Episode 37 – Doris Korda and Alison Tanker
WE’RE A WEEK AND A HALF IN TO STUDENTS’ SECOND BUSINESS CHALLENGE. AND AT THIS POINT IN THE COURSE, THINGS GET REALLY, REALLY COMPLICATED. AND IN THIS EPISODE, WE SHARE A LOT OF OUR STRATEGIES IN HELPING GUIDE STUDENTS THROUGH A VERY CHALLENGING, CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING PROCESS.
Alison: So students are a week and a half in to their second business challenge working with Endemic Solutions. And the company itself is this water-purification technology that’s based off of this biomimicry design. That was influenced by the way manta rays filter feed their food in the ocean. And this technology is intended to be used, what the CEO thought, for medical-grade water. Where usually water would be contaminated whether that’s in an international country or if that’s post-natural disaster. Something like this where people would need to wash their hands or wash out wounds in order to care for those who are medically injured, to some degree, would need access to clean water.
So, she has this design but has no idea where to start initially. Well, the challenge itself was how did the students help her identify the best market application for her to enter first, why and how?
Doris: Yeah, right, their challenge is where should…with what application in the market should Endemic Solutions launch their product, why and how. That’s right.
Alison: So given that, it’s been a lot for them to chew on over the past week and a half. And they just did their first share-outs about their status and their thinking, their process to us today. So, where do you think they are, Doris? What’s your opinion at this stage?
Doris: Well, so yeah, this is a really interesting one. So, their second challenge, as always, is a huge step-up in complexity and sophistication in the problem itself from the first business challenge. In the first challenge, we always pick a business and a challenge that’s really easy for them to identify with. In this case, it was fruit snacks, a business that sells fruit snacks. Because the work they have to do in the first business challenge is to learn some very foundational skills. And we really used up almost all of the class time in the first three weeks. Having them experience applying things to learning how to research, learning how to interview well, how to do empathy maps, how to do quantitative and qualitative analyses, problem solve, etc. And it’s heavily guided. It’s still completely experiential but it’s heavily guided. They learn about teaming, etc.
This one, they’ve learned those basic skills and now, they really have to develop their skills in a big way in creative problem-solving, teaming, etc. as they take on the challenge. And they have more time on this one. They have almost four weeks which is really good.
And what we saw today, we saw four teams present. Two of them have made great progress, I would say, in a week and a half, and two of them, not so much. One of the interesting things about this one, like many of our second challenges, there’s a huge amount of real subject matter knowledge. They have to learn first before they can problem solve. In this case, they have to learn about not only her filter system but the difference between water filtering and water purification. The difference between potable water and water that is good for medicinal use. What is it if something filters out physical pathogens but doesn’t filter out chemicals? Like there’s a lot for them to learn.
Two of the teams have gone very deep in that and two of them have not. And so, it was a very, very good day because each team shared out where they were and what they were thinking. And in two of the cases, what we helped them do with our feedback was process what they should do next. Because they’re at a very interesting crossroads given how much research they’ve done. And in the other two cases, what we’re really doing is by asking a lot of very, very basic questions that they could not answer well.
Alison: Around the science side of the product.
Doris: Yeah, like what the product does. You know, how do you problem solve and find a good market or application if you don’t understand what the product actually does? So, they came in with kind of BS-y things.
Alison: Right, they’re able to say, “Oh well, filtration is this and purification is that” in very… You know, they looked up the definition quickly online, right?
Doris: Well, they actually used only the language she provided in her initial…
Alison: That’s right.
Doris: That’s all they did. They didn’t even do research on it. They basically said, “Well…” in a very quick sentence or two coming straight out of the CEO’s day one…
Doris: …presentation to them. And then they start talking about, “We think it’d be really great in Bolivia and because…” And gave us whatever they gave and had nice looking slides, and that’s what they spent the bulk of their presentation on this one team’s case. And when all was said and done and they presented well and they had a lot of nice things. I asked, “What does actually the product do?” And one of the students, very articulate, very bright, very well-spoken gave back now instead of one sentence, a paragraph but straight out of the CEO’s mouth, right? And we poked further and they had no idea. And so, everything that they presented kinda fell apart.
This is also a team that we know isn’t actually doing a whole lot of work and it showed in their presentation. What’s really good about this is that they’ve got this open-ended, big, hairy challenging problem. They have a week to work in teams. We’ve given them guidance along and I wanna talk about that in a minute it to help them with the process, which is the most challenging part of this whole thing. We talked about this, the two teams who didn’t fare so well really haven’t engaged yet fully with it. They’re still taking it on like they would a regular academic course and waiting for us to dole out the assignments.
Alison: And they’ve been doing some research. But you can tell they’re not internalizing it in a way that they’re able to therefore synthesize and make decisions based off of that. They’re just being good students and…
Doris: Doing what we tell them to do.
Alison: Doing some research, but it’s really disconnected from any intentional decision making or problem solving.
Doris: Yeah, that’s right. So, we don’t throw the problem in the room and leave. So we’re assigning things and we’re, at the beginning of class, in a new circle. During the classes, we pop in the teams. At the end of the day, every single day, we’re posing questions, we’re poking. We’re suggesting next steps, we’re helping them. We’re throwing out things for them to read, things for them to watch, having them write things, do reflections. The teams that didn’t do so well, they are dutifully doing everything that we’re telling them to do, but that isn’t enough.
Alison: That’s right.
Doris: The other two teams are doing everything we’re telling them to do but they’re internalizing this as a problem they want to solve. And so actually for those two teams, we will continue to design things but if we didn’t, they would be fine. We will continue to guide it, but it’s a really interesting thing.
There’s a myth that, you know, with this kind of learning and teaching. That you just throw a problem in, put them on teams, and come back through. So it’s actually highly structured. It’s just structured in a very different way.
Alison: Well, let’s actually talk about that. Because earlier this week, it was clear there was this lack of urgency with each of the teams. And Tim and I were right there as well and caught it early so we circled up as a class midday. It was very clear where they were in their teams. We said, “All right, everyone stop what you’re doing. We need an emergency team meeting” and so we all circled up. And we started to poke in, “Why does this challenge matter at all? Why does it matter to you? Why do we need to solve this?”
Doris: Yeah, huge.
Alison: Right? Start with why, always, like you say. And in order for, you know, each of the students to be able to express in their own way, you know, what…
Alison: Well some of them said, “This matters because this problem or the solution could actually help lots of people around the world that there isn’t access to clean water.” So they realized we could really help some people who need access to that. One student acknowledged the fact that she’s a black female entrepreneur and that the odds are stacked against here and he was really…
Doris: Actually a black student, African-American boy who’s really excited about that.
Alison: Right. And that he felt like we need to help her get the odds in her favor and do a good job on this work. And so, you know, after we debrief and really establish why this matters at all to understand where they’re stuck. Because it was very clear something was holding them back and they start to talk about it. “Well we’re really frustrated. We don’t know the process. We don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing.” And what was happening was they were just disengaging in that moment.
Doris: Sure, which is not…
Alison: They were just sitting back. We could see they were listening in their earphones or when we went in to their team, they were somewhat unfocused. And so, we, that night, decided to do a bit of work around setting them up for this whole week.
Doris: Right and let’s talk about what we did, okay? By the way, that is really… When I say normal, it’s not just that it’s normal. That literally happens every time like clockwork. We talked to Michael Hudecek. Remember when he sent an email? “This is one of our attendees who took the playbook for how to do this from us.”
Alison: From the workshop.
Doris: And implement it. And he wrote an email. He sent an email right around then in the first week of one of the business challenges. Saying, “Well, you know, I have a different kind of student here. These are not independent school students. These are public school students, maybe that’s the difference. They’re sitting back and they kinda did the initial research I told them to do and now they’re like, ‘Okay, what else? I have nothing left to do.’”
And I wrote back, “Don’t think for a second that this is any different with literally everybody we’ve trained to do this, comes up against the same thing.” And here’s what happens. When you’re doing a problem that a teacher gives you out of a textbook or a case study or something that had been already solved by someone else earlier, there’s a start, a middle, and an end. And you can guide students along that path in a pretty structured way.
When you give students a real-world problem like we do, that has not yet been solved, there’s endless, infinite research that can be done. When you first started researching something like this, you’re hoping that as you learn more, just from doing basic research, you’re gonna start knowing how to solve the problem. And it’s not true, it doesn’t happen.
So the students did what you’d expect anybody to do. They’re given this problem They don’t anything about any of it and they start by doing a lot of research. And then they get to a place where they realize the research is endless. “I could follow it endlessly. And instead of getting more clarity about how I should solve this problem or what my first step should be, I have less clarity. I’m even more overwhelmed,” so they just stop.
So we did two things. The first thing we did is right then and there that night, we assigned them the following: Pick two or three applications for this product that off the top of your head or from the research you’ve done so far, seem like good applications for her filter. And come up with a profile of those applications in the markets, and do some research on all three. And we had them write something about that.
Alison: It was a specific statement.
Doris: Right, a statement with some questions, some specifics, they had to learn about it. And come in ready to present those to your team the next day. So the next day in class, we had a short class and told them, “Get in your teams and everybody present your application/markets for the product and what you found to each other” and they do that.
And then we say, “After having shared, what are your questions? What are your questions about the product? What are your questions about the science? What are your questions about the market? What are your questions about creating a business out of…like what are your questions, come up with those.”
And then third, and this is in one short period and it’s fine for them to do this in this much time. And then the third was based on this, “Come up with what you would do next.” And they come up with what they do next. And then the assignment is for them each individually to write about that to us, “Reflection on this, what I do next, this is why, here’s some example, etc.”
And then after that, we know that they still don’t know what to really do next. So now what’s happened is we’ve taken them from a bit of paralysis because of all the research and all the possibilities. And we’ve gotten them to think only about two or three specific applications. They may not end up being the ones that emerged, but it takes the students to something they can put their arms around, connect with, care about.
Then the next day, we introduced… We say, “Your next task…” We talk about the fact that the hardest, really the hardest academic challenge in this course is designing process. That’s actually the hardest part. Learning the science, learning how to present well, those are really important. The research skills are important. This is the most difficult thing to learn for a kid or adult.
So, we talk about that and then we say, “So here’s what you need to do next. You need, as a team, to decide how you’re gonna decide what to do next. How are you gonna decide what to do?” And we’re calling it a “decision filter.” And we spend some time explaining what we meant by that. They then went off into their teams to take a crack at it. Out of the four teams, one of them…I came in the next day, remember?
Alison: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Doris: The next day came in, I went to each team and they presented their decision filter. As an assignment, they had to put their decision filter. They submit it as homework. I looked at them. I saw immediately that only one team even understood what a decision filter was which is normal. It’s a sophisticated idea. And the next day, I went into each team and took what they’ve done and said, “Okay, how would you use this?” and had them try it out.
And the one team who really did come up with, “Well, we would think about the…” I think the way they first put it was something like, “We’d look at the market for it” or something like that. But as they explained it, what they really… I asked a bunch of questions and they said, “Oh, this actually would be two things.” We’d look at the size of the market and then we’d also look at the urgency of need. And I said, “Yup, that’s great.”
Then they had another which was cost but as they talked about cost, it wasn’t really cost. It was the ease of implementation, the cost and time and in resource and in money and then there was product fit So one team… The other three, as they tried it out, they immediately realized, it wasn’t really a decision filter.
Alison: In the way that it’s set up, in that way, there’s these factors where they had to really weigh out what are the deciding factors that are going to help us come to a decision, right?
Doris: About when versus another, yeah.
Alison: The reality of what we see with students is they always wanna jump to solutions. That’s just their natural go-to place because in traditional school, I think that’s what they’re trained to do.
Doris: Yeah, what’s the answer.
Alison: What’s the answer. So they really struggled through that meta-level of thinking about the process, getting to the decision. They’re just usually so used to finding out what the solution would be or making that decisions based off of their early research. And what you really set them up to do, by talking through decision filter, coming up with these factors. Was isolating and really putting in priority of relevance to that decision.
You know, does the cost matter as much as the market application? Does it matter as much as the impact that Shanice is interested in making, right? They have to wrestle with these really strategic, sophisticated decisions. And to push them through that was fantastic. However, keep going, there’s the one team got there but the others were…
Doris: Yeah, it actually took a few days and it took cycles. And one of them still isn’t totally there in understanding what it is. The three, who really are there, really have a very different understanding now of what it means to problem solve. And the importance of designing process and how you design process.
And here’s a couple of things that are really interesting to me about this. This, what we’re talking about is probably my whole problem with education as it is now. We worry… The whole of education is set up around product, and not around process. And everything we’re doing in here is focused on process.
And as the students are de-schooled, what really is happening is we are, through experiences and through trying things and through a lot of different processes as they’re working on real problems they care about. They’re experiencing the crazy supremacy of process over product. It isn’t about which is who has the right answer, which of you has the right… It’s how are you going to decide what matters most. The why, it’s really the why.
So when you talk not only about problem solving but you get them to think like this, you’re able to talk about working in a team in an academic way. As a process that needs to be developed and mastered, and learned over time. And it’s no longer this personal thing, “Oh, she’s on my team and she doesn’t do this well and da, da, da.”
And everything fits in this category. It’s the reason we had our first… Yesterday, we gave our first like big-time one-on-one feedback. And it’s only now that they’re really ready to get the feedback that matters for them that they’re gonna be able to do something with.
Alison: Well and to think about how they are moving through this process that is messy, is nonlinear and that we can name that for them. Because here they are, they’re overwhelmed, they’re lost in this world of access information, information overload. How to navigate that? How to, you know, challenge after challenge, learn those skills about what you do with that information, how you make decisions because of that. How you utilize your team to each individual.
Doris: Which is a huge part of it.
Alison: Right, balance this workload and put your heads together to come up with a decision that’s greater than the sum of its parts, is this right?
Doris: Yeah, we are. We bought that every time. We bought that. Well, you know, you bring up… So here’s another thing we did just to start some specific… We do a lot of things. It’s not this fluid, “Let’s make it up as we go.” There are tons and tons and tons, as you pointed out, systems and we use the same ones every single time. This is no different than any other second biz problem we’ve done even though the business itself is different.
They’re crazy, crazy focused now on, “How do we decide what to do next?” They get that that’s the hardest part of this. So now, when we talk to them about who’s on the team and what do they bring, they understand the importance of that. So…
Alison: They have to be more strategic in using their teammates.
Doris: Absolutely. I pointed this out three different times to three teams yesterday. I did the Post-it exercise, I can do that now. So they’re a week and a half in and I said, “All right, you still have three weeks to go. You don’t know that much about each other yet but you know enough to do this. Take Post-its and top off your head very quickly.” I think I gave them like two minutes max for the whole thing. “Top of mind, what is the single thing that comes to mind that Allison brings to the team most? That Tim brings, that Doris brings, the other three very quickly.” And you could see some of them were like still uncomfortable. I said, “Just do it. Yes, everybody has a lot of skills. No, you don’t know them well yet. Nobody’s gonna take offense, just do it.” So they do it.
And then I go around, I say, “All right. Tim, what does Allison most bring? Doris, what does Allison most bring? Angela, what does Allison most bring?” They say this and this and this and then I say, “Allison, does that make sense to you?” And Allison says, “Yes.” And then we go around the do every member of the team. And the whole exercise literally takes about four minutes, the whole thing.
And then I say to them, “Okay, do you remember after our first business challenge when you gave first feedback to each other about how the team did? What we’d do differently if we had to do it again, how each individual did, blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “Why is giving this feedback well and receiving it well important?”
And one student said, “Because it’s important to learn how to give constructive criticism.” And then another student said, “Yes, and it’s important to know how to hear what you’re weak at or bad at, etc.” And I said, “What was my response?” And the kids all remembered, “Oh, you said something about some research. Where if somebody gives 100 points of feedback to somebody and 99 are positive and 1 is negative, and they’re kind of equal weight. That a month later, the only one the person all remember is the negative one.” And I said, “Yeah and so here’s the deal. You have the strength on this team that you just talked about. How are you gonna put this to use?” And now, they get it. Even a week and a half ago, they didn’t really get it. Do you know what I’m saying?
Alison: I do. And I think we’re seeing a couple of the teams really utilizing that. And that’s why I think they were at a different place today in the share-out.
Doris: Like there’s two teams?
Alison: The two stronger teams who are further along are using each individual to their strongest ability, and I feel like we are gonna have to go in on Monday, like you said. And drill a lot of questions, and really keep pushing those other two teams to get there. Right?
Alison: They’re not far but they’re a little bit behind.
Doris: Well and I thought it was interesting the difference. How clear it was the difference between the two and the two.
Alison: It is. It’s very interesting. It’s an exciting place in the course right now and I’m continually excited about this work because you can see them growing. You can see them stretching. You can see them being challenged more intellectually than they ever have been before.
Doris: Right and I like what we’re having them do over the weekend. Because they still have three weeks left and there’s a ton of scary, intimidating research they’re diving into. So we’re having them each, individually, take a possible user of this product. “Pick one that you like, a person, and design a product using Shanice’s filter and give the research and function out, etc.”
And that way, they can start in a project that will have them very, very off and deep in big research. Continually giving them ways to come back to something manageable and specific that they can each individually wrap their head around is really important. And we’ll do that all along the way.
Alison: It will be cool to see where they can come back with on Monday. And maybe we can share some of those in the Facebook group for others to see as well. So they can share.
Doris: Yeah, I love seeing this stuff that people are sharing.
Alison: Truly and I know we even had someone who said they’ve been following their class along the similar pathway to where ours is at this moment. And asked you know, “Can you share some of those articles you gave to your students to help them when they were needing to look at the market differently, and really understand product market fit?”
Doris: Sarah. Yeah.
Alison: And it was timely. I appreciate that this is at all relevant to any of our listeners and if there are specifics we’ve talked about today, you know, shout-out us a note in the Facebook group. Let us know if you’d like some more specifics from us. We’d be happy to help.
Doris: That’s great.