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.”

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.


7 Steps to Hacking for Defense


Hacking for Defense in 2 minutes

Hacking for Defense in 2 minutes.

If you can’t see the video click here

Hacking for Defense class here

Hacking for Diplomacy class here

Hacking for Diplomacy – Solving Foreign Policy Challenges with the Lean LaunchPad

Hacking for Diplomacy is a new course from the Management Science and Engineering department in Stanford’s Engineering school and Stanford’s International Policy Studies program that will be first offered in the Fall of 2016.

Join a select cross-disciplinary class that takes real problems from the U.S. State Department and asks students to use Lean Methods to test their understanding of the problem and deliver rapid-fire innovative solutions to pressing diplomacy, development and foreign policy challenges.

H4Dip home page

Syrian Refugees, Human Trafficking, Zika Virus, Illegal Fishing, Weapons of Mass Destruction Detection, ISIS on-line propaganda, Anti-Corruption…
What do all these problems have in common? The U.S. Department of State is working on all of them.

The U.S. Department of State manages America’s relationships with 180 foreign governments, international organizations, and the people of other countries with 270 embassies, consulates, and other posts. The management of all these relationships is called diplomacy. 70,000 State Department employees (46,000 Foreign Service Nationals, 14,000 Foreign Service Employees and 11,000 in the Civil Service) carry out the President’s foreign policy and help build a freer, more prosperous, and secure world.

The State Department has four main foreign policy goals:

  • Protect the United States and Americans
  • Advance democracy, human rights, and other global interests
  • Promote international understanding of American values and policies
  • Support U.S. diplomats, government officials, and all other personnel at home and abroad.

At a time of significant global uncertainty, diplomats are grappling with a set of transnational and cross-cutting challenges that defy easy solution. These include the continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by states and non-state groups, the outbreak of internal conflict across the Middle East and in parts of Africa, the most significant flow of refugees since World War II, and a changing climate that is beginning to affect both developed and developing countries.  And that’s just on Monday.  The rest of the week is equally busy.

State dept org chart

Hacking for Diplomacy
In a world of complex threats, dynamic opportunities, and diffuse power, effective diplomacy and development require institutions that adapt, embrace technology, and allow for experimentation to ensure continuous learning. This means developing new and innovative ways to think about, organize and build diplomatic strategies and solutions.  Stanford’s new Hacking for Diplomacy class is a part of this effort.

Hacking for Diplomacy is designed to provide students the opportunity to learn how to work with the Department of State to address urgent foreign policy challenges. While the traditional tools of statecraft remain relevant, policymakers are looking to harness the power of new technologies to rethink how the U.S. government approaches and responds to  the problems outlined above and other long-standing challenges. In this class, student teams will take actual foreign policy challenges and a hands-on approach that will require close engagement with officials in the U.S. State Department and other civilian agencies. They’ll learn how to apply “lean startup” principles, (“mission model canvas,” “customer development,” and “agile engineering”) to discover and validate agency and user needs and to continually build iterative prototypes to test whether they understood the problem and solution.

Each week, teams will use the Mission Model Canvas (a variant of the Business Model Canvas used for government agencies and non-profits) to develop a set of initial hypotheses about a solution to the problem and will get out of the building and talk to relevant stakeholders and users. As they learn, they’ll iterate and pivot on these hypotheses through customer discovery and build minimal viable prototypes (MVPs). Each team will be guided by a sponsor from the State Department bureau that proposed the problem and a second mentor from the local community.

Real Problems
In this class, student teams select from an existing set of problems provided by the Department of State. Hacking for Diplomacy is not a product incubator for a specific technology solution. Instead, as teams follow the Mission Model Canvas, they’ll discover a deeper understanding of the selected problem, the challenges of deploying the solutions, and the host of potential technological solutions that might be arrayed to solve them. Using the Lean LaunchPad Methodology the class focuses teams to:

  • Deeply understand the problems/needs of State Department beneficiaries and stakeholders
  • Rapidly iterate technology solutions while searching for product-market fit
  • Understand all the stakeholders, deployment issues, costs, resources, and ultimate mission value
  • Produce a repeatable model that can be used to launch other potential technology solutions

National Service
Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the State Department and other government agencies. Hacking for Diplomacy will promote engagement between students and the Department of State and provide a hands-on opportunity to solve real diplomacy, foreign policy and national security problems.

Like its sister class, Hacking for Defense, our goal is to open-source this class to other universities. By creating a national network of colleges and universities, Hacking for Diplomacy can scale to provide hundreds of solutions to critical diplomacy, policy, and national security problems every year.

We’re going to create a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the diplomatic, policy, and national security problems facing the country and get them engaged in partnership with islands of innovation in the Department of State. This is a first step to a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to diplomacy and national security in the 21st century.

Lessons Learned

  • Hacking for Diplomacy is a new class that teaches students how to:
    • Use the Lean LaunchPad methodology to deeply understand the problems/needs of State Department customers
    • Deliver minimum viable products that match State Department needs in an extremely short time
  • The class will also teach the islands of innovation in the Department of State:
    • how the innovation culture and mindset operate at speed
    • how to identify potential dual-use technologies that exist outside their agencies and contractors (and are in university labs, or are commercial off-the-shelf solutions)
    • how to use an entrepreneurial mindset and Lean Methodologies to solve foreign policy problems
  • Register for the inaugural class at Stanford starting September 29th now

Hacking for Defense & Hacking for Diplomacy – Educator/Sponsor Class

There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come
Victor Hugo

On September 7th – 9th we are holding our first Hacking for Defense & Diplomacy – class for Educators and Sponsors, training educators how to teach these classes in their universities and sponsors how to select problem sets and manage their teams.

hacking classesSign up here.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Our first Hacking for Defense class was a series of experiments. And like all good experiments we tested a set of hypotheses. Surprisingly the results blew past our expectations – and we had set a pretty high bar. (see the final Hacking for Defense class presentations here). Based on those results we believe that we can do the same with Diplomacy so working with the State Department’s innovation cell in Silicon Valley we will prototype the Hacking for Diplomacy course at Stanford this fall.

A few of the student and sponsor comments about the class:

Absolutely amazing class. Experiential learning is very effective to really grasp what we claim to know intellectually.”  – computer science grad student

 “One of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and it turned me onto a whole new career path.”  – MBA student

 “We’re still blown away what students who knew nothing about our agency could learn and deliver in such a short period of time.”  – sponsor

First, would students to sign up for a class that engaged them in national service with the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community?

Result: I’ll admit my hesitancy was because I brought my memories of U.S. college campuses circa the Vietnam War (and the riots and student protests at Stanford). So I was astonished how ready and eager students were for a class that combines the toughest problems in national security, with learning Lean Innovation methods. We had more applicants (70+) for the 32 seats in this class than we usually get in our Lean LaunchPad entrepreneurship class. And early indications are that Hacking for Diplomacy will be at least as popular.

Second, could we find islands of innovation inside the DOD, the Intelligence Community and State Department willing to engage students to work on real problems? And could those sponsors work with us to scrub those problems so they were unclassified but valuable to the sponsors and the students?

Result: We solicited 8 problems for the students to work on and had to shut down the submission process after we reached 24 from the DOD.  We’ve now built a national clearing house for DOD/Intel problems that other schools can use. The Department of State has already given us 15 problems for our upcoming Diplomacy class.

Third, would students be turned off by working problems that weren’t theirs, in particular from the DOD and Intel community?

Result: We surveyed student motivations before and after the class and were surprised to find that a large percentage became more interested and engaged in national service. Over half the student teams have decided to continue working on national security projects. At the end of class two teams were funded by SOCOM (U.S. Special Operations Command) to continue prototyping over the summer. One team closed a $200k seed round in the middle of the class. Multiple teams have been engaged by government, prime contractor and VC firms for follow-on discussions/engagements.

Fourth, would the same Lean Startup methodology (business model design, customer development and agile engineering) used in the Lean LaunchPad and NSF I-Corps class work here?

Result: Hell yes.

Fifth, would other schools be interested in offering this class?

Result: Seven schools have already added Hacking for Defense classes: UC San Diego, University of Pittsburg, University of Southern California, Stanford, University of Rochester, Georgia Tech and Georgetown University. 15 more schools are in the pipeline. NDU (the National Defense University) National Security Accelerator (NSTA), the Stanford University Hacking 4 Defense Project and JIDA (the Joint Improvised-threat Defeat Agency) have all teamed up to fund the expansion of the Hacking for Defense class to other universities. The Department of Energy Advanced Manufacturing Office has also lent its support to the expansion. If our Hacking for Diplomacy goes well this fall, we intend to scale it as well.

The Educator/Sponsor Class
We learned a lot developing the Hacking for Defense class, and even more as we taught it and worked with the problem sponsors in the DOD/Intel community. Now we’ve created a ton of course materials for educators (syllabus, slides, videos) and have written a detailed educator’s guide with suggestions on how to set up and run a class along with best practices and detailed sample lessons plans for each class session. And for sponsors we have an equally robust set of tools on how to get the most out of the student teams and the university. And we’re excited it to share it all with other educators and sponsors in the DOD/Intel community.

So on September 7 through 9th at Stanford we will hold our first 2.5-day Hacking for Defense & Diplomacy Educator and Sponsor Class.

We’ll provide you all the course materials (syllabus, slides, videos) along with an educator’s guide with suggestions on how to set up and run a class along with detailed sample lessons plans for each class session. You’ll also

  • Meet with other instructors and problem sponsors and experience the Hacking for Defense/Diplomacy methodology first hand
  • Learn how to build H4D teaching teams and recruit student teams to participate
  • Learn what makes a good student problem and how problem sponsors can increase their Return On Investment for supporting the course
  • Engage with the original Stanford Hacking For Defense course authors (Pete Newell, Joe Felter and I) and students from the original H4D cohort
  • Engage directly with potential government problem sponsors

Life is series of unplanned paths and unintended consequences – Hacking For Defense
A year ago as I started helping government agencies put innovation programs in place, a student in my Stanford class who had served in the special forces pointed out that the Lean methodologies I was teaching sounded identical to what the U.S. Army had done with the Rapid Equipping Force (REF) commanded by then Colonel Pete Newell.

The REFs goal was to get out of the building and into the field to get a deep understanding of soldiers’ problems, then get technology solutions to these problems into the hands of front-line soldiers in days and weeks, instead of the military’s traditional months and years. The REF had permission to shortcut the detailed 100+ page requirements documents used by the defense acquisition process and could use existing government equipment or buy or commercial-off-the-shelf technologies purchased with a government credit card or its own budget.

When Pete Newell retired to Silicon Valley he teamed up with Joe Felter, another retired colonel, who had a career as a Special Forces and foreign area officer (among other things, Joe led the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT) in Afghanistan) and was now teaching at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Together Pete and Joe had formed BMNT to create an “insurgency” in Silicon Valley to help accelerate the way the Department of Defense acquires new technology and ideas and integrates cutting-edge innovation into the organizations defending our country.

The Hacking for Defense & Diplomacy classes were born from the intersection of BMNTs work with the Department of Defense in Silicon Valley and my work in Lean Innovation.

We had five goals for the class:

  1. Teach students Lean Innovation – the mindset, reflexes, agility and resilience an entrepreneur needs to make decisions at speed and with urgency in a chaotic and uncertain world.
  2. Offer students an opportunity to engage in a national public service. Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps the US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, State Department or other government agencies.
  3. Teach our sponsors (the innovators inside the Department of Defense (DOD), Intelligence Community (IC) and State Department) there was a methodology that could help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. (By rapidly discovering the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and then articulating the requirements to solve them, defense acquisition programs operate at speed and urgency to deliver timely and needed solutions.)
  4. Show our DOD/IC/State sponsors that civilian students can make a meaningful contribution to problem understanding and rapid prototyping of solutions.
  5. Create the 21st Century version of Tech ROTC by having Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy taught by a national network of 50 colleges and universities. This would give the Department of Defense (DOD), Intelligence Community (IC) and State Department access to a pool of previously untapped technically sophisticated talent, trained in Lean and Agile methodologies, and unencumbered by dogma and doctrine.

It looks like we’re on our way to achieving all of these goals.  Join us.

Lessons Learned

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