The 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.
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.
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:
- How to curb the use of forced labor in manufacturing supply chains
- How to improve international communication about space debris to avoid costly and dangerous collisions
- How to bring together technology, government, and communities to combat violent extremist messaging
- How to improve coordination between governments, NGOs and businesses working to help Syrian refugees
- How to gather and leverage information on informal leaders in foreign countries
- How to improve data on refugees who go missing or perished on their journeys, and share that information with survivors
- How to better evaluate the effectiveness of peacekeeping forces
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.
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!”
“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.
“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?
Team 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.
In 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. Teams 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?
The 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.”