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.


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.”

One Response

  1. Dear Steve, This is very electrifying! Having facilitated at one of your Lean Startup block weeks, I can vividly imaging the tension, excitement and sense of achievement. Look forward to be a part of it again. Regards

    Austin Okere Vice Chairman CWG Plc. Block 54A, Off Rufus Giwa Str. Off Adebayo Doherty Road, Off Admiralty Way, Lekki Phase 1, Lagos.

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