Lessons from Stanford – Fall in love with your problem, not your solution.



As part of my study in Corporate Innovation at Stanford I recently spent a week with 300 fellow students on campus. As the home of leaders such as Carol Dweck, Jennifer Aaker and David Kelley, Stanford has a reputation for pioneering ideas which have transformed the world.  However, what stood out during my visit was the school’s culture of humility. Where people are focused more on understanding problems and less on the greatness of their own ideas. This trait fuels learning and has ultimately driven the worldwide impact these and other Stanford academics have had. Based on my visit, here is what I learnt on how to foster success though humility.


Move away from your office comforts.


Most corporate innovation labs are glamorous spaces designed for workshops, hosting customers and demonstrating innovation prowess. Interestingly, the Stanford D-school, the birthplace of design thinking, looked nothing like this. The building’s size well underplays its reputation. The walls invite spontaneity, some are covered with handwritten quotes, pictures and the random post-its (of course!). The furniture is uncomfortable and does not invite any one to sit for too long. All this is deliberate. The environment is designed to nudge people out of contemplating their own ideas for too long.  It encourages people to get out and interact, observe and be with their future customers, rather focus on the glamour of their great ideas.


Convert your ideas to physical realities, fast.


Imagine something that looks like the walls of a garage- shelving with hammers, tools and jars of nails, boxes of cardboard and timber offcuts in bins below. An area just like I described is the most central space in the D-school and other “Maker labs” we saw at various Silicon Valley companies in the region. The purpose is to encourage people to move their ideas from their heads to physical creations as quickly as possible.


The more time we spend on an idea, the more attached to it we get. So, testing ideas as early as possible, not only prevents us investing potentially unnecessary cost and time, but we are also more likely to let it go rather than slip into justifying it’s worth. The D-School advised that the quality of your prototype should match the quality of your thinking. An untested idea should be prototypes in the fastest and practical way possible and avoid making it look pretty! Investments in aesthetics can inhibit potential customers giving you honest feedback.  


Develop tools, not toys.


During the week we learnt about the emerging applications of AR and VR.  It was the visit to GE’s Digital Lab where we saw the most practical industrial applications emerging.  One of their digital teams used the mantra “develop tools, not toys”. They sought to discover compelling AR and VR applications that were empathetic to staff in their current lines of business. This was driving breakthroughs in products and speeding up adoption of digital technologies in traditional lines of business.


A beginner’s mindset.


Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon highlights that for successful innovation you need a beginner’s mind. He says: “So, you need all of that domain knowledge and expertise, but you still need to be able to step back and look at something as if it’s your first day on the job.”. To pioneer great ideas, products or services, people in the early stages of a solving a problem need to put their own views on what the solution is aside and deeply listen to the needs and emotions of those they are solving for. It’s this rapid learning that leads to new insights and ultimately to breakthough thinking.

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