The No Excuses Culture

Getting ready for our next semester’s class, I asked my Teaching Assistant why I hadn’t seen the posters for our new class around campus.  Hearing the litany of excuses that followed –“It was raining.” (The posters go inside the building.)  “We still have time.” (We had agreed they were to go up a week ago) — I had a strong sense of déjà vu. When I took the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy, excuses seemed to be our main product.  So we created The No Excuses Culture.

No Excuses as a Core Value  
In addition to customer discovery, creating end user demand, and product strategy, Marketing also serves as a service organization to sales.  It drove me crazy when we failed to deliver a project for sales on time or we missed a media deadline. And I quickly realized that whenever there was a failure to deliver on time, everyone in my Marketing department had an excuse. Making excuses instead of producing timely deliverables meant we were failing as an organization. We weren’t supporting the mission of the company (generate revenue and profit), and the lack of honesty diminished our credibility, and our integrity.

I realized that this was a broken part of our culture, but couldn’t figure out why. Then one day it hit me.  When deadlines slipped, there were no consequences – no consequences to my direct reports when they failed to deliver on time, no consequences to the people who reported to them – and no consequences to our vendors.

And with no consequences our entire department acted as if schedules and commitments didn’t matter. I heard a constant refrain of, “The sales channel brochure was late because the vendor got busy so they couldn’t meet the original deadline.” Or “the January ad had to be moved into February because my graphic artist was sick, but I didn’t tell you because I assumed it was OK.” Or, “We’re going to slip our product launch because the team thought they couldn’t get ready in time.” I had inherited a department with a culture that turned commitments into vague aspirations.  We had no accountability.

I realized that for us to build a high-performance marketing organization that drove the company, this had to change. I wanted a department that could be counted on to deliver. One day I put up a sign on my door that said, “No excuses accepted.” And I let everyone in the marketing department know what I meant was, “We were all going to be ‘accountable’.”

I didn’t mean “deliver or else.”

By accountable I meant, “We agreed on a delivery date, and between now and the delivery date, it’s OK if you ask for help because you’re stuck, or something happened outside of your control. But do not walk into my office the day something is due and give me an excuse. It will cost you your job.” That kind of accountable.

And, “Since I won’t accept those kind of excuses, you are no longer authorized to accept them from your staff or vendors either.  You need to tell your staff and vendors that it’s OK to ask for help if they are stuck.  But you also need to let everyone in your department know that from now on showing up with an excuse the day the project is due will cost them their job.”

The goal wasn’t inflexible dates and deadlines, it was to build a culture of no surprises and collective problem solving.

I don’t want to make implementing this sound easy. Asking for help, and/or saying you were stuck created cognitive dissonance for many people. Even as we publicly applauded those who asked for help, some just couldn’t bring themselves to admit they needed help until the day the project was due.  Others went in the other direction and thought collective problem solving meant they could come into my office, and say they “had a problem” and think I was going to solve it for them without first trying to solve it themselves. As we worked hard on making “no excuses” part of our culture some couldn’t adapt. A few became ex-employees. But the rest felt empowered and responsible.

Everything is “priority one”
One other thing needed to be fixed before we could implement “no excuses.”  I realized that my groups inside of marketing had become dumping grounds for projects from both inside and outside of marketing – with everything being “priority one.”  There was no way for us to say, “We can’t take that project on.” And yet, simply accepting anything anyone wanted Marketing to provide was unsustainable.

We quickly put in a capacity/priority planning process. Each marketing group, (product marketing, marcom, trade shows, etc.) calculated their number of available man-hours and budget dollars. Then every week each department stack-ranked the priority of the projects on their plate and estimated the amount of time and budget for each. If someone inside of marketing wanted to add a new project, we needed to figure out which existing one(s) on the list we were going to defer or kill to accommodate it. If someone outside of marketing wanted to add a new project before we had the resources, we made them decide which of their current projects they wanted to defer/kill.  If we didn’t have the resources to support them, we helped them find resources outside the company. And finally, each of the projects we did accept had to align with the overall mission of the company and our department.

Over time, accountability, execution, honesty and integrity became the cornerstones of our communication with each other, other departments and vendors.

We became known as a high-performance organization as we delivered what said we would – on time and on budget.

Lesson Learned

  • No excuses for failures given, just facts and requests for help
  • No excuses for failures accepted, just facts, and offers to help
  • Relentless execution
  • Individual honesty and integrity

That was it. Four bullets. It defined our culture.

Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy

When you’re up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget the goal was to drain the swamp.

I love teaching because I learn something new every class.

This time it was, “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy.”


The latest “aha” moment for me when I was at Columbia University teaching an intensive 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class.  The goal of the class is to expose students to the basics of the Lean MethodologyBusiness Model Design, Customer Development and Agile Engineering.

In this short version of the class, students (in teams of four) spend half their day out of the classroom testing their hypotheses by talking to customers and building minimum viable products.  The teams come back into the class and present what they found, and then they get out and talk to more customers.  Repeat for 5 days.  All teams talk to at least 50 customers/ partners/ stakeholders, and some manage to reach more than 100.

One of the teams wanted to create a new woman’s clothing brand. The good news is that they were passionate, smart and committed.  The not so good news is that other than having been customers, none of them had ever been in the fashion business. But hey, no problem.  They had the Lean Startup model to follow. They could figure it out by simply talking to customers and stores that carry unique fashion brands.  How hard can this be?!

2_8_maraBy the second day the team appeared to be making lots of progress –  they had talked to many women about their clothing line, and had marched up and down NY stores talking to buyers in clothing boutiques.  They built detailed value proposition canvases for each customer segment (young urban professional woman, students, etc.) –  trying to match customer pains, gains and jobs to be done with their value proposition (their new clothing line.) They were busily testing their hypotheses about customer segments and value proposition, seeing if they could find product/market fit.

In listening to them it dawned on me that I had fallen victim to teaching process rather than helping the teams gain insight. I asked them to remind the class what business they were in.  “We’re creating a clothing fashion brand,” was the reply.  I asked, “And how much fashion brand expertise do you have as a team?” “None, we’re using customer discovery to quickly acquire it.”  On the surface, it sounded like a good answer.

But then I asked, “Has anyone on your team asked if any of your 120 classmates are in the apparel/fashion business?”  After a moment of reflection they did just that, and eight of their classmates raised their hands. I asked, “Do you think you might want to do customer discovery first on the domain experts in your own class?”  A small lightbulb appeared over their heads.

A day later, after interviewing their classmates, the team discovered that when creating a woman’s clothing brand, the clothing itself has less to do with success than the brand does. And the one critical element in creating a brand is getting written about by a small group (less than 10) of “brand influencers” (reviewers, editors, etc.) in fashion magazines and blogs.

fashion-brandWhoah… the big insight was that how you initially “get” these key influencers – not customers or stores – is the critical part of creating a clothing fashion brand. This meant understanding these influencers was more important than anything else on the business model canvas. The team immediately added brand influencers to their business model canvas, created a separate value proposition canvas for them and started setting up customer discovery interviews.
The lessons?

  • This team was entering an existing market. (The team had already drawn the Petal Diagram mapping the competitive landscape.)petal-and-canvas
  • In an existing market there is a track record for how new entrants create a brand, get traction and scale. Many of the key insights about the business model and value proposition canvases are already known.
  • In an existing market, going through customer discovery (talking to customers, buyers, distribution channel, etc.) without first asking, “Are there any insights that can be gained by understanding the incumbent strategies, can be a trap for the unwary.”

Ironically, when I was entrepreneur I knew and practiced this. When I started a new venture in existing markets I would spend part of my initial customer discovery attending conferences, reading analysts’ reports and talking to domain experts to understand current market entry strategies. (None of this obligated me to follow the path of other companies. At times I took this information and created a different strategy to disrupt the incumbents.) But as an educator I was getting trapped in teaching the process not the strategy.

The fashion brand team’s experience was a great wake-up call.

From now on my first question to startups in an existing market is: “Tell me the critical success factors of the existing incumbents.”

Lessons Learned

  • In an existing market, draw a Petal Diagram with adjacent companies
  • Focus part of your initial customer discovery on learning competitive insights.
  • Describe how those companies entered the market. What was critical?

 

Hacking for Defense Goes National

Our goal was to scale Hacking for Defense classes across the US – giving students the opportunity to perform national service by solving real defense/diplomacy problems using Lean Methods. In exchange our government sponsors benefit from 1) access to talent that most likely would never have served the country, 2) getting solutions as minimum viable products/prototypes in 10 weeks, 3) exposure to a problem solving methodology used in Silicon Valley and battle tested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week we are doing what we said we’ll do – scale the class nationally:

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None of this would be possible without Pete Newell and Joe Felter and the entire team at BMNT and the extraordinary teaching team at each of these universities.

This week I’m in Washington co-teaching the 2nd Hacking for Defense Educators and Sponsor class.  More universities coming to the program, more government sponsors sharing problems, more variants being taught in 2017 (Diplomacy, Impact/Development, Space, Cities, Hollywood, etc.)

Innovation – something both parties can agree on

icorps-logoOn the last day Congress was in session in 2016, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a bill that increased innovation and research for the country.

For me, seeing Congress pass this bill, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, was personally satisfying. It made the program I helped start, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem. I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses.  I-Corps bridges the gap between public support of basic science and private capital funding of new commercial ventures. It’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program.

The bill directs the expansion of I-Corps to additional federal agencies and academic institutions, as well as through state and local governments.  The new I-Corps authority also supports prototype or proof-of-concept development activities, which will better enable researchers to commercialize their innovations. The bill also explicitly says that turning federal research into companies is a national goal to promote economic growth and benefit society. For the first time, Congress has recognized the importance of government-funded entrepreneurship and commercialization education, training, and mentoring programs specifically saying that this will improve the nation’s competitiveness. And finally this bill acknowledges that networks of entrepreneurs and mentors are critical in getting technologies translated from the lab to the marketplace.

uncle-sam-2This bipartisan legislation was crafted by senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI). Senator John Thune (R–SD) chairs the Senate commerce and science committee that crafted S. 3084. After years of contention over reauthorizing the National Science Foundation, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson worked to negotiate the agreement that enabled both the House and the Senate to pass this bill.

While I was developing the class at Stanford, it was my counterparts at the NSF who had the vision to make the class a national program.  Thanks to Errol Arkilic, Don Millard, Babu Dasgupta, Anita LaSalle (as well as current program leaders Lydia McClure, Steven Konsek) and the over 100 instructors at the 53 universities who teach the program across the U.S.

NSF I-Corps Oct 2011But I haven’t forgotten that before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.  lipinskiIN 2012, Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Il), co-chair of the House STEM Education Caucus, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see the class first-hand.

For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs.

This bill is a reauthorization of the 2010 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, which set out policies that govern the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide policy guidance.  It resolved partisan differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research.

I-Corps is the  accelerator that helps scientists bridge the commercialization gap between their research in their labs and wide-scale commercial adoption and use.

Why This Matters
While a few of the I-Corps teams are in web/mobile/cloud, most are working on advanced technology projects that don’t make TechCrunch. You’re more likely to see their papers (in material science, robotics, diagnostics, medical devices, computer hardware, etc.) in Science or Nature.

I-Corps uses everything we know about building Lean Startups and Evidence-based Entrepreneurship to connect innovation to entrepreneurship. It’s curriculum is built on a framework of business model design, customer development and agile engineering – and its emphasis on evidence, Lessons Learned versus demos, makes it the worlds most advanced accelerator. It’s success is measured not only by the technologies that leave the labs, but how many U.S. scientists and engineers we train as entrepreneurs and how many of them pass on their knowledge to students. I-Corps is our secret weapon to integrate American innovation and entrepreneurship into every U.S. university lab.

Every time I go to Washington and spend time at the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health I’m reminded why the U.S. leads the world in support of basic and applied science.  It’s not just the money we pour into these programs (~$125 billion/year), but the people who have dedicated themselves to make the world a better place by advancing science and technology for the common good.

Congratulations to everyone in making the Innovation Corps a national standard.

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.

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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

So Here’s What I’ve Been Thinking…

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

Listen here:

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

Download the .mp3 here:

Download Episode

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