Friday, January 26, 2007

why the works

I've wanted to write about this for quite a while.

During my last quarter at Stanford, I joined a class in the new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka called "Clicks and Bricks: Creating Mass Market Experiences". The goal was to introduce students to design thinking and to expose us to various industries by working on ambitious and abstract organizational design projects. Over the span of the quarter, we worked on the non-native English speaking experience for Disneyland and on Wal-Mart's new sustainability initiative. This was my first experience with the and I think the class was exemplary of why the is so successful, and more importantly, so fun and innovative.

Big picture speak, the works because of their emphasis on students. On their website, they put in big bold letters under People:

Students first

We encourage students to develop a personal point of view and confidence in their own design methodology.

We want great things for our students

We want to help students become people who can listen, ask good questions, help others succeed, develop empathy for people with different life experiences and opportunities, and have the skills, judgment, and courage to do things in new ways.

We want them to become wiser, more complete human-beings and leaders in design thinking.

Academic institutions acknowledge the importance of educating us, and while the importance of educating students fills many glossy viewbooks, the priority often gets blurred unintentionally under the pressures and various priorities of large academic institutions. But with's fresh start and focus on what's consistently vital to great organizations, they recognized the necessity of having the people -- the students -- be the core of the school and emphasized that on a daily basis.

In contrast to some aspects of my exposure in engineering, the emphasized the process of observation, design, and iteration, and the complement, teamwork. I was put in a team of four other individuals from different disciplines (Tom Maiorana (product design), Eric Hulin (b-school), Xiao Wang and Rebekah Black (management science and engineering)). We went to theme parks, almost got kicked out of the Mtn View Walmart store for our daring experiments, and worked late into the morning at Birch. I once made a remark to my mentor and good friend, Dave, that it's the people who make the substance interesting, and not the other way around. That stands true today, and the work that my team and I did oriented around the observations and ideas that we made, our steadfast commitment to our project, the teaching coaches, and the overall idea of designing for organizations. The class was taught by seven talented individuals: Perry Klebahn, Michael Dearing, Liz Gerber, Alex Ko, Debra Dunn, Julian Gorodsky, and Bob Sutton (see Bob's remarks about the teaching experience here, and the teaching team profiles here). Each of them brought personalities that I remember well and talents that I learned.

The class gave me the breadth to do hard out-of-the-academic element projects. For example, designing a sustainability project within a large organization can't solely rely on theoretical foundations of organizational behavior. My team and I interviewed the folks, talked to various individuals outside Target and Whole Foods who were passionate or apathetic about green, developed a point of view for our subjects, and came up with a cool solution based on our observations and prototypes. And like no other department I've experienced, we got access to the 24-7 and free food and drinks all the time.

The most important lesson from the class was how it changed my personal point of view. While I was taking this class, I was on the hunt for my first full-time job. Like any ambitious individual, I was not going to settle for any job. I wanted the dream job, the job that I will love, learn a lot from, and put me on the right path. With the dorms, departments, and the Stanford Daily filled with ads of the premier management consulting companies and investment banks and the best Stanford students going for such gigs, the pressure to find a perfect job often entailed joining the broadly-known best and brightests. Professor of Management Science and Engineering, Tom Byers, in a panel discussion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said something about students that I won't forget. He said that he liked to work with undergrads because they're inexperienced and willing to try new things. And he also noted the difference between two types of students: the entrepreneurs and the widely-recognized top students. He said that the widely recognized great students have bars set for them -- and they work hard to meet them, no matter how high they are set. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, set their own bars. They challenge convention because it's not good enough. They live life by their own standards and create new products, processes, or organizations that change the world. I pose one question that I think pretty much states what Tom Byers meant. What if Marissa Mayer went for McKinsey instead of Google? Sure, she would've done really well at a management consulting firm, but would she have pushed innovation as far as she did? And of course Larry and Sergey are the stars, but would Google have been as amazing or widely popular among the Stanford crowd had it not been for a standout like her? Many talented people in one place... hard to be recognized. One talented person in a burgeoning environment -- lots of room for growth and many opportunities for distinction recognition. This is why entrepreneurs get noticed. And of course, I don't dare mention "drinking the cool aid" to such rebels ;). Personally, my last quarter at Stanford was the best because I learned that the process of doing what I love (finally!) is so much better than living up to some abstract expectation even though it is, by convention, the best. Sure, the realization was a good part done by myself outside of the, but it was's welcoming, innovative, and incubative environment that helped me realize that the riskier and gutsy-er a path is, the better.

While at the, I heard stories from my professors about their experiences: cutting snowshoeing paths in Vail and marketing the hell out of his product, studying the evolution of the Ford Taurus vs. the Honda Accord as an example of "business as usual vs. business by design", developing new product lines for eBay, and promoting a book with the title, "The No Asshole Rule."

No, there are no bars I have to meet anymore, and the process of exploration, of design, that I underwent taught me lessons that no other class in college taught:

*Don't waste your time: do something you love and are good at.
*The process of discovery and actively doing outweigh the thrill of meeting goals.
*People are an integral part of learning and idea generation.
*The solitary geniuses don't exist anymore.


*Wal-Mart Sustainability Initiative design project abstract here (pdf)

*Fortune Magazine on Wal-Mart's sustainability initiative: The Green Machine (pdf)

*Carter Cast ( CEO) and Bob Sutton ( prof) presentation introduction:

jumpcut presentation by Carter Cast and Bob Sutton

*Team 4 Wal-Mart Sustainability presentation (slides here (ppt)):

jumpcut presentation by Stanford students

*BusinessWeek article on the The Talent Hunt.


Michael said...

May I show (lots of) people this post?

Min Liu said...

sure :)

Chris said...


As an old ('94) PD alum, I'm glad to hear that the greatness of Stanford is in good hands!

iinnovate said...

Great, Min! I've been missing the this quarter... great to relive the experience via your well thought out and written post.
- Matt

PS - Hey, where'd you get the wallmart vids?

Andrew said...

Would you by any chance have a copy of the Wall-Mart Sustainability Initiative design project abstract still? If so could you send it to andrew.tan.77 (at) gmail dot com ... I ask because the above link does not work any more. Thanks

Aaron Lo said...

Hi Min,

My name is Aaron Lo. I am a just-graduated high school senior in Malaysia. This is a bit late, but I only see this blog post of yours 5 minutes ago by clicking a link on Bob Sutton's blog.

I liked how you described your experiences at in a anecdotal way, and it rekindles that urge of wanting to be at Stanford in me.(I applied for undergrad class of 2012 and still keeping my fingers cross). It was made known to me that the has no explicit admission process, so I suspect it must be through some kind of lecturer's recommendation of sort. This post of yours is really inspiring. It made me want to work harder to participate in, among others (like BASES and Stanford Student Enterprises). That is, if I gain admission.

I also checked out Loopt (where you worked, apparently) and your post-it-notes blog (it sort of put a smile on my face, really). I am intrigued by the concept of Loopt (we have never seen anything like that here in Malaysia, as most tech companies preferred to "play safe").

Opps, sorry I typed too much of stuffs, digressing here and there. Anyways, I just want you to know how much I've enjoyed reading about your experiences. *Fingers crossing while typing this>>* I really hope I can be at the Stanford and the someday. Oh, hope I will meet you someday too.

Have a pleasant day.