What I wish I knew when I was 20

The post title comes from a book I am reading by Tina Seelig – her book is full of sage wisdom. She was even nice enough to reply to me on twitter.

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I found out from this book by reading Visakan Veerasamy’s amazing answer to a question on Quora. (note: for those of you not on Quora, you should really check it out. Awesomely curated site with lots of helpful and interesting info.) I hope to have a book review once I am finished, but until then, I wanted to share the same excerpt from Tina’s that Visakan shared. Enjoy.

From What I wish I knew when I was 20:

“What would you do to earn money if all you had was five dollars and two hours? This is the assignment I gave students in one of my classes at Stanford University, as part of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program…

Each of fourteen teams received an envelope with five dollars of “seed funding” and was told they could spend as much time as they wanted planning. However, once they cracked open the envelope, they had two hours to generate as much money as possible. I gave them from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday evening to complete the assignment.

Then, on Sunday evening, each team had to send me one slide describing what they had done, and on Monday afternoon each team had three minutes to present their project to the class. They were encouraged to be entrepreneurial by identifying opportunities, challenging assumptions, leveraging the limited resources they had, and by being creative.

What would you do if you were given this challenge? When I ask this question to most groups, someone usually shouts out, “Go to Las Vegas,” or “Buy a lottery ticket.” This gets a big laugh.. These folks would take a significant risk in return for a small chance at earning a big reward.

The next most common suggestion is to set up a car wash or lemonade stand, using the five dollars to purchase the starting materials. This is a fine option for those interested in earning a few extra dollars of spending money in two hours.

But most of my students eventually found a way to move far beyond the standard responses. They took seriously the challenge to question traditional assumptions—exposing a wealth of possibilities—in order to create as much value as possible.

How did they do this? Here’s a clue: the teams that made the most money didn’t use the five dollars at all. They realized that focusing on the money actually framed the problem way too tightly. They understood that five dollars is essentially nothing and decided to reinterpret the problem more broadly: What can we do to make money if we start with absolutely nothing? 

They ramped up their observation skills, tapped into their talents, and unlocked their creativity to identify problems in their midst—problems they experienced or noticed others experiencing—problems they might have seen before but had never thought to solve. These problems were nagging but not necessarily at the forefront of anyone’s mind. By unearthing these problems and then working to solve them, the winning teams brought in over $600, and the average return on the five dollar investment was 4,000 percent! If you take into account that many of the teams didn’t use the funds at all, then their financial returns were infinite.

So what did they do? All of the teams were remarkably inventive. One groupidentified a problem common in a lot of college towns—the frustratingly long lines at popular restaurants on Saturday night. The team decided to help those people who didn’t want to wait in line. They paired off and booked reservations at several restaurants. As the times for their reservations approached, they sold each reservation for up to twenty dollars to customers who were happy to avoid a long wait. 

As the evening wore on, they made several interesting observations. First, they realized that the female students were better at selling the reservations than the male students, probably because customers were more comfortable being approached by the young women. They adjusted their plan so that the male students ran around town making reservations at different restaurants while the female students sold those places in line. They also learned that the entire operation worked best at restaurants that use vibrating pagers to alert customers when their table is ready. Physically swapping pagers made customers feel as though they were receiving something tangible for their money. They were more comfortable handing over their money and pager in exchange for the new pager. This had an additional bonus—teams could then sell the newly acquired pager as the later reservation time grew nearer.

Another team took an even simpler approach. They set up a stand in front of the student union where they offered to measure bicycle tire pressure for free. If the tires needed filling, they added air for one dollar. At first they thought they were taking advantage of their fellow students, who could easily go to a nearby gas station to have their tires filled. But after their first few customers, the students realized that the bicyclists were incredibly grateful. Even though the cyclists could get their tires filled for free nearby, and the task was easy for the students to perform, they soon realized that they were providing a convenient and valuable service. In fact, halfway through the two hour period, the team stopped asking for a specific payment and requested donations instead. Their income soared. They made much more when their customers were reciprocating for a free service than when asked to pay a fixed price.

For this team, as well as for the team making restaurant reservations, experimenting along the way paid off. The iterative process, where small changes are made in response to customer feedback, allowed them to optimize their strategy on the fly.

Each of these projects brought in a few hundred dollars, and their fellow classmates were duly impressed. However, the team that generated the greatest profit looked at the resources at their disposal through completely different lenses, and made $650. These students determined that the most valuable asset they had was neither the five dollars nor the two hours. Instead, their insight was that their most precious resource was their three-minute presentation time on Monday. They decided to sell it to a company that wanted to recruit the students in the class. The team created a three-minute “commercial” for that company and showed it to the students during the time they would have presented what they had done the prior week. This was brilliant. They recognized that they had a fabulously valuable asset—that others didn’t even notice—just waiting to be mined.


Marshmallow Challenge Results


So the results are in!!! As I hinted towards in a previous post, the kids did better than the insurance professionals. At the LIMRA conference in New Orleans, we had about twenty teams. Of twenty, only five had a standing tower (25% completion ratio). Compare that to a third grade class where 75% of the teams got their tower up. Also, the winning team’s tower was only two inches taller than the kid’s winner.

My design thinking talk got great reviews. It was very cool to push the group of almost 100 to tap into their latent creativity.

If you are interested in listening to my talk, I have it on brainshark.


I would love to hear from some of my readers, so please don’t hesitate to provide feedback.

I like, I wish, what if

My last post focused on how to encourage ideas and more effective brainstorming using “yes, AND!”. Now, I’m going to let you in on some language that will allow you to give more effective feedback. Three simple phrases, I like, I wish, and what if.

How often have you had someone at work (or home) say. “Why did you do that?” or “I don’t like this.” It’s easy to be on the defensive and potentially close up.

I like, I wish and what if is some more d.school magic that changes the posture of the conversation. Here’s an example of how I used this just the other day while reviewing a powerpoint presentation. Here’s how the conversation went…

“Hey, I really like that you were able to show this info in a graph instead of a table. I wish that we could make the text more readable. What if we inserted notes explaining what caused the inflection points on the graph.”

Can you see how using this language has changed the conversation? I could have said what I didn’t like and said, why didn’t you include notes, etc, but that would have been counterproductive. Also it didn’t take me any longer to use IL/IW/WI and the person on the other end is in a good position to take my feedback and make changes.

Try to use I like / I wish / What if this next week and report back. I am betting that you will be more effective at giving great feedback. You could even give me some comments on my blog using I like / I wish / What if!


pdf from the d.school on the method of IL/IW/WI.

Yes, AND…


You are trying to come up with lots of ideas to solve a really thorny issue at work (or at home). You’re not worried about evaluation of the ideas at this point, you just want to come up with as many ideas as possible. You have this idea in your head…it’s a little crazy, but you go ahead and share it anyway….you’re idea is met with an emphatic…”yes, BUT…”

How does that feel? Does it take all the air and creativity out of the room? We’ve all been there. You have an idea that you’re excited to share and you are met with all the reasons it won’t work. In this post, I want to introduce you to a mindset of “yes, AND…” rather than saying “yes, BUT…”. In addition, I’ve met some people who LOVE to practice this technique. I’ll show you where you can find these people, so you can practice and become a master of the “yes, AND”

What is “Yes, AND…”?

It’s simple really…when you are trying to ideate solutions, or just build off of others ideas, you try and say “Yes, AND…” in response to everything that is said. This is an old comedy improve trick.

Here is an example. We are trying to ideate around, how might we make patients being discharged from Children’s hospital feel like movie stars? You say “kids walk down a red carpet to get to exit the hospital.” Then I say, “yes, AND…we have a nurse ask ‘who are you wearing?'”. You say, “Yes, AND three photographers take their pictures.” And so on and so on…This technique helps foster robust ideation. Below I have listed IDEO’s rules for brainstorming and BOLDED the rules that this technique supports. (Note: I first had just listed out the rules that applied, but after thinking about it decided to list all the rules. In fact, I suspect a future post will be coming about this list. It is extremely helpful to creating a posture of rapid and radical ideation.)

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Who loves “Yes, AND…”?

Ok, so your boss isn’t pleased with your desire to do some more “Yes, ANDs…” Your coworkers look at you like you have two heads. How do you practice? With children! They love to play “yes, AND…” Just this week, I have had a running session of “yes, AND” with my six year old daughter. It all started on our way to church. There has been an enormous Lifetime Fitness going up beside our church. We drove past the pool and here’s how the conversation went…

Daughter: I wish we were going to the pool (maybe instead of church!?!)

Me: What if we held church in the pool?

Daughter: Yes, and, the nursery is in the kiddy pool

Me: Yes, and the pastor would sit in the lifeguard stand…(arrive at church, convo pauses)

Later in the day

Daughter: Daddy, what if your work was a pool?

Me: Yes, and the bosses have big corners of the pools instead of offices

Daughter: Yes, and there are islands in the pool where you have your computers

Me: Yes, and you take a lazy river to meetings

Daughter: What if your work was a zoo?

Me: Yes, and each department works in cages and people could come by and feed us lunch

Daughter: Yes, and the bosses are the zoo keepers! (giggles uncontrollably)

This is so much fun…she loves it, I love it AND I am working on my creative muscles AND becoming a better design thinker at the same time. Think about how different this conversation would have gone if I would have responded to her first statement with, “yes, BUT”…the “yes, AND…” allowed us to encourage wild ideas. See #2 on IDEO’s rules for brainstorming.

So to further work out your creative muscles, spend a day, or an hour responding to everything with “yes, AND…” Also, spend some time with your son, niece, goddaughter, etc. playing “yes, AND.” Report back here to let us know how it goes. I promise you will have a great time.


How to: Rock-paper-scissors throw-down

1…2…3….Ahhh! Paper covers rock. Rock crushes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Who hasn’t played Rock-Paper-Scissors? This post covers how to have a rock-paper-scissors throw-down (i.e. tournament). The throw-down is a great way to get a group energized. I learned this while at Stanford’s d.school and I’ve used it when we are moving from a larger group setting into a small group.

Ok…this is so easy, I feel a little silly outlining the steps.

  1. Have everyone in the group find an opponent
  2. Play your opponent in RPS…just one round (no best 2 out of 3)
  3. If you win, you go find another opponent
  4. If you lose, you become the biggest cheerleader for whomever beat you (I mean you are screaming something like “Scott!!! Scott!!! Scott!!!”)
  5. You are now a groupy for whoever beat you, or whoever beats that person
  6. Repeat until you have half of the room yelling for person A and half of the room yelling for person B.
  7. Carry off the winner on everyone’s shoulders. Leave pumped up and ready to conquor the world.

Advanced Calculus

We recently did this challenge between two offices (Birmingham and Cincinnati). The winner from Birmingham played the winner from Cincinnati. I’m not sure there has ever been a two office RPS challenge, but we did it! Everyone left the meeting excited and full of energy. Watch the video to see how much fun this is.


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Analogous problem solving and Children’s of Alabama

I first heard the term ‘analogous problem solving’ when I visited IDEO. The premise is simple – find an analogous problem to the one you are trying to solve. Inspect this problem and see how others have solved it (or come up with a new solution yourself) and see if you can draw insights from the solution of the analogous problem.

Here’s the example that IDEO provided. The firm was hired to help enhance/redesign emergency room procedures for a hospital. After spending some time trying to empathize and define the problem, the IDEO team realized they were stuck and that they could benefit from studying an analogous problem. So what analogous problem did they pick? NASCAR pit crews. They spent a few weeks studying the setup of pit crews. How they position the essential tools. How they prep for the incoming car. How they communicate with each other when the car is in the pit. How they divide tasks…and so on and so forth. Analogous problem solving led IDEO to some breakthroughs in the project.

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Now that you better understand the premise of analogous problem solving, I wanted to share with you a beautiful example that is found right here in Birmingham, AL. This past fall, I had the pleasure of hearing from Mike McDevitt, the EVP of facilities and technology of Children’s Hospital of Alabama.

As you can see from the picture above, the outside of the building is stunning, but what struck me from Mike’s talk how he solved a problem common to most hospitals – way finding. i.e. how do I find my way from the parking deck to the emergency room? where is the cafeteria? etc.

So how did Mike try to solve this problem? What analogous problem did he look into for insight? He went to Disney World. There are several large parks and Disney wants to make sure that you know where you are going. Mike saw how Disney deals with this issue – they have a main street. If you stay on main street, you will go past all the major attractions. Also,  Disney has the concept of off-stage and on-stage. Things that are on-stage are bright and loud – contrasted with off-stage, where the paint colors are more subdued and you’re likely to find goofy on a smoke break. If you go off-stage at Disney, you know it.

Mike came back and infused the same elements into the design of the new Russell campus at Children’s. Look at the picture below – the river guides patients, parents and staff through the hospital (like main street). The red dot let’s you know that you’ll find information and the colors are bright and vibrant. Having seen the nurses stations, I can tell you the vibe is very different. You are no longer on the river. The colors are more bland. There is an on-stage and an off-stage – just like at Disney.

If you are interested in hearing more of Mike’s talk, check it out here. I will warn you, that the video quality isn’t great, but Mike tells first hand about how this beautiful facility came to be. It’s is a great story and has been a inspiration for me.

Just as way-finding at Disney was an analogous problem for Mike, I am inspired by Mike’s design of Children’s of AL. A hospital can be complicated and difficult to find your way around. When you get to the hospital you are probably stressed – something is wrong. Is it too much of a stretch to say that arriving at a hospital is a good analogy for reading your insurance contract or trying to file an insurance claim? I’m looking Mike’s work to help us to simplify everything at Protective Life.

Do you have a tough problem you are trying to solve? Are you stuck and looking for fresh insights that may lead to a solution? If so, try and spend some time thinking of an analogous problem.

Learning prototyping with the marshmallow challenge

As mentioned in my last post about prototyping, Tom Wujec’s TED talk is an excellent way to learn more about prototyping. The title of the talk is “Build a tower, build a team.” I highly suggest that you watch the TED talk (it’s only 7 mins long), but I’ll give an overview what this exercise is, how to give one, and some of my observations (and the benefits) from conduction a marshmallow challenge.  I’ve given this challenge to adults as well as my daughter’s kindergarten class and it is a lot of fun. 


What is the marshmallow challenge

It’s an exercise where teams of 4 compete against each other to build the tallest tower out of 20 dry sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. Major rules: 1) you have 18 minutes 2) the marshmallow must be on top of the tower and 3) the tower must be built on a table – the measurement is from the bottom of the tower to the marshmallow (In other words, you can’t stack chairs on a table and win that way!)

How do I give one of these?

Go to marshmallowchallenge.com. Everything you need is here, including slides from Tom’s TED talk. The last time I did this, this exercise was part of an overview of design thinking.

What have I observed from these exercises?

First, the participants tend to have A LOT of fun. The competitive juices are flowing. The clock is ticking. They are trying to build the highest tower of anyone – ever – on the planet.

Second, it’s a great example in the importance of prototyping. The teams that do the best are the ones that build smaller scale towers and test out the structure with the marshmallow on top. I have a small sample size here, but most teams I see don’t even think about the marshmallow until there is a minute left. At that point, it’s too late and the tower ends up tumbling. Per Tom’s talk and my own observations with my daughters class, kids are always thinking about the marshmallow. (Note: I think this is largely because they are focused on who gets to eat the marshmallow after the exercise!) See the picture below. This is a montage from a recent challenge of teams’ marshmallows with about 1 minute left. Notice how many of the marshmallows are still on the table!


Back to the snowflake example, kids learn by prototyping and test out the structure along the way. In fact, kindergartners tend to have better structures than recent business school graduates! 

So what are the benefits?

Hopefully these are somewhat obvious by now…this is a great team building exercise and also hammers home the importance of prototyping. I like to end the challenge with a questions, “what project are you working on where you are waiting too long to put the marshmallow on top?” Then I give some tangible examples of thing that I have done to build prototypes.

As you can tell, I love this exercise and would encourage you to consider hosting your own marshmallow challenges. In the next two weeks I will be hosting a couple of challenges that should be interesting. First with a 3rd grade class (my guess is they will do better than kindergartners) and second with insurance professionals at the Retirement Industry Conference (my guess is they will do worse than the 3rd graders!).

I’ll report back on the results soon. Stay tuned!