Work Matters

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David Kelley Nails It Again: "The d.school teaches creative confidence."

Innovation Guru David Kelley On Teaching Creative Confidence at Stanford

Last Friday, we had an opening gala for the new building (actually it is a massively reconstructed old building) that houses the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford -- or as everyone calls it, the d.school.  I have been teaching at Stanford for about 25 years and the d.school is by far the most exciting effort that I've every been part of.  You can take a video tour of the new building, but keep in mind that is it the spirit and pride that mkaes the place really cook, and while having a great space is right, we started in a double-wide trailer on campus, and -- although we had plenty of growing pains -- the commitment and desire to teaching and doing creative work has been there since the begining, so some seven or eight years ago. 

On that Friday, we were swimming in university officials of all kinds, although since it was the d.school, there were more students and former students than anything else --- one of or core values is that students come first, and this was evident, as is usually the case. Many interesting things were said that afternoon. Hasso gave a lovely and quite funny speech and the good feelings ran high all afternoon. Yet, as is pretty much always the case, our founder and inspiration David Kelley (who also was the co-founder, first CEO and driving force behind IDEO, probably the most renowned innovation firm in the world) made the most striking observations.  David commented that, yes, we teach many elements the design thinking process to our students (in fact, many are cataloged in this amazing and free document called "The Bootcamp Bootleg," which I think is better than any book on how to practice design thinking than you can buy).

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David argued, however, that the most important contribution the d.school makes to Stanford students and the people we teach from outside the university too (from elementary school kids, to Girl Scouts, to doctors, to executives) is creative confidence.  David went on to explain that the main tests used to decide who gets into Stanford and who does not, as well as the bulk of the training in the technical aspects of engineering, math, and the sciences, are constructed so that there is a right answer to the question and it is the student's job to find that answer and report it back to the teacher.

Certainly, such definitive technical knowledge is crucial.  I want engineers who can calculate the right answers so that bridges don't fall down and airplanes don't crash.  As valuable as it is, however, such training -- with its focus on individual achievement under conditions where the right answers are already known -- means that a lot of the people who come to the d.school for classes lack both the skills and the confidence to work on messy problems where the faculty don't know the answer (this is very disconcerting to some of our students) and the only hope is to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work -- and failing forward through the disconcerting process.

The thing I liked most about about David's emphasis on "creative confidence" is that I think he nailed the single most important thing that the d.school does when we are successful.  Yes, the assignments we give people and methods we teach them help on the journey, but as David suggested, the result of spending decades in educational system (this is true of the U.S. and other countries) where those anointed as the best students rapidly uncover the one and only tried and proven true answer (look at the blend of SAT scores and grades used by most colleges for admission decisions, at least 90% of that entails uncovering known right answers) is that some of the "smartest" students freak-out the most when faced with messy and unstructured problems.

The journeys that we take students on always entail helping people confront and overcome their discomfort with trying to solve unstructured problems (that the faculty have not already solved -- and in most cases -- don't know how to solve).  When the d.school process works right, that confidence means that, even when people aren't sure what methods to use, they have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don't work, to keep trying new ideas, and -- as happens -- even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.   

So, although many words were said about what the d.school does at our opening ceremony and many more will be said in the future.  David, as always, came-up with the best compact summary of what we strive to do: Teach Creative Confidence. 

P.S. A related argument was made by psychologist Robert Sternberg, who argued that creativity can't happen unless people decide to pursue it. See this post.  But I think David's point is even more crucial, because if people decide to pursue, but lack confidence they can succeed, the are likely to suffer and unlikely to succeed.

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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