Life inside the bubble

Most mornings during my fellowship I’d cycle to work from my Palo Alto home through the gum trees that dot the Stanford campus. Scribbly gums, paperbarks, cider gums, blue gums and if there’d been a bit of rain overnight, the scent of eucalyptus would feel like home.

But once at Stanford, in the JSK Fellowship program, in the Graduate School of Business, in the d.school, in talks with thinkers and tinkerers, it was more of a new world.

So what did I learn?

I learned new ways of thinking about things I already knew. By letting me put a label on my existing skills, it let me understand them better and, perhaps, value them more than I had. Oddly, the classes that helped me most in the beginning were acting (for nonactors) and hip-hop dance. Yep — these are credit classes at Stanford. Working in these classes with the smart undergraduate and graduate students gave me a practical understanding of the openness, the risk-taking and the collaboration that much of Stanford innovation is built on.

It also gave me a confidence I wasn’t sure I had beforehand — confidence to dress up like a zombie in our class’s flash mob dance of Thriller!

And the GSB helped me build on those skills, teaching me what I need to know to launch, monetize and grow new ventures; how to coach individuals, teams and startups; and how to diagnose and address problems in organizational culture to build creative, functioning teams.

But most transformative for me was the work I did at the d.school — or the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design to give it its full name. Often, as journalists, we can get a bit turned off by the jargon — but once you get past that, there’s a lot to learn. Once you embed yourself in it, you come to realize the significance of d.school thinking in innovation, particularly innovation in Silicon Valley.

It surprised me to discover the large number of corporations, not-for-profits and even governmental organizations that have set up innovation centers somewhere in or around Silicon Valley.

In fact, it seemed to me that the best way to understand the significance of the sort of design thinking promoted by the d.school is to see it as the OS, or operating system, for innovation in Silicon Valley.

And although Silicon Valley feels palpably like a bubble, it also needs to be recognized — as the Gavin Belson character says in the HBO series Silicon Valley, it’s a bubble in the same way that Medici Florence was the bubble of the Renaissance. Of course, living in the bubble gives you a deeper appreciation of the satire in the television series. It made one of the highlights of my year sitting through a guest lecture by series writer Carrie Kemper.  

So, once I’d worked out how to translate the language, I took two big lessons from this design thinking.

First, focus groups and opinion polls of the largely disengaged are so last century. We need to get smart quickly. Innovation builds on deep listening and drawing insights and then ideas out of one on one interviews with the engaged and the interested.

Second, don’t overplan. Fail fast, they say in the valley. Really what they mean is don’t get too invested in your idea until you’ve tested it. See how things go. Then develop. Or not.

At the end of each day, cycling back home through the gum trees, these ideas turned over in my mind and I thought about my greater challenge: It’s one thing to understand these ideas, even to fall a little bit in love with them. But how will these work back home? How do they work in an industry and a craft that feels so under siege?