Hayagreeva Rao Keynote Talk: Scaling Up Excellence at Stanford GSB (Full Transcript)

Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao Keynote Talk: Scaling Up Excellence at Stanford GSB (Full Transcript)

Professor Rao was the keynote speaker for GSB Spring Reunion on May 2, 2014. He was introduced by Dean Garth Saloner.

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Dean Garth Saloner: It’s now my pleasure and my honor to introduce today’s speaker and my colleague Huggy Rao. Huggy is the Atholl McBean professor of organizational behavior and human resources. Here at the GSB he’s also a professor of sociology at the school of humanity and science. He’s also the academic director of a fantastic online program –our first online program the Stanford Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate program. This is a program that we built jointly with our engineering school. It has 12 modules, they built half a dozen, we built half a dozen. And it’s available online to people who don’t have the time or the ability to attend one of our in-person classes. And the attraction we’ve gotten from it has significantly exceeded actually what we have planned, so. I thank Huggy for his leadership in that.

He’s also the co-director of the Customer Focused Innovation Executive Program and the co-director of the Advanced Leadership Program for Asian American Executives. He has been working on the question of scaling together with Bob Sutton, he has a book on the topic, which I’m sure he’s going to tell you about, and I think you’re in for a real treat. It’s been a best seller, it’s one of the top 10 books listed by Forbes and by the Washington Post.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Huggy Rao.

Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao – Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources

Good evening everybody. Let me begin by first saying thank you certainly on behalf of my faculty, colleagues. It’s just impressive to see so many out of staters and so many people from overseas as well coming here. Your affection for the GSB, of course, matters a lot to us, because we can, of course, continue to build on our traditions of excellence and do — and you know get to greater heights.

So I’m just actually going to begin this talk with a little bit of a confession. I finished business school in India in 1980. And the astonishing thing was, as I was finishing business school in India, the textbooks that we actually followed, I think the one in finance, if I recall, was by Jim VanHorne. If you can believe it, you know, the one in accounting was by Chuck Horngren. And we even had Jeff Pfeffer’s book on the external control of organizations. And in 1980 when I graduated I had no idea that all of them would eventually turn out to be my colleagues. It is truly sort of extraordinary in that sense.

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And the other funny thing was in 1981 Tom Peters, an alum of the GSB, of course, wrote a remarkable book called In Search Of Excellence and at that time if you had told me I would have actually written a book on excellence, I would have said look you are out of your mind. But the amazing thing was that we did and Tom has actually been a great supporter. And we’re all very grateful to him. The book’s done well as Garth mentioned. You know, it’s nice to sort to be on the Wall street Journal best seller list or whatever, but really, what touches your heart is we did a little thing on NPR and there was this little — there was this lady from rural Georgia who actually emailed me and said, you know, I heard you on NPR. I went out and bought the book. And we’ve created a little learning group in rural Georgia to scale excellence in our schools there. That sort of really melted my heart.

And the reason it melted my heart is, my mom was a high school math teacher. She was, I guess, a tiger mom before that, that particular label kind of got constructed or invented.

So, what I’m going to do is share a few ideas in the hope that we can have a conversation. I’d like to leave a bunch of time aside for questions.

In many ways this book and this whole adventure with Bob Sutton would never have been possible without a program that Garth alluded to, called the Customer Focused Innovation Program. So what we do is we get 60 people, and the morning is all what we call clean models, social science, and the afternoon is all about dirty hands, or design thinking. And the participants love it, so they come in the morning, and they come in on Sunday. Mornings, they’re being exposed to social science and then, every afternoon, they have to solve a problem, a challenge, if you will, for some company or the other. And, several years ago, we were doing that with JetBlue. And, in fact the participants did some pretty amazing sort of things. You know, you go and, all the design thinking ideas that many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with.

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So, at the end of the program, one of the participants asked us, how do I take this back and scale it in my company? So, I gave an answer, and my colleague Bob gave an answer, and that evening as we were debriefing in Menlo Park, we live there, over a nice glass of Pinot Noir, I said, Bob, what did you think of your answer? And he said, what do you think of yours? And I said mine was truly sad, I said. It was really bad. And I’m very disturbed about it because I just couldn’t say anything that really was interesting or challenging, or provocative or what have you.

So I asked Bob, what do you think, Bob? And Bob says, mine sucked too. And so, few more glasses later, so we said, what are we going to do about it? And we did something that Stanford professors do with great support and encouragement from everybody. And that is, if you really don’t know something, and you’re quite ignorant about it, the best thing to do is to actually dream up a course and offer it.

So, when you dream up a course and offer it, a couple of things happen. The first thing is, you are super motivated, because you’re clueless. You have to read a lot, you’ve got to put together something. And the students, they sense your excitement and your curiosity, they kind of engage with you and they teach you a lot. And, so we were kind of thinking, how do we teach people about how to scale something? And Bob and I thought, let’s give them a challenging, hard problem.

So, we had 60 students, we could have gotten more but we capped it at 60. 30 from engineering and 30 from GSB. And then we put them into teams and randomly assigned dorms and sports team on the Stanford campus to each of these student teams. And we give them one scaling challenge: Scale the use of bicycle helmets by bicyclists on Stanford campus. It’s a very hard thing to do by the way because, there’s memory loss and particularly the undergrads are fully persuaded of their immortality and invincibility and it was very, very hard.