The Innovation Insurgency Gets Educated: Hacking for Defense, Diplomacy, Development, …

educator-classWe’re holding our 2nd Hacking for Defense, Diplomacy,… educators and sponsors class January 17-19 at Georgetown University. The class is for:

  • educators who want to learn how to teach a Hacking for Defense, Diplomacy, Development, etc. class;
  • problem sponsors who want to learn how to get the most out of their interaction with student teams and how to use the teams to help accelerate their problem
  • government organizations who want to a more efficient way to deliver needed solutions with speed and urgency to their stakeholders.
  • corporate innovation leaders and technologists who want to engage with both emerging national problems and students who are the future corporate work force

The Innovation Insurgency
We taught the first Hacking for Defense class less than 6 months ago

hacking classesOur first Hacking for Diplomacy class ended this month.

Our goal was to scale these classes across the US giving students the opportunity to perform national service by getting solving real defense/diplomacy problems using Lean Methods. In exchange our government sponsors benefit from access to talent that most likely would never have served the country.

We trained our first group of educators and sponsors three months ago.  Since then 8 universities have taught the Hacking for Defense class or put it on their academic calendar for 2017: UC San Diego, Georgetown, Air Force, University of Pittsburgh, James Madison University, Boise State, RIT, and Stanford.

Since then our Hacking for Defense our original sponsors; (JIDO, ARCYBER, AWG, USMC, NSA, AFNWC, SOCOM, 75th Ranger Regiment, USTRANSCOM, Cyber Force Protection Brigade, National Defense University, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy) and a host of new ones have given us another 45 national security problems for these universities to solve.

Our Hacking for Diplomacy sponsors at State gave us 15 problems for the students to solve. The students selected seven from the the Office of Space and Advanced Technology, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

What We’ve Learned: Hacking for X
As soon as we stood up the first Hacking for Defense class we began to get requests from universities that sounded like, “can we start a Hacking for Energy class?” or “How about a NASA or the NRO class with Hacking for Space as the topic?” As soon as we followed it up with Hacking for Diplomacy we got asked, “Will this work at USAID with Hacking for Development?” How about a completely classified version? Or my favorite, “How about we get the movie studios give us some of their toughest challenges and we offer a “Hacking for Hollywood class in a Los Angeles university?”

More encouraging was that program managers inside of existing government agencies started asking, “could we use this method to better understand our stakeholder/warfighter needs to build and deliver needed solutions with speed and urgency?”

Most encouraging was the reaction of our students, who as Dean Al Pisano at the University of San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering put it “Will never look at their education curriculum the same way again.”  Many of these same students whom have never been given an opportunity to provide a public service to their country are now consider solving our nation’s problems the coolest job they could have.

The answers to all of these questions are yes, yes, yes and yes.

Why this is possible is that at its core the Hacking for X for pedagogy is built around the same Lean methodology that’s been proven on the battlefield of Iraq and Afghanistan, Silicon Valley and the 1000+ teams from the National Science Foundation.  Modifying the curriculum for a specific technology or field of interest; whether it’s defense, diplomacy or development or something that has yet to be asked for, is relatively simple.

h4di-orgHacking for X Educators Class
We done five things to make this possible.

First, we (Pete Newell, Joe Felter, Tom Byers and I) set up a non-profit – H4Di.org to coordinate all these educational opportunities.

  • We wrote a 300-page educator guide which illustrates how to set up and teach a canonical “Hacking for…” class.
  • We wrote a sponsor guide which shows best practices for sponsors who want to offer problems for university students
  • We wrote a program managers guide to help leaders inside government organizations use the class to speed up their problem solving process
  • We hold a 2 ½ day educator class twice a year (east coast and west) to train both educators and sponsors on best practices and logistics

Come join us at the January 17-19th Hacking for Defense, Diplomacy, Development class at Georgetown and learn how this works.

educator-class

Hacking for Diplomacy @ Stanford –What We Learned With the State Department

“Being in Silicon Valley, a lot of my friends want to work for Google or Apple, but this class showed me that the problems in public service were even more challenging and rewarding. I used to watch the news about Syrian refugees and feel that I was just a bystander to a hopeless situation. But this class helped me realize I can have an impact and be part of the solution.”

Hacking for Diplomacy student

h4dip-screen-shotWe just held our final week of the Hacking for Diplomacy class, teaching students entrepreneurship and “Lean Startup” principles while they engaged in national public service applying advanced technologies to solve global challenges. Seven student teams delivered their final Lessons Learned presentations documenting their intellectual journey over just 10 short weeks in front of several hundred people in person and online. And what a journey it’s been.

In this class, we partnered with sponsors in the State Department including:

  • Office of Space and Advanced Technology
  • Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
  • Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
  • Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism
  • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
    • Office of Assistance to Europe, Central Asia, & the Americas
    • Office of Assistance to the Near East
  • Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

Our sponsors treated our students like serious problem solvers who could contribute unique technical skills and unfettered customer access. In exchange the sponsors got access to fresh ideas, new technology and a new perspective on serious problems.

By the end of the class our sponsors inside State had experienced a practical example of a new and powerful methodology which could help them better understand and deal with complicated international problems and apply technology where appropriate.

And finally, our students learned that they could serve their country without having to put on a uniform. Today, if college students want to give back to their country, most think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps if you wanted to offer your technical skills, the US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the State Department, Department of Defense, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.

(This post is a continuation of a series. See all the posts about Hacking for Diplomacy here.)

Lessons Learned – Not a Demo Day
Silicon Valley folks are familiar with Demo Days – presentations where the message is: “Here’s how smart we are right now.” That’s nice, but it doesn’t let the audience know, “Is that how smart you were three months ago, did you get smarter or dumber, what did you learn?”

Hacking for Diplomacy Lessons Learned presentations are different. Each team presents a two-minute video to provide context about their problem and then presents for eight minutes about the Lessons Learned over their ten weeks in the class.

As an example, Team Trace worked with the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The team was challenged to help companies push policies of responsible business lower down the supply chain. The key thing to note in this presentation is not only that the team came up with a solution, but also how in talking to 85 people, their understanding of the problem evolved, and as it did, so did their solution. (see Slides 12 and 25).

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Team Hacking CT was sponsored by Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism with the goal of deterring individuals from joining violent extremist groups. After 100 interviews, the team realized that a bottom-up approach, focusing on support for friends and family of those at risk for radicalization, might be effective.

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Getting Lean
Each of the teams used the Lean Startup methodology. For those new to Lean, the process has three key components.

First, students took the problems they got from their State Department sponsors and transformed those into what we call hypotheses. For instance, one problem was: “We need to improve coordination among all the organizations trying to help Syrian refugees.” That’s a big, unwieldy problem. Students had to break it down into a series of hypotheses. They had to identify who were the beneficiaries and stakeholders, and think about what specific service they were going to provide them, how they were going to get it to them and who was going to pay for it.  To help them do that, we have them map their nine critical hypotheses onto a single sheet of paper called the Mission Model Canvas.

aggregatedb-mission-model-canvas

Then in step two, the teams got out of the classroom to test these hypotheses through interviews with people in the real world. Every team spoke to close to 100 potential “beneficiaries,” partners and stakeholders including NGOs, tech company executives, supply chain managers, foreign service officers in embassies around the world, and even refugees. While the students were interviewing, they also employed the third piece of the Lean methodology: building the solution incrementally and iteratively. These solutions, called Minimal Viable Products (MVP’s), are what allow the teams to become extremely agile and responsive.

As teams talk to stakeholders they gather evidence to either validate, invalidate or modify their hypotheses. If they find out that their assumptions are wrong (and almost all do,) they Pivot, that is, they make fundamental changes to their hypotheses, instead of blindly proceeding forward simply executing a plan. This ability to gather data, build and test MVPs, and then change course is what gives Lean it’s tremendous speed and agility to deliver rapid solutions that are needed and wanted.

As an example, Team Aggregate DB was working with the State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). CSO helps embassies and diplomats to visualize, understand, and stabilize conflict. The team’s challenge was to get helps embassies and diplomats get more information about informal leader networks. Getting out of the building and talking to 87 people gave the team got a firsthand view of the downside when an embassy does not have access to the right local contacts. (Slides 3-9) 

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

As they developed MVPs, our students took these solutions out into the real world for feedback. At first the solutions were nothing more than drawings, wireframes or PowerPoint slides. As they came to understand their problems more deeply, they refined their solutions into the final products we saw.

h4dip-mvp

For example, Team 621 – Fatal Journeys worked with the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The team’s challenge: how to get more data on missing or perished refugees. In this presentation, note how the team’s understanding of the problem evolved over the course of talking to 88 people. They realized there was a missing link between key stakeholders that limited identification of perished refugees and prevented emotional and legal closure for their families. The team pivoted three times as they gained deeper and deeper insight into their problem. With each pivot, their solution radically changed. (Their first pass of problem/solution understanding is on Slides 1-29, but then they get additional insight in slides 36-50. Finally, slides 51-64 is their third and final iteration).

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Hacking for Diplomacy was profiled this week in the L.A. Times. We’ve also had L.A. Times Beijing bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, helping coach students this quarter on interviewing and research techniques. Julie has been sharing her impressions of the class on this blog. Here’s her last installment:


In the Netflix age, suspense is an increasingly rare commodity. If we’re intrigued by an hour of “House of Cards,” we need not delay gratification – we can just queue up the next episode and push play. But following Stanford’s Hacking for Diplomacy class over the last 10 weeks has been like watching a TV drama the old-fashioned way. There were cliffhangers every time, and you had to wait seven days to find out what would happen next.

The class, which meets just once a week but requires massive outside work, is run not as a traditional lecture where professors drone on in front of passive students — just the opposite. It’s the students standing up in front, discussing what they’ve found out in the past seven days, what progress they’ve made, what obstacles they’ve run smack into. The teachers sit in the back row and lob questions and critiques forth — sometimes very direct critiques. That format keeps students and teachers alike on the edge of their seats.

Conflicts and misunderstandings within student teams — and between students and sponsors — cropped up as the students tried to learn about the State Department, their sponsors problem, and Lean Startup methodology all at once. Students, teachers, and interviewees said surprising, intriguing, even stunning things. Some days, you could see teams going off the rails, but instead of just shouting at your screen, “No, don’t go down that alley!” a professor would actually speak up from the back with something blunt like, “You’re way off track, and we’re firing your idea.”

And just when you thought a team had struck upon a brilliant notion for a product, they’d report back during the next session that everyone they put it in front of hated it. I started looking forward to each Thursday at 4:30 p.m. like my parents looked forward to watching “Dragnet” as kids, because the suspense was killing me.

Thursday’s season finale did not disappoint. Teams that just two or three weeks ago seemed to be foundering pulled off some amazing comebacks.

Take Team Exodus, which had spent a substantial part of the quarter focused on how to match private companies seeking to assist Syrian refugees with NGOs working in the field. Late in the term, the students scrapped that idea after finding competitors who were already deeply engaged in that space. They did a major pivot and decided to concentrate directly on refugees as customers — building on all they had learned during their first eight weeks of interviewing and research.

In week 9, they decided to build an AI chatbot on Facebook’s Messenger platform to allow refugees to ask questions like, “Where can I get clothing?” The bot will tap into a network of NGOs to source answers. A very basic prototype, built primarily by team member Kian Katanforoosh, a master’s student in computer science and management science & engineering, is already up and running.

On the eve of Thursday’s class, team members Katie Joseff and Berk Coker had a call with the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, and learned that the organization was very interested in working with the students to bring an Arabic chatbot to the field, most likely starting in Jordan.

“At the end, our team kind of came out of the weeds,” said Joseff, an undergrad majoring in human biology. “We finally got to the thing that Steve Blank talks about – where you can see the whites of a customer’s eyes and they just really want the product you’re talking about.”

Team Exodus: Coordinating information to better serve refugees

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Watching the students’ process and progress was an eye-opener even for many State Department sponsors and private-sector mentors. Team Space Evaders, who in week 7 seemed to be vying for the title of Team Whose Proposed Products Generated the Most Yawns from Potential Customers, had an “ah-ha” moment and decided instead of focusing on tracking objects already in space, they’d pivot and concentrate on objects that will be launched in the future.

They’re proposing a “debris footprint” that would rate satellites before they’re sent into orbit on how much space junk they could generate. The team hopes that this could lead to international design standards to reduce space debris.

“They had a fundamental insight – don’t track ’em, solve it before they even get into space,” said Jonathan Margolis, deputy assistant secretary of State for science, space and health who came all the way from Washington to meet with the team and sit in on the class in Week 9. “It’s a reconceptualization of a problem we’ve really been struggling with.”

Team members Dave Gabler, a master’s student in business and public policy with an Air Force background, and Matthew Kaseman, an Army vet and freshman in aerospace engineering, said the next step is to produce a white paper that fleshes out the mathematical formulas that could underpin a ratings system, then take that to academic and industry conferences. “That would help start a public discussion and push the debate,” said Gabler.

“The math is probably the easy part,” said Pablo Quintanilla, a former Foreign Service Officer and current head of public policy for Asia for Salesforce, who served as mentor for the Space Evaders team. “There’s so much more to the behavioral side – who in the international space community will adopt this?”

Quintanilla said that working with Space Evaders drove home for him the merits of forming diverse teams to tackle problems. Besides Gabler and Kaseman, the student team included Kate Boudreau, a junior majoring in biomedical computation, and Tyler Dammann, a junior in computer science.

“This cross-functionality and working across disciplines is really effective,” Quintanilla said. “I feel like this is living proof that you should work everywhere like this.”

Team Space Evaders: Reducing space junk

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Professor Jeremy Weinstein, a co-instructor for the class who recently served as deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledged that 10 weeks is a really short time frame for the students to make any meaningful impact. But unlike an internship, where a lone student “plugs into an existing bureaucratic hierarchy and rules,” the Hacking for Diplomacy students had the advantage of being able to work in teams — and approach the problem more as outsiders.

“The students don’t have to play by the same rules [as insiders]. They can ask the non-PC questions,” said Weinstein. “To be ignorant of the rules is a blessing at times — if you can do it respectfully.”

Getting students to have a healthy appreciation for how government policy is made — sometimes painfully slowly — is part of the educational process. And so perhaps is getting bureaucrats to be more open to fresh ideas. “There’s not going to be a flip of the switch” in State as a result of this class, Weinstein said. “There is some skepticism. But I think more broadly, we’ve won some people over.”

Thursday’s wrap-up session attracted a diverse audience, including representatives from leading Silicon Valley tech companies as well as diplomats from France, Britain and Denmark. Susan Alzner, head of the U.N. Non-Governmental Liaison Service’s New York office, said after watching the student presentations, she wants to take the customer discovery and interview methodology back to her agency.

“The U.N. has lots of small teams of people who often believe they already know the solution to a problem. … And the U.N. does way too much consultation digitally. Interviews are critical. It’s so elaborate to see these students doing 100 interviews to understand a problem, but it’s so important to orient yourself before making a plan to do something.”

Team Hacking 4 Peacekeeping: Better data on, and decision-making about, peacekeeping forces

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Weinstein noted that scaling up Hacking for Diplomacy may not be as easy as expanding Hacking for Defense, simply because “there are millions of people who work in the Department of Defense… while the size of the State Department foreign service corps is smaller than the total number of people who play in military bands.” That means there are fewer people who can serve as sponsors.

At the same time, the class could tap a wider array of sponsor organizations. “Scale maybe has to look different — we can look to the [State Department], but also UNHCR, the foreign ministry of the U.K., other international organizations,” Weinstein said. “You have to think of a different array of partners.”

Most of the State Department sponsors for this year’s class, Weinstein noted, were not political appointees but career foreign service officers or career civil servants.

“They are the glue that holds the agency together and they are key to getting anything implemented in government. And so the buy-in is there,” he said. “But they also need permission; they need a blessing to experiment with radically different ideas. And you need political cover in these bureaucracies to do this kind of work.”

“I hope,” he added, “we’ll have that cover in a subsequent administration. More than cover. Endorsement. Enthusiasm. Excitement.”


Our Teaching Team
Like the students’ efforts, the teaching of this class was also a team project. I was joined by 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; and Steve Weinstein, chief executive of MovieLabs who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford and UC Berkeley.

h4dip-instructors

Our teaching assistants were Shazad Mohamed, Sam Gussman and Roland Gillah. We were fortunate to get a team of seven mentors currently or formerly served in the State Department and selflessly volunteered their time to help coach the teams. Each team also got a mentor from the tech industry who helped guide them through creating their final products. Of course, huge thanks to the Stanford students who gave their all through this class.

Going forward
While our previous Hacking for Defense class gave us a hint that doing the same for Diplomacy would work, we’re a little stunned about how well this class with the State Department went. A surprising number of students have decided to continue working on foreign policy projects after this class with the State Department or with NGO’s. Other colleges and universities have raised their hands, and said they want to offer Hacking for Diplomacy or potentially a USAID Hacking for Development class at their school.

Meanwhile our Hacking for Defense class continues to scale through H4Di.org the non profit we set up to curate the problems from our sponsors (JIDO, ARCYBER, AWG, USMC, NSA, AFNWC, SOCOM, 75th Ranger Regiment, USTRANSCOM, Cyber Force Protection Brigade, National Defense University, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy). And H4Di.org supports the universities teaching the class this year: Stanford, UC San Diego, Georgetown, Air Force, University of Pittsburgh, James Madison University, Boise State, and RIT.

If you’re interested in offering Hacking for Diplomacy (or Defense) in your school, or if you’re a sponsor in a federal agency interested in solving problems with speed and urgency, join us at our next H4D educators class January 17-19th at Georgetown.

Lessons Learned

  • Our sponsors inside State saw examples of a new and powerful methodology – Lean which could help them better understand and deal with complicated international problems
  • Lean offers State speed and agility to deliver rapid solutions that are needed and wanted
  • Our students learned that they could serve their country without having to put on a uniform
  • Other universities are willing to have their students work on diplomacy and development problems
  • The class was a success

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.”



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.

h4dip-screen-shot

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.”

There are 145 Entrepreneurship Courses at Stanford

Stanford is an incubator with dorms

Download the full text file with links to the courses here.
http://www.slideshare.net/sblank/stanford-entreprenuership-classes

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The Innovation Insurgency Scales – Hacking For Defense (H4D)

Hacking for Defense is a battle-tested problem-solving methodology that runs at Silicon Valley speed. We just held our first Hacking for Defense Educators Class with 75 attendees.

h4d-ed-classThe results: 13 Universities will offer the course in the next year, government sponsors committed to keep sending hard problems to the course, the Department of Defense is expanding their use of H4D to include a classified version, and corporate partners are expanding their efforts to support the course and to create their own internal H4D courses.

It was a good three days.

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Another Tool for Defense Innovation
Last week we held our first 3-day Hacking for Defense Educator and Sponsor Class. Our goal in this class was to:

  1. Train other educators on how to teach the class at their schools.
  2. Teach Department of Defense /Intelligence Community sponsors how to deliver problems to these schools and how to get the most out of student teams.
  3. Create a national network of colleges and universities that use the Hacking for Defense Course to provide hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems every year.

What our sponsors have recognized is that Hacking for Defense is a new tool in the country’s Defense Innovation toolkit. In 1957 after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite the U.S. felt that it was the victim of a strategic technological surprise. DARPA was founded in 1958 to ensure that from then on the United States would be the initiator of technological surprises. It does so by funding research that promises the Department of Defense transformational change instead of incremental advances.

darpa-iqt-h4dBy the end of the 20th century the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) realized that it was no longer the technology leader it had been when it developed the U-2, SR-71, and CORONA reconnaissance programs in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Its systems were struggling to manage the rapidly increasing torrent of information being collected. They realized that commercial applications of technology were often more advanced than those used internally. The CIA set up In-Q-Tel to be the venture capital arm of the intelligence community to speed the insertion of technologies. In-Q-Tel invests in startups developing technologies that provide ready-soon innovation (within 36 months) vital to the IC mission. More than 70 percent of the In-Q-Tel portfolio companies have never before done business with the government .

In the 21st century the DOD/IC community have realized that adversaries are moving at a speed that our traditional acquisition systems could not keep up with. Hacking for Defense combines the rapid problem sourcing and curation methodology developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq by Colonel Pete Newell and the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force with the Lean Startup practices that I pioneered in Silicon Valley and which are now the mainstay of the National Science Foundations’ I-Corps program. Hacking for Defense is a problem-solving methodology that offers the DOD/IC community a collaborative approach to innovation that provides ready-now innovation (within 12-36 months).

Train the Trainers
Pete Newell, Joe Felter and I learned a lot developing the Hacking for Defense class, more as we taught it, and even more as we worked with the problem sponsors in the DOD/Intel community.u-pitt-h4d Since one of our goals is to make this class available nationally, now it was time to pass on what we had learned and to train other educators how to teach the class and sponsors how to craft problems that student teams could work on.

(If you want a great overview of the Hacking for Defense class, stop and read this article from War on The Rocks. Seriously.)

sponsor-guide-coverWhen we developed our Hacking for Defense class, we created a ton of course materials (syllabus, slides, videos). In addition, for the Educator Class we captured all we knew about setting up and teaching the class and wrote a 290-page educator’s guide with suggested best practices, sample lesson plans, and detailed lecture scripts and slides for each class session. We developed a separate sponsor guide with ideas about how to get the most out of the student teams and the university.

The Educator Class: What We Learned
One of the surprises for me was seeing the value of having the Department of Defense and other government agency sponsors working together with the university educators.  (One bit of learning was that the sponsors portion of the workshop could have been a day shorter.)

Two other things we learned has us modifying the pedagogy of the class.

First, our mantra to the students has been to learn about “Deployment not Demos.” That meant we were asking the students to understand all parts of the mission model canvas, not just the beneficiaries and the value proposition. We wanted them to learn what it takes to get their product/service deployed to the field, not just have another demo to a general. This meant that the minimal viable products the students built were focused on maximizing their learning of what to build, not just building prototypes. While that worked great for the students, we learned from our sponsors that for some of them getting to deployment actually required demos as part of the means to reach this end. They wanted the students to start delivering MVPs early and often and use the sponsor feedback to accelerate their learning.

This conversation made us realize that we had skewed the class to maximize student learning without really appreciating what specific deliverables would make the sponsors feel that the time they’ve invested in the class was worthwhile. So for our next round of classes we will:

  • require sponsors to specifically define what success from their student team would look like
  • have students in the first week of class present what sponsors say success looks like
  • still encourage MVPs that maximize student learning, but also recognize that for some sponsors, learning could be accelerated with earlier functional MVPs

u-sd-h4dOur second insight that has changed the pedagogy also came from our sponsors. As most of our students have no military experience, we teach a 3-hour introduction to the DOD and Intel Community workshop. While that provides a 30,000-foot overview, it doesn’t describe any detail about the teams’ specific sponsoring organization (NSA, ARCYBER, 7th Fleet, etc.). (By the end of the quarter every team figures out how their sponsor ecosystem works.) The sponsors suggested that they offer a workshop early in the class and brief their student team on their organizations, budget, issues, etc.  We thought this was a great idea as this will greatly accelerate how teams target their customer discovery.  When we update the sponsor guide, we will suggest this to all sponsors.

Another surprise was how applicable the “Hacking for…” methodology is for other problems. Working with the State Department we are offering a Hacking for Diplomacy class at Stanford starting later this month. And we now have lots of interest from organizations that have realized that this problem-solving methodology is equally applicable to solving public safety, policy, community and social issues internationally and within our own communities. We’ll soon launch a series of new modules to address these deserving communities.

Lessons Learned

  • Hacking for Defense = problem-solving methodology for innovation insurgents inside the DOD/Intel Community
  • The program will scale to 13+ universities in 2017
  • There is demand to apply the problem-solving methodology to a range of public sector organizations where success is measured by impact and mission achievement versus revenue and profit.
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