learning

Remaking Education

To continue with the topic of education, today we increasingly hear complaints about the growing inadequacy of our education systems to the realities of the world around us. It's impossible not to see merit in some of those, too. In the world that is rapidly moving towards a gig economy, characterized by continuing decline in the average job tenure, with a lot of jobs likely to disappear in the next 10-20 years, a lot of aspects of the traditional education systems are questionable at best.

But in order to understand which parts of the system work well, and which are outdated and require revamping, it's useful to understand the history and context in which current system came into existence in the first place, and the purposes it was set up to serve. Otherwise, proposing any changes would be akin to moving ahead in the dark: we might still stumble upon something useful, but it is just as likely that we would do more harm than good. This is particularly true for something as complex and intertwined with every aspect of our lives as education.

Our current education system as we know it, was largely established in the second half of the 19th century, and the first decades of the 20th century, and coincided with the Second Industrial Revolution. In his (absolutely brilliant, in my opinion) book "The End of Average", Todd Rose argues that to a significant extent, the motivation behind it had less to do with the desire to create a truly meritocratic society — instead, it was largely driven by the ever increasing demand for workers that the new businesses were experiencing. Therefore, the key purpose of education was not to provide everyone with the opportunities to discover their talents and use those in the best possible way, but rather to educate people to a minimum level that would be sufficient for them to fill in the new vacancies.

The Second Industrial Revolution has long since became history; today, we are in the middle of what is widely regarded as the Digital Revolution, or the Third Industrial Revolution. This new era has arguably brought tremendous change to the societies throughout the world and global economy; it's hard to argue that the needs of both the society and individuals today aren't very different from what they've been during the Second Industrial Revolution more than a hundred years ago. And yet, we still to a significant extent rely upon a system that was designed for a different age and circumstances.

That raises several important questions. First, given how much the world has changed over the last 100 years, how suitable our education approaches are for the new circumstances? Yes, it remains possible that a lot could be achieved through the gradual evolution of the existing offerings. But is it too far-fetched to imagine that at least for some aspects of the current system, disruption might make more sense that evolution?

Personally, I don't think so. The idea of providing personalized education in schools required changing pretty much every aspect of the traditional school experience - and yet, the early results seem to be very promising. Same goes for the notion that bootcamps, nanodegrees and other unconventional options for professional education might one day turn into a viable alternative to college education — while it might raise some eyebrows, there is a lot of promising work happening in the space right now. And the list goes on.

Second, if we want to bring positive change to the current education system, we need to focus on designing new solutions that can be successfully scaled. One reason why the entire world still relies on a system that was put in place over a hundred years ago is that it was built to scale. Therefore, if the goal is to have a wide impact, for whatever solutions we propose, it's important to consider whether there is a way to implement them throughout a single state, a country, or the entire globe, as it was done with the school and college education in the past.

To that point, it's also crucial to consider the implications the proposed solutions would have on the existing system: we no longer live in a world that is a blank canvas, therefore, the implications of the change sometimes could be unexpected and profound. The concept of personalized learning illustrates some of these issues well: while students might get tremendous benefits from the new process, we need to consider what would happen when the real world would inevitably start interfering with it. What would happen when the families move, and the students find themselves in the areas where there are no schools with personalized learning options? Would the introduction of personalized learning only deepen the gap between the well-performing schools that are well-manned and access to funding, and the ones that are already struggling? Would it hamper the job mobility for the teachers? I'm sure it's not impossible to find answers to those questions, but in order to do that , we need to be asking those questions in the first place.

Finally, one day a time would come when the context would change again, and we would need to rethink the education system once more. I believe we could do a great service to the future generations if we keep that in mind, and focus on designing solutions that could be adjusted as needed, and are made to be iterated upon.

The (Huge) Impact Of The Culture

As part of my experience at Kellogg, I've got an opportunity to work on a few projects that involved working with industry partners, and one thing that struck me as surprising was the huge impact the culture often had on every aspect of the operations of those companies. By culture here I mean not just the internal culture, but rather the all-encompassing perception of the organization and the values associated with it by both the customers and the employees.

Spending most of my time around tech companies in the past, I grew to appreciate the importance of building the right culture for the organizations, but at the same time got to view the culture as something that was constantly evolving, and could be changed over time, if need be. Part of this impression definitely comes from the fact that a lot of tech companies haven't been around for that long, but even the ones that have existed for a while and faced the need to adjust their culture and mission at some point, often managed to do that quite successfully (take Microsoft and the transition it went through in the last few years, for example).

What I've discovered at Kellogg, however, was that this is most certainly not the case for a lot of companies in other industries. While the right company's culture often serves as an amplifier for any initiative the company might be willing to undertake, it can also become a huge barrier to being able to successfully introduce the necessary changes. What's also interesting is that probably no company starts with the wrong culture in the first place - but rather, over time, some organizations might find themselves in a situation where certain aspects of the culture require adjustments due to the changes in market environment, customer preferences or the competition. What happens when this moment comes is very hard to predict, and depends on a wide range of factors, such as both the customers' and the employees' perception of the company's mission, the employees' attitudes towards the company, which are again often rooted in their perception of the company, the governance structure (e.g. being franchised definitely makes introducing changes more complex), whether this is a product- or service-driven company (changing the culture of the product-driven companies appears to be somewhat easier, but can bring other challenges) and so on.

What are some of the steps the companies might take to make it easier for them to make the necessary adjustments in the future? For starters, it seems that it is generally a good idea to start paying special attention to the company's culture while it's still emerging, and then keep re-evaluating the different aspects of it continuously, as the incremental changes certainly come easier than the all-encompassing reforms. Second, figuring out how the internal culture impacts the employees' and customers' perceptions of the company is crucial: once the customers make their minds, it's often extremely hard to do anything about it, and that in turn can affect the types of people the company is able to attract (especially if that's a B2C company). Finally, if the company's business model involves franchising, or is service-driven, bringing in the right people who can emphasize with the vision of the founders/top management and who share the same values becomes especially important. After all, the culture is by definition shaped by people, and if you're in a people-driven business, the culture essentially becomes your product.

The Power Of Personification

The cover image for "The Best We could Do" comes from ABRAMS,  www.abramsbooks.com

The cover image for "The Best We could Do" comes from ABRAMS, www.abramsbooks.com

I've recently finished reading The Best We Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui. In this book, Bui writes about the story of her family, originally from Vietnam, who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon.

When I started it, my knowledge of the history of Vietnam and Vietnamese people was, to my embarrassment, quite limited. And yet from the first pages this book felt so personal and intimate. For the most part, Thi Bui focuses about her own experiences, and those of her family. However, in doing so, she also manages to introduce the readers to the complex history of Vietnam of the 20th century, and gives us a glimpse into how much it affected its people.

What also struck me is how similar the story Thi Bui tells is to the stories I grew up hearing and learning about from my own family and others around me: the complex and often sad history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, the rocky history of the Russians under the communist rule, and so many others. Most of us probably have the stories of their own they grew up hearing and find it easy to emphasize with. One doesn't need to know anything about the history of Vietnam to see the reflection of her own stories in the one Bui tells us in The Best We Could Do. And once you recognize that, it becomes so much harder to remain blind and unmoved by the struggles of others, no matter where they come from, what cultures they belong to, or what languages they speak.

I really wish we'd focus more on telling those personal stories - there is a tremendous power in the idea of personification of history -  something that can never be achieved if we treat the history of the living people just as collections of facts and numbers.

Mastering The New Mindset

It's no secret that among a lot of people, it's a fairly common sentiment to regard the managers as overly ambitious people who require to get paid a lot for no reason and at the same time are of questionable value to the organization (as opposed to, say, engineers, that are doing the actual work). I don't have any desire to argue for or against this position tonight. Rather, as someone who's currently (gradually) transitioning from being being purely an individual contributor to the more leadership oriented roles, I've found that there are a few skills that seem to be very difficult to truly master for a lot of managers. I feel that it might explain, at least to a certain extent, why the (good) managers are so much in demand, and are often worth a lot to the organizations they lead.

1. Learning to let go. Most of us start their careers as individual contributors, which often means that it falls onto us to do the work on the ground and focus on getting all the details right. It also provides us with a reasonable degree of control of the final output (at least for the specific piece we're in charge of). As we advance in our career, however, the situations when we need to rely on the results of the work done by others, be it our peers, or people who report to us, keep arising more and more frequently. Making the mental transition in order to accept and embrace that - learning how to delegate and refraining from the desire to micromanage - often turns out to be extremely hard, and the new mindset might take years to fully master.

2. Learning to control your ego. This is another core issue many people (myself included) struggle a lot with. For me personally, it's not so much about the need to force my views and ideas upon the people around me, but rather about the desire to feel that I'm contributing in a meaningful way. That, however, can be just as dangerous, and again, this is a habit that takes a long time to unlearn.

3. Dealing with the lack of immediate gratification. Finally, I feel that one of the biggest challenges for a lot of people entering management is the reduced amount of immediate gratification that comes with their new positions. I'm not saying that management can't be a rewarding career - it absolutely can and should be - rather, the emphasis here is on the word 'immediate'. This issue is, to a significant extent, tied to the previous points I've made above. When we work as individual contributors, we are often responsible for taking care of specific items on the agenda. We might not have a direct way to influence the agenda itself (and that can be at times frustrating), but at least we can feel good once we are done working on this presentation, or writing that sprint of code.

However, as we find ourselves in a setting that requires managing a team, we often discover that those achievements don't belong to us anymore, but are rather the accomplishments of our team members or subordinates. What that means is that we no longer can feel the gratification stemming from striking a specific thing off our to-do lists, as those aren't not actually our to-do lists anymore. Instead, we have to learn to give credit to the people around us (while still taking responsibility for the failure, if need be), and teach ourselves to focus on the longer-term objectives and the broader picture. This is something that can be incredibly motivating in the long run, but it definitely requires a lot of work to get into this mindset, and is by no means easy to do.

On Communication Style: Pushing The Limits Of Discussion

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Lately, I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot on what would be the most productive way to run meetings that involve possible conflicts and require pushing the boundaries. The exact nature of the meeting doesn't matter that much - it could be an informal discussion, a brainstorming session or a heated public debate - the question on how to best handle it to get the most out of it still remains.

My inclination in the past was almost always to focus on getting to the core of the argument as fast as possible, and than to relentlessly push the discussion forward. This often meant that was it's all right to shoot down the ideas, and the conflict was to be welcomed, not shied away from.

And for a while, this approach worked fine for me - at least as long as I continued to work in venture capital. However, when I started venturing outside of that world, it turned out that many things that worked fine in VC didn't necessarily yield the same results in the different kinds of environments I started finding myself in. I believe that it had a lot to do with some of the specifics of the setting I grew accustomed to: in VC, you typically have to deal with relatively strict hierarchy, and a lot of ambiguity, coupled with time and resource constraints, plus you're constantly surrounded by A-type personality people.

Other environments, however, are not necessarily like that. In business school, big tech or even at many startups, you might not have a clear hierarchy, instead collaborating with a lot of people who are your peers, not your bosses or subordinates. You also often have more resources (and time) to explore different areas, but at the same time have to make longer commitments once you decide to go with a particular idea. Next, not everyone around you has an A-type personality (and not everyone lives to work either), which means you have to be a bit more cognizant of other people's needs and priorities. Finally, it's important to remember that your conduct can sometimes actually offend people - something that is a bit less of an issue if you work in an high stakes environment like venture capital, where many people develop thicker skin over time.

For me, getting accustomed to this new environment turned out to be somewhat challenging. Interestingly enough, I actually do appreciate many of the things I highlighted above - as an INTJ, strongly skewed towards introversion, I didn't always feel comfortable in the heated discussions of the VC world. At the same time, over the years I had learned to appreciate the benefits that often came with having intense, frank, ‘cut to the heart of the issue’ discussions, and didn't want to give those benefits up, unless I could see for myself how adopting a different communication approach would allow me to achieve even better results.

In my previous post, I touched on one example of a situation when being inclusive and open to new ideas, even if you believe that you already know they won't work, might benefit you and your team in the long run: if your goal is to bring in new and unconventional ideas, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that you're creating a safe environment for everyone to feel comfortable sharing their insights in; and then you can always revisit the viability of those ideas later.

Another example of a situation where focusing on having a nicer, calmer discussion can be critical I can think of is working cross-functionally, something that is extremely common in the tech world. If, say, you are a Product Manager at a tech company, you have to interact with software developers, designers, as well as sales and marketing people on the daily basis. However, in most cases, none of those people report to you directly, which means that often the only way to make them co-operate with you is by gaining their trust and respect first, something that would be extremely hard to do if you have a harsh and authoritative communication style, no matter how smart you are.

This is something I've witnessed at Microsoft over the summer: in a company of 100,000+ people your networks and the reputation you’ve built for yourself are no less important that the skills or ideas that you bring to the table. You can't hope to lead any kind of meaningful change without winning the people's trust first, and you won't be able to achieve that unless you first learn to have inclusive discussions, and to attract people instead of alienating them.

The same goes for the business school environment: while you might consider yourself the smartest person in the room, others most definitely won't take it for granted, plus, for that matter, a lot of people might not even care. Therefore, it's essential to figure out how to become more open-minded and inclusive, otherwise, the impact you'd have would most likely remain very limited (plus, you'd risk gaining a nasty reputation among your peers).

At the same time, I continue to believe that we shouldn't shy away from the conflict just because they make people feel uncomfortable. Some of the best ideas were born in the most heated discussions; by arguing, we can often uncover the insights that would otherwise stay hidden, generate exciting new ideas or even simply express our views better. This isn't limited to one's workplace - arguments represent an extremely important and useful tool in practically every sphere of our lives. What I’m learning to appreciate more these days, though, is the importance of remaining polite, listening hard and being ready to change my mind if the other side’s ideas prove to be sound. Whether we intimidate others by arguing with them - or elevate them - is entirely up to us.

To quote from Bret Stephens' lecture delivered at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner (the full text of the lecture can be found here):

"To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree."

Learning To Appreciate The Design Thinking Process

One of the degrees I'm pursuing right now is MS in Design Innovation (the other being MBA from Kellogg School of Management), and one of the key goals for this program is to immerse the students in the design thinking process (if interested, you can read more about it here).

You might argue that I must have been interested in learning about the design thinking if I chose to pursue this program. The truth is that I was actually fairly skeptical about the entire concept. While I liked the idea of learning about using a holistic approach when it comes to innovation, and appreciated the importance of human-centered design at a high level, I wasn't necessarily convinced of the value of specific processes and frameworks associated with the design thinking. I generally tend to question any kind of process that you are asked to just blindly follow, plus it didn't seem plausible that any kind of "creative" thinking could be done by following on a specific set of guidelines.

Suffice to say, my opinion has changed a lot since then. After applying the design thinking principles to the challenges posed by Harley-Davidson and McDonalds on multiple occasions, I can safely say that while the design thinking process might not be entirely perfect, it sure does help to evaluate the situation at hand, tackle complex problems, and then guide the search for appropriate solutions. And, funnily enough, it's the structure of this approach that I appreciate the most now.

Take, for example, the step when you are being asked to come up with the insights and so called 'How Might We?'s based on your initial primary research results. Truth be told, at first, I was fairly frustrated with the entire idea. Why do we need to do it this way? What's the value of coming up with those (rather generic) insights? How does putting every problem assessment in the rigid 'How Might We' structure going to help us? And why the hell aren't you allowed to criticize the ideas the others came up with?

Well, turns out all of that was for a reason. Coming up with the insights and HMWs helps to distill the key points uncovered by your research. Putting everything in the same format helps to be able to assess the ideas more easily. And building off the others' ideas instead of arguing about their viability helps to ensure that everyone on the team feels comfortable to share, and as a result allows you to capture the entire breadth of the insights.

There are two takeaways here, as I see it. First, while the healthy skepticism about the processes being pushed on you might be a good thing, it's also worth looking into the underlying reasons for those principles to exist in the first place: one might find that the approach in question is actually more than reasonable. Second, even when feeling uncomfortable about a particular routine, it often makes sense to go with it a couple of times to see what results it would yield: you might be surprised by how effective it turns out to be. While those insights might look obvious, they certainly weren't for me (and, I suspect, wouldn't necessarily have been for others as well).

The Rubber Band Theory

A few weeks again, I came by the brilliant TED talk called "The power of introverts", done by Susan Cain, which in turn got me interested in her book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking". While Susan's TED talk gives a good overview of many of her book's insights, I could easily recommend the "Quiet" to anyone even remotely interested in the topic: it's a great read, and the amount of insights and actionable advice packed into the book is at times astonishing (and I've only got half through it so far).

As an introvert that at times struggles with the society's expectations and requirements (attending business school, an environment notoriously famous for pushing even the extraverts out of their comfort zones, doesn't help), I found many things that Susan discusses in the book to be extremely relevant to me, but here is one quote in particular that I wanted to share with you:

"[Dr.] Schwartz’s research suggests something important: we can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point. Our inborn temperaments influence us, regardless of the lives we lead. A sizable part of who we are is ordained by our genes, by our brains, by our nervous systems. And yet the elasticity that Schwartz found in some of the high-reactive teens also suggests the converse: we have free will and can use it to shape our personalities.

We might call this the “rubber band theory” of personality. We are like rubber bands at rest. We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much."

I find this "rubber band theory" metaphor brilliant. While this insight might look trivial to some, this is actually a relatively recent discovery; it's also something that eluded the scientists for a long time. For years, many people either believed that the personality is something that's entirely shaped by the environment, or that, while there is a genetic component to it, the environment and person's free will still play an overwhelming role in shaping one's personality. Well, as it turns out, this is only true up to a point.

Some might find this fact disheartening, as it means that one doesn't necessarily possess a full control over his own personality, no matter how much effort she applies. But to me, that's not the point. The "Quiet" provides enough evidence to prove that being an introvert shouldn't be seen as an issue: while there are some disadvantages associated with it, the advantages are no less significant. That, coupled with the results of Dr. Schwartz research, suggests that instead of trying to completely revamp our personalities to fit whatever image of ourselves we have in our heads (something that often proves to be impossible to do anyways), we would be much better off focusing on learning how to utilize what we traits we already possess to our advantage.