaining, we can’t afford to let teams drift – so we have to deliver what we call “relentlessly direct” feedback. The class is a combination of theory and intensive practice. First and foremost, it is experiential and hands-on. The teams live and die by the Lean Startup credo: “There are no facts inside the building so get the hell outside.” That’s why, just halfway through the class, they’ve already talked to 550 beneficiaries (users, program managers, stakeholders, etc.).

The Lean Methodology requires teams to abandon their preconceived notions of how one builds startups and solve problems – the class is designed to break students out of that all-too-common mindset that they understand customers’ problems, can design a solution and want to get right to work on building it – all without contact with the stakeholders, users, decision makers, etc.

After decades of teaching, I have found that getting students to really change these beliefs cannot be done with reading, case studies or in-class simulations – at least not in the short time we have them in the class. If we really want them to understand how to efficiently and rapidly understand and solve customer problems, we need to immerse them with customers on day one.

And if we want them to understand what life outside the classroom in an early stage venture will look like, then they need to experience chaos, conflicting data, uncertainty and good-enough decision-making for 10 confusing weeks.

We start by pushing the teams incredibly hard to set the pace (and wash out any of those who can’t work at this pace). Teams hit the class running. Before the first class, each team has already spoken to 10 customers, and they are challenged to present their Mission Model Canvases within 20 minutes of walking through the classroom door. Five minutes into a teams first presentation, they get hit with “relentlessly direct” critiques.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

This is a shock to students, many of whom who never have heard a direct criticism of their work in their lives. At the same time, we don’t want to demoralize the students, who are demonstrating incredible commitment. Right now, some teams are feeling very beaten up. But I’m encouraged — every team is working hard and learning a massive amount: how to become domain experts in a very short period; how to work under pressure; what qualities to value in team members. These are lessons that will pay off long after we leave the classroom.

By week 7 (next week), the teams have either embraced the Lean process or we’re not going to get through to them. So at this point in the class, we’ll dial down the tone and tenor of the comments, and become their cheerleaders rather than their taskmasters.

In Week 9 we’ll stop and use the class for “reflection”. We’ve found that getting the teams off the customer discovery treadmill at this point helps them to look back and reflect on what they’ve really learned, not just about their product/customers but more importantly about the Lean processes, themselves, and team work.

L.A. Times China bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, and is part of our mentorship team, has been taking notes on the rough and tumble of Weeks 5 and 6. She shares her observations below.


Six weeks in, many of the students who fought their way into Stanford’s new Hacking for Diplomacy course are feeling like first-time marathoners at Mile 20: They’re spent, they can’t see the finish line yet, and they are questioning their sanity for even signing up for this experience. Ask them how it’s going and they’ll tell you:

“I’m freaking out.”

“I feel like we’ve hit a wall.”

The first four weeks were a frantic but exciting sprint as teams dove into their challenges with their State Department sponsors. Tasked with conducting at least 10 customer discovery interviews per week, the students hoovered up reams of information about topics that many of them came to cold, such as tracking space debris and eliminating forced labor in manufacturing supply chains.

Even as they were trying to become experts on these topics, students were getting crash courses on State Department bureaucracy and Lean LaunchPad methodology. That rapid data uptake right out of the starting gate fueled an early sense of accomplishment, a sort of runner’s high, among many participants.

“The class is incredibly motivating,” student Leonard Bronner said after Week 4. “I’ve worked on a lot of project classes at Stanford. Oftentimes, you are tasked with finding the problem yourself and that alone can take three weeks. Here … you hit the ground running. You feel like you can actually go somewhere, which is empowering.”

But by Week 5, students came under the gun to synthesize everything they had absorbed and make some decisions: Which customers or beneficiaries were they going to target? What problem could they solve for them, and with what product? What pains could they take away for these customers, or what gains could they offer? Would their product concept prompt potential customers to snatch it out of their hands and ask: Can I really have this, and how soon? Or would their target market just shrug?

Some teams came to class in Week 6 acknowledging that they had met dead ends. Team Space Evaders, which is working on preventing collisions in space, admitted they were having trouble homing in on a customer to serve. Only one person was really excited about their MVP. Steve Blank encouraged the students to take this as a “big learning point” and to go back over the data and interviews they had already collected to see if there was an opportunity that they missed.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

“Be frustrated, not embarrassed,” he counseled them. “Life will be like that – in a startup, you’d either be talking about shutting down or pivoting like mad.”

Other teams came in for some even sharper feedback from the instructors. Team Aggregate DB, which is working on how the State Department can better gather and leverage information on informal leaders in foreign countries, was called on the carpet for failing to call on some high-level contacts provided by the professors that could potentially change their mission model. (Not following up on a teaching team lead is cardinal sin for a team supposedly driving on customer discovery.)

If you can’t see the presentation click here

Another team that is working on how to bring together technology, government, and communities to combat violent extremist messaging was told in no uncertain terms to go back to the drawing board with their MVP because it was too far afield from the initial problem posed by the State Department. “We just fired their idea,” Blank said as the team cut short its slide show presentation and went back to their seats.

A palpable tension, even apprehension, started to settle over the room. After a bit, I started wishing that 1970s game show host Chuck Barris would wander in and bang a gong, just to clear the air and say, “hey kids, none of this is personal.”

Soon though, Blank bounded to the front of the class and offered the students a pep talk. All of this, he insisted, was part of the normal, if messy and sometimes uncomfortable, process of trying to get stuff done in the real world.

“The teaching team is tearing you up and trashing your slides,” he said. “Don’t take it personally. We are asking you to accomplish unreasonable things in an impossibly limited amount of time. The journey is hard, but when the class is over you’ll look back and be amazed about what you accomplished. The chaos, uncertainty and pain lasts a short time, but the skills you learn here will be with you forever.”

“These students are really taking these problems to heart,” instructor Steve Weinstein said. “They feel bad if they’re having trouble solving the problems. And it’s kind of cool. They see the complexity their sponsors [in State] are facing and they internalize that complexity.”

T-Shirts and Sharpie Markers
Several teams did find their stride in Weeks 5 and 6. The four students working on the problem of how to improve data on refugees who go missing or perish on their journeys hit upon an elegantly simple “minimum viable product,” or MVP: What if we could just convince migrants to write the phone number of a friend or relative on their clothing with a Sharpie permanent marker? Not their own name, or any other identifying information. That way, if tragedy were to strike the migrants en route to their destinations and their bodies were found, those authorities handling the corpses could use this contact information to inform the deceased’s loved ones.  Last year alone, more than 3,700 people died at sea in the Mediterranean and only about a third of the bodies were identified.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

Initial feedback from refugees themselves was positive – a 22-year-old from Eritrea who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe from Libya told the team he would have put his phone number on his shirt – had he thought ahead of time to do so. If he had died, he said, at least he could feel like his family would have closure.

Yet there might be challenges to get migrants to “buy into” this simple act, the team learned. Could refugees find permanent markers in their poor and war-torn countries? What about Muslim women who wear all-black abayas, how would you write on their garments? Would smugglers object?

The team brainstormed who might be effective influencers to inform potential migrants about this tactic before they set out on their journeys. They identified refugee support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp as good starting points, as well as NGOs.

But even if refugees could be encouraged to start marking their clothing with phone numbers, would the people who find the bodies be incentivized to use that information? The team recognized that buy-in would also be needed on the side of forensic examiners and local law enforcement authorities.

The team’s interviewing suggested that human rights-minded entities like the European Parliament as well as NGOs, the media and each country’s Interior Ministry might be enlisted to encourage first responders to take advantage of these phone numbers. These groups might also offer resources (such as interpreters) to help local authorities make the calls.

As much as the teaching team appreciated their low-cost, low-risk solution, they encouraged the students to aim higher and design a prototype for next week that might entail more risk for refugees but more data that would better identify refugees if they perished along their journey.

An App to Streamline Field Reports on Peacekeepers
Another team that notched some wins in Weeks 5 and 6 is tackling the issue of how to help State more effectively assess the peacekeeping forces that the U.S. is funding. Currently, evaluators write up narrative reports on their fact-finding missions, sometimes months after the trip is completed. There’s no standardization of the reports, and no easy way to make comparisons across different peacekeeping units to measure their effectiveness to measure their effectiveness.

If you can’t see the presentation click here

For its MVP, the team prototyped a simple mobile app that features drop-down menus, check boxes and small text boxes that evaluators could use even while they are in the field to take notes. This data could be transmitted back to headquarters quickly for immediate feedback, and serve as a reference for evaluators to generate more extensive reports once they’re back in the office.

By equipping all evaluators with such a tool while they’re in the midst of the process, State may be able to standardize metrics and readily compare and analyze the performance of different peacekeeping units. More extensive written reports might even be rendered obsolete.

Shown this prototype, the team’s State Department sponsor was highly enthused, telling the team, “I absolutely love this.” Further proof of the sponsor’s buy-in came when she said she wanted to send the prototype around the office and get feedback.

The team followed Blank’s suggestion to show their potential customers a prototype they would “grab out of your hand” because they wanted it so badly, even if they hadn’t figured out how to make that product. While this team may have gotten that golden reaction from their sponsors, it remains to be seen whether they can deliver on what they proposed.

Takeaways & Week 7’s Special Guest
Shira McKinlay, a 41-year-old former lawyer from Orlando who is working on the peacekeeping evaluation team, said while she’s gratified by the sponsor’s reaction, she is concerned that their app may never be deployed to the field. Hacking for Diplomacy has made clear to her how challenging it can be to get things done in an institution as complex and overtaxed as the State Department.

“Everyone’s so overwhelmed and busy,” she said. “There are many different interests, and you can’t build ‘customers’ like you would in a business. When money is not a motivation, it changes the dynamic.”

But higher-ups in State are paying attention to the course — Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken will be on hand in Week 7 to listen to student presentations.

In the next few days, student teams will be focusing on how to deploy their product and the special dynamics that come with doing so within the State Department context – such as security concerns, cultural sensitivities, interagency dynamics and State’s relatively limited budget.

McKinlay, who’s studying at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and is currently on an exchange program at Stanford, admitted Hacking for Diplomacy has been more work than she ever anticipated. But the relentless interviewing and customer discovery process is teaching her, she said, to be comfortable being a bit more aggressive and “not take no for an answer.”

“I’m trying to do a thesis on climate change and international law, and there are all these people that before I probably wouldn’t have called,” she said. “After this, I feel like if I see someone’s name in an article and I want to talk to them, I’m going to contact them.”

Kate Boudreau, a 20-year-old who’s studying computer science, said she’s supercharged her interviewing skills. “I’ve really learned a lot about how to connect with people and how to ask probing questions,” she said.

Boudreau, who is on the Space Evaders team, added that she had been considering trying to get a job as a consultant after graduation and Hacking for Diplomacy has reaffirmed that direction.

“It’s so fun to jump into an organization I know nothing about and then try to figure things out,” she said. “And it’s also made me realize how important innovation is – I want to be somewhere where that’s a priority.”

The State Department Meets the Lean Startup – Hacking For Diplomacy

h4dip-screen-shotThe academic year is in full swing at Stanford and already we’re deep into our new Hacking for Diplomacy course. Building off last spring’s pioneering Hacking for Defense class, which sought to connect Silicon Valley’s innovation culture and mindset to the Pentagon and the intelligence community, we’ve now expanded our horizons to the Department of State.

The cross-disciplinary class brings students from widely divergent backgrounds together in teams of three to five, each aiming to tackle a gnarly international problem vexing Foggy Bottom in just 10 weeks by applying Lean LaunchPad methodology.

Guiding, drilling and grilling these teams are Jeremy Weinstein, former deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Stanford professor of political science; Zvika Krieger, the State Department’s representative to Silicon Valley and senior advisor for technology and innovation; retired U.S. Army Col. Joe Felter, who co-created Hacking for Defense and is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford; Steve Weinstein, chief executive of MovieLabs who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford and UC Berkeley; and yours truly, Steve Blank.

In addition, we’ve recruited a host of mentors, including folks from Google and the cloud computing firm SalesForce; Stanford Law School; and veteran State Department employees now engaged in studies, research or retirement in the Bay Area.julie-makinen

L.A. Times China bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, joined in at the last minute and is helping students with customer discovery techniques, particularly how to find and interview people. I’ve invited Julie to share some observations here on the class to date.
She writes:


When I stumbled into the introductory session for Hacking for Diplomacy a few weeks ago, there was a palpable, kinetic charge in the room at Stanford’s Tresidder Memorial Union. My reporter’s Spidey Sense began to tingle. It feels like something big is going on here, I thought.

The energy was also fed by the crowd of prospective students — a motley, enthusiastic and clearly wicked smart group including engineering PhDs and computer science whiz kids, U.S. Army veterans and mid-career MBAs hailing not just from the United States but from countries including Saudi Arabia, India, France, Israel and Austria.

And ultimately, it was the get-your-hands-messy conceit of the whole shebang:  Make the cut for this class and we are going to throw you headlong at some major real-world problems put forth by the U.S. State Department and see what products you can come up with to solve them. Along the way, you will actively learn the Lean LaunchPad methodology, the framework first developed for business start-ups.

This is no class for slackers, the students were admonished: You will work at warp speed in teams, trying to get your arms around challenges that experts have failed to wrestle to the ground, like tracking refugees missing at sea, countering violent extremism online, and evaluating the effectiveness of peacekeeping forces.

You will get schooled on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the State Department, its alphabet soup of acronyms, its secret language of abbreviations. You will sniff out and pin down stakeholders and beneficiaries – from Washington functionaries to Syrian migrants – by conducting at least 10 interviews each week. You will meet and interact with VIPs.

You will learn a new rubric for asking questions, posing hypotheses and verifying those ideas. You will prototype solutions, developing and refining them over multiple rounds of iteration and feedback.  Your team will pen detailed updates of your progress and post them online each week for fellow students to learn from and for teachers to evaluate.

At every class, your team must stand up, explain – and defend – what you did in the last seven days and how you have moved the ball forward. In the back row, perched like a panel of fair yet tough judges, the teaching team will listen intently but also interrupt you without mercy, forcing you to drill deeper or acknowledge weaknesses. Simultaneously, your classmates will write critiques of your presentation on a sprawling shared Google spreadsheet in real time.

This is not for the thin-skinned or the weak-kneed. It’s “Shark Tank” meets “American Idol,” with heavy doses of foreign service school, business school and Journalism 101 thrown in. Here’s how it’s been going:

Weeks 1 and 2 – Mission Model, Customer Discovery & Figuring Out Who’s Who at State
For the students, the first week was a mad scramble through a gantlet of tasks: assemble teams, decide which challenge proposed by the State Department to work on, submit a written application and pass an interview with the teaching team. In the end, teams were selected to work on seven different challenges:

The teaching team began with an introduction to the Mission Model Canvas, a slightly modified version of the Business Model Canvas. This one-page schematic with 9 boxes, which students must revise and update each week, acts as the teams’ anchor throughout the class – guiding their research and discovery process and keeping them focused on who their customers or beneficiaries are, what value the team can bring to them with a new product, how to define success, and key tasks and relationships to identify and leverage.mission-model-canvas-sm

Krieger and Jeremy Weinstein took the class on a blitzkrieg tour through the State Department’s byzantine organizational chart, introducing different bureaus and their functions and explaining how their missions often intersect, overlap and sometimes collide.  Students also got a crash course on customer discovery in the foreign policy universe.  “Get out of the building!” Blank encouraged the class. “Talk to people in person or face-to-face on Skype! You need to see their pupils dilate!”

state-dept-org-chart“You have to be comfortable with the amount of uncertainty at the start of class,” said Leonard Bronner, a master’s student in statistics from Austria who is on the team working on the question of missing refugees. “You have to really actively work to consolidate everything that’s coming at you.”

In theory, teams were to start by liaising with their designated sponsor in the State Department, who is supposed to make time each week to check in with the students, offer information and guidance and suggest other people to talk to. In practice, students learned that civil servants are busy and sometimes hard to reach. The time difference between Washington and California often doesn’t help. For many, the first week was a jumble of what felt like disjointed interviews and a mad scramble for even basic information – who are the relevant people and organizations working on or affected by this problem? What do they do? How do they interact?

“In week one, everyone is totally disoriented,” said Blank. “That’s how it works.”

When students did make contact with their State Department sponsors and started asking questions, for some it quickly became apparent that sponsors themselves had trouble articulating exactly what problem they really needed to solve. Other teams learned that there was disagreement within and between different State Department offices about what they hoped the Stanford teams would be doing — or whether they should be working on the problem at all. Some teams got a quick crash course in turf wars and Government Bureaucracy 101.

“In some cases, the sponsors confuse the symptoms of the problem with the root cause,” says Felter. “Last spring [in Hacking for Defense], some of our sponsors didn’t have a good understanding of their problems. At a minimum, coming from the outside and using these tools we give them, students can help their sponsors understand their problems better.”

Because customer discovery is such a key part of the Lean LaunchPad methodology, the student teams have had to rapidly ramp up their interviewing skills. Many realized that it can be a challenge to find sources to speak with, or extract useful information once you do locate them. How do you go about talking to a Syrian refugee who crossed the Mediterranean on a rickety boat? How do you get a supply chain manager for a clothing manufacturer to take your call?

“We are asking students to do a lot in 10 weeks,” admitted Krieger. “They have to tackle a challenge that is new to them. In many cases, they are learning an entirely new field. Like the space team – no one on that team knew about satellites a few weeks ago.”

“Next they have to learn in minute detail about the State Department bureau,” he added. “And then they have to learn about other agencies, because almost all of these problems have an interagency dimension, whether that’s with the Department of Defense, USAID, NASA or beyond.”

And that’s just all prelude to the ultimate work.

“Finally, they have to find an opportunity – a ‘pain point’ as we say, come up with a solution, and prototype it in like six weeks,” said Krieger. “I’m impressed with what they’ve been able to do already. They probably know more about their corners of the State Department than most people at the State Department.”

Weeks 3 and 4 – Fast-tracked by Secretary Kerry, Diving Into the Value Proposition and Defining Mission Achievement
After being put through the ringer of the first two weeks, Hacking for Diplomacy teams got a boost in Week 3 when Secretary of State John Kerry made a swing through Silicon Valley and met with the students.

Asked by business school student Kaya Tilev whether the solutions the students were working on had any actual chance of being implemented, Kerry offered words of encouragement.

kerry-and-students“I have absolute confidence if you come up with a viable solution it is going to be implemented, adopted, and institutionalized,” Kerry said.  “You have a fast track for making that happen because you’re in the program and you know Zvika. So you’re on the right track. Just come up with the deal, okay?”

Later, Kerry would tweet: “Brilliant minds are applying technology to world’s toughest problems. Their perspective will inform our diplomatic engagement going forward.”

Krieger said he’s been overwhelmed by the level of interest among State Department officials in the class. Although the department has long had ways for university students to work on diplomatic issues, the end products have tended to be policy papers or think-tank like reports penned by political science or international relations majors. So the idea that students with engineering or other technical backgrounds might create actual tangible products for diplomatic ends feels fresh, novel and necessary.

“A lot of people are really excited about this, and I vacillate between being excited myself and trying to calibrate expectations” within State, said Krieger.

Unlike the Defense Department, which Krieger describes as “comfortable with technology” and flush with funds, State is a relative tech backwater with a much more limited budget. “Thinking in terms of technology solutions is a paradigm shift for the State Department,” he said.

In Week 3, teams began to really focus in on potential customers/beneficiaries. They rigorously tried to identify what “pains” could be alleviated for these people – and what “gains” might be offered to them that would be irresistible? What value proposition could the teams come up with to make each of their prospective beneficiaries’ lives better?

Many teams made diagrams to help drill down to beneficiaries.

Consider Team Space Evaders, which is working on the satellite collision issue. The team made a detailed flow chart of how data about satellite positioning and potential collisions is shared by entities ranging from the FAA to the Department of Defense and commercial operators. Then they started looking at which customers they might serve – is it a bureaucrat in the State Department? Or is it satellite operators, or satellite insurers? Who has what problems, and which ones might be ripe for solving?

space-evaders-diagramTeam Exodus, working on improving coordination among groups trying to assist Syrian refugees, made an elegant diagram of dozens of organizations involved the “customer workflow” of refugees, from U.N. agencies to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

Team 621, working on the missing refugees challenge, literally drew a map of the Mediterranean, showing departure countries, target arrival countries, and location of where boats sink.

team-621-diagramIn Week 4, a number of teams were sketching out minimal viable products, or MVPs. These super basic “products” are stabs at something that might address the pains and gains of their customers. team-trace-mvpTeams must take these products out to the real world and ask potential users for feedback. Would anyone want to buy or use these things – assuming the teams could even make them? Would the product be considered essential, a must-have? Or just “nice to have?” Would the product help each beneficiary achieve their core mission?

exodus-week-5-mvpThe rigorous, continual customer discovery process demands fortitude, students say. “Every week we learn something that completely invalidates something we thought we knew,” said Anusha Balakrishnan, a 23-year-old master’s student in computer science who is working on countering violent extremism. “So we have to keep iterating.”

Balakrishnan said the class has prompted her to think a little differently about how she might use her skills after graduation. “I didn’t realize before this how many companies are interested in applying machine learning to problems like countering violent extremism,” she said. “Even if I’m working at a tech company in the future, maybe I can still do stuff like this. So it’s opened my eyes to that.”

Even in the first few weeks, the response to the students’ work so far has been gratifying, she added.

“It’s great that people are taking us so seriously when we contact them and tell them what we are doing – it feels that we could actually add value to NGOs or the State Department,” she said.  “I didn’t think that was possible before this class.”

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