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

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.

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But the students came up with like, amazing ideas. So one team I remember they were given EV, they scanted a village with these grad students. And so they kind of went to the grad students and try to persuade them and facts and, here’s what happens when you fall off a bike. None of these things worked. And finally these people said wait a minute. We really ought to go to the elementary school on the Stanford campus. Because a lot of the kids of grad students actually go there. Let’s actually organize a campaign amongst these kids.

And what they did was, they actually got the kids to write little notes for their parents, saying hey, wear a helmet. It was amazing. And by the way, the way we graded the course was, we knew what the base rate of helmet usage was, so the more you moved the needle, the better the grade, which caused some interesting challenges, I might add.

And so there was another team that went to the men’s soccer team. So, they told them look, if you fall off a bike, bad things can happen, you’re telling the men’s soccer team, they just said give me a break. But, then, they quickly realized, wait a minute, we need to communicate this to them in an interesting way, and they came up with the idea of a watermelon smashing competition. So they would go there, and tell these people after they dropped a water melon, that’s your brain when you fall off a bike. And people said, really.

And they said, you may think you’re immortal but if that happens to you, think of what’s going to happen to your team. And that got the attention of the men’s soccer team. And very quickly, their penalty if you will, if any of the men’s soccer team didn’t wear a bike helmet, they’d actually fling the watermelon at the kid. So, that kind of deviant behavior got punished. It sort of spread for awhile.

And the second year we actually did a project with the MBAs and the engineers again, and this time they were actually working with front line engineers and soldiers and that kind of stuff. It’s unbelievable. I mean when you sort of see we actually had a general in the rapid deployment force who came to us and said, hey, can they help. And we said oh, what a great problem. And so we once again told our students to go figure these things out. And the sorts of things they came up with were, like, simple but profound too.

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One, just one example. So soldiers, of course, get redeployed, and you get rotated and you have replacements. And you have an interesting transfer of knowledge problem. How do you transfer knowledge from an outgoing cohort of soldiers to an incoming cohort? The U.S Army’s modus operandi is, you actually have a two hundred item questionnaire that you have to fill out. And, you can imagine what people are going to do when you give a two hundred item questionnaire and that’s given to you right after you land on the air base in the U.S. when you’ve come back from Kandahar. The response rate is abysmally low.

So, there’s just no way you’re going to get anything. Plus it goes to some place in the Pentagon. They do some statistical analyses and they really don’t turn out to be much either. So our kids actually thought about it for awhile and they came up with like one interesting idea that they came up with, for example, was look, why don’t we ask each soldier. Look, can you take ten minutes to talk to somebody who is going to replace you. Tell them three stories that actually are interesting examples of your experience. And if you spend ten minutes, we’ll make sure you get half an hour more web access when you talk to your family. But, by the way, it’s a very high powered incentive, as you can image. Web access is a very scarce resource, you give them half an hour, and you give these stories, and it’s amazing when these people would tell stories to the incoming soldiers. What they were doing is they were actually giving way more data than could be accommodated by a regression model.

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