Monday, April 1, 2013

Duct Tape, Empathy, and Radical Collaboration: A Tool Kit for Changing the World

A class brings together students from across Stanford to create and build products for some of the world's poorest people.

"We do an exercise at the beginning of class to send home the message: ‘You’re not designing for yourself. People are more different from you than you think they are.’"

Over the last decade, 325 Stanford students have participated in Design for Extreme Affordability, a five-month-long course in which the students learn to design, prototype, and build products for some of the world's poorest people. The students have worked together in teams, traveled to 14 countries and worked on 80 projects in collaboration with 22 global partners. Among the many success stories:

  • Miracle Brace, designed for the Miraclefeet Foundation, which is helping to solve a frequent cause of disability in the developing world, clubfoot, through a series of bars and shoes that can be fit to each child from birth until the end of treatment around age 5;
  • d.light design, which brings solar-powered lanterns to rural households that previously relied on dangerous kerosene; and
  • Tripod Pump Frame, designed with and manufactured by Proximity Designs, which makes low-cost irrigation devices to help farmers in rural Myanmar.

Later this year, PBS is scheduled to air a documentary on the class, produced by filmmaker Ralph King, which will chronicle the lives of students on three teams as they learn to work together in the United States and abroad to build and bring new products to market. The documentary also examines the role the instructors play in helping the students grapple with the many challenges of doing so. Stanford Business caught up with the teaching team during a break from a day spent culling through a record 132 applications for the 40 spots in this year's class, the 10th since it began. Here are excerpts of the conversation.

One of the things you emphasize in this class is collaboration, and that’s true among teachers and students. Why is that?

Jim Patell: When we started, one of the rules we had was that every course would be taught by at least two faculty members from different departments, and it would not be one of those things where I would do Monday and someone else would do Wednesday. We would both be there for every session. And the d.school was very much intended to be a place with a culture where truly interdisciplinary courses could be taught. But if you want to talk about teamwork, we ought to turn to Julian, because Julian has entered, been drawn into, the course for about five years now, and his role has been explicitly on teams and team building.

Julian Gorodsky: I'm a member of the founding team of the d.school that built this place and embedded within it a welcoming appreciation for human relationships and what it takes to have a team that really can work well together. Focusing on extreme affordability, we’ve worked hard with each other and found places of real communication with each other. I think that is part of what we are demonstrating to the students while we’re teaching them radical collaboration and design thinking.

Scott Macdonald, Jess Adrian, and Anna Xu convert a whiteboard into a gutter to catch and transport water to a bucket.

Why is radical collaboration the right model for creating the kinds of products you want?

Dave Beach: To focus on the teaching team first: I come from 40 years of history teaching mechanical engineering, and trying to connect design and building together. I’ve learned from Jim Patell. I’ve learned from Stuart Coulson. Jim's a professor in the business school; Stuart’s an entrepreneur — a very successful, high-tech entrepreneur. When we meet as a group — usually seven people — it’s a stimulating and amazing experience. The range of ideas is much greater than I would have if I met with myself or with colleagues in a traditional field — in my case, design. More ideas come out. More excitement comes out.

And the other thing that’s wonderful about this collaboration is that there are no titles here. There’s no sense of hierarchy. Everyone’s ideas are just as good as anybody else’s. So, from my perspective, this idea of radical collaboration — I don’t know what either of those words really mean. What I know is that this team of teachers has a great time together, and I, personally, am much more creative than I could possibly be doing anything without the team.

I imagine it can be daunting for a physicist, say, to be put in the same room as a poet and asked to collaborate.

Sarah Stein Greenberg: My experience as a student was that as a person with a health care and business background — a nonprofit background — I had never had the occasion to work with engineers before. I had not worked closely with people from the medical school. I had not worked closely with people from all across the Stanford campus. And we don’t realize how much you grow up in your own academic discipline until you see that reflected back at you in the different ways that another student operates. That was a profoundly important moment in my own education. And I think there’s a belief operating when you’re trying to solve these kinds of very messy problems and potentially create something new and powerful. Having more diverse perspectives at the table is going to broaden your array of potential solutions. But getting to the point where you can productively work as a team across so many disciplines is challenging.

A team of students attempts to capture water with a plastic funnel attached to a wood frame.

What’s the process of making it more comfortable?

Stuart Coulson: On the day the students find out what team they are on, I run a business quiz and kind of rapid business research project. The idea is to show that a multidisciplinary team can all contribute to the area of business research for competitive analysis, for understanding the market, and for various other things. It’s also a team building exercise because I’m asking you to do an impossible job in a very small amount of time. So, the very first thing they experience, other than the team members, is a pressure situation because by the time we get to the end of class, they’re all going to be in a pressure situation to try to finish their project. And it’s a certain amount of hype. The idea is to get people excited about their new project, their new task, and to start to understand their new environment.

Beach: Being surrounded by people from a variety of disciplines generates very high expectations, of course. People understand before they apply that they’re going to spend more time — like all their time — on this course. But I think a couple things mediate against you in the sense of fear. I think the first one is that the very first exercise when they walk in the class — the very first hour in the class — is a joint exercise in which everyone is kind of equally able to contribute. And, in fact, at least for the engineers, but I think probably also for others in the class, the idea of going and meeting people that are different from you, and developing empathy, and extracting from that some sense, some point of view about what you might do to be helpful, is something that any sensitive human being can contribute to equally. It’s a matter of energy. It’s a matter of commitment. But it’s not a matter of professional background. So, the most important part of the course is probably not the outcomes, but that whole idea that an important part of your professional life, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a business person, a geologist, is appreciating people and learning how to develop empathy and construct a point of view around that. It’s equally available to everybody.

That word: empathy.

Gorodsky: It’s empathy for the human factor — empathy for yourself, for example. For me, coming into this work and getting to work with a remarkable team, I frequently feel humble. I’ve experienced more doubt, more uncertainty — all the things that students talk about. In getting together and working with this team: “I don’t know what he knows. I don’t know what she knows.” And you get through that. And you break through that because you’re really working collaboratively. That goes on with the students.

How do you have empathy for someone you’ve never met and have no experience of in the developing world?

Stein Greenberg: Having fresh eyes is an incredibly valuable tool. It’s easier to fall into the trap of designing for yourself if you’re imagining a user down the road in Mountain View than if you are traveling to a different part of the world. You, and your other teammates, who have totally different perspectives from you, are soaking in every shred of evidence and data that you can, and then you’re having an ongoing collaboration with a partner, and testing.

Patell: On the first day of class students do an exercise where they need to redesign the oral hygiene experience. Its point is to send home the message: “You’re not designing for yourself. People are more different from you than you think they are.” And it takes something mundane, like a wallet or brushing your teeth, where you might think that everybody does it or wants it the same, and they find out that the person standing next to them — literally, who’s about the same age, going to the same university, probably similar socio-economic status — is immensely different from them on something as mundane as how you brush your teeth.

The second thing is empathy. One of the things we force our students to do is put together what we call a point of view statement that captures empathy for the ultimate user, as well as a separate one for partner organizations. What are their constraints? What is your partner organization’s mission? What promises have they made that they’re trying to fulfill through this project of which you are unaware? And it all comes down, I think, to a word we use a lot — at least I use a lot — about being intentional.

Testing: Jim Patell (right) measures water captured by a student team, with first-year MBA student Ambrose Gano.

Many people’s experience of life, and even from when you were a kid, you were put on a baseball team or whatever it was. Well, we’re here to play baseball. We’re here to design a product. We’re here to do whatever. And the team dynamics — the team evolves the way it’s going to go. But it’s taken as this random variable that has a life of its own, and that you’re lucky or unlucky, as opposed to saying that the way your team operates, the way you get along, is malleable. It can be influenced. It can be not entirely managed, but you can be intentional about how this experience unfolds.

It’s worth calling a timeout now and then to diagnose where you are, and to be intentional about what you want to do next. And you can influence that flow of human interaction.

Interviewees

  • David Beach, Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Director, Product Realization Laboratory
  • Stuart Coulson, Consulting Associate Professor, Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school)
  • Julian Gorodsky PhD, Consulting Associate Professor; d.shrink for the d.school; Team Shrink (psychologist) for the BioDesign Fellowships; and Clinical Psychologist
  • James Patell, Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management, Stanford GSB
  • Sarah Stein Greenberg, Managing Director at the d.school; Stanford MBA ’06; and alumna of the Design for Extreme Affordability class