An experiential journal on leadership, innovation and design thinking while working with the SF Opera through Stanford d.school’s d.leadership course.
In May 2016, I quit an exciting job as an Associate at a sub-Saharan African focused FinTech venture capital firm. I took the GMAT, applied to Stanford GSB, booked a ticket to Lima Peru, and set off with a backpack on my shoulders with a camera in my hand and the open road in front of me, not knowing where I might end up. It was with that sense of exploration, of journeying into the unknown, that I arrived at Stanford and ultimately at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the d.school).
There was a palpable energy in the room as 18 odd students from across Stanford University gathered in Studio 2 at the d.school. Design Leadership is a course where students are paired with an organization to lead a team from that organization through a design challenge. I eagerly sought out Indya McGuffin, a fellow student and my co-partner in this exciting project who I had yet to meet. We clicked instantly. A super talented young professional, entrepreneur, designer, and creative. We had been paired with the San Francisco Opera. We concurred, we had lucked out. The SF Opera???!! We get to work with the Opera? So excited! We did a brief intro improv game with our class before we jumped straight onto the roller coaster. With hindsight, I felt like Neo after he took the red pill. “Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye”. Down the rabbit hole I went, and my perspectives on leadership, innovation and design would never be the same again.
Indya and I began to plan our kick-off event. It was important for us to step out of the office. We wanted the team to be in a new place, with a change of scenery designed to both stimulate creativity but also simply to encourage exploration without limitation. After an extensive search, we settled on the Exploratorium as a base from which we had many options to conduct field interviews and prototype concepts, but also because it had elements of the arts, of play, that might attract a variety of demographics and social interests.
We spent what felt like an eternity curating every element of that first day. Literally minute by minute. When would we play Jay-Z & The Verve — Bittersweet Dirt Off My Shoulder? What were we trying to achieve by combining a rock song, which had a classical influence, with a rap song. It was unexpected, perhaps even uncomfortable. But it worked.
Everyone finally arrived. After a series of improv intro games and armed with design starter packs, we set off on a full day design cycle. We finished at 5pm on the dot; exhausted but energized by the success of the initial prototypes and the enthusiasm within the team!
We were exhausted from going through our own rapid-fire design cycle, planning out our launch day, preparing all the materials, and rehearsing the agenda. Was this what every session would be like? Thankfully it was a successful (everything worked!) first accelerated design cycle with the SFO. But what next?
We had three ‘users’. We refined our point of view and concept statements ahead of the first design review.
User 1: ‘We met Melissa a 69 year old retiree, it was interesting to note that she met her long distance boyfriend on craigslist and posts photos to Facebook; we wonder if this means that she finds beauty within inter-connected digital spaces; it would be game-changing to create a sensory experience that transports users to any beautiful place in the world.’
We had led and encouraged our team to ask open-ended questions, honing in on interesting and emotive information volunteered. Our primary question to users was ‘Tell me about the last time you joined an interest group”. When brainstorming prototype ideas we encouraged the team to be as creative as they like, building on to each other’s ideas in true ‘yes and’ fashion. “There is no such thing as a bad idea, so let your creativity loose”. We wanted to them to flare wide.
One of the prototypes we created on day 1 was ‘Vicurious’, designed for an individual without the resources or time to experience beautiful things, with an intended impact to create a sensory experience that transports users to any beautiful place in the world, specifically testing the ability to transport a user to another place using sensory stimulus. We took a laptop, attached black sheet paper to the edges to create a ‘viewing portal’, found a 1st person YouTube video of someone walking down the Champs-Élysées (sight), put a small cup of ground coffee (smell) inside the viewing portal, put a small speaker playing French music inside the viewing portal (sound), and had two team members stand behind the laptop and randomly speak French (sound). Random patrons of the SF Ferry Building were invited to step into ‘Paris’. Participants legitimately had fun, commenting on how they felt like they were walking down the road in Paris!
But what has that got to do with the Opera??? Our initial empathy question as well as our prototyping was not specifically aimed within the context of the Opera. We did this intentionally as we wanted to flare out far and wide, and to focus on our team’s design practice rather than immediately addressing our challenge. Day 1 was fun! But, I could sense the anxiety start to build after our first design review.
What does this have to do with the Opera? Did we go in the wrong direction? What were we doing? The agitation of some even had me begin to question whether we had flared too wide.
Although we were reassured in our approach, we had a lot of work to do with our team. Embracing the design process, understanding our direction, and being comfortable with uncertainty are important. Yes it is a journey, but more than the journey itself, I began to realize the importance of the travellers on this journey. Our design challenge was our north star, but our team and collective learnings was the vessel to take us there.
One of the greatest tensions was the structure and formality we needed to abide by. Opera employees and artists are governed by unions. Programming outside of scheduled time is challenging. The Opera is a very structured organization where calendars are often planned four years in advance. How do we create an event in a week? The Opera, like most arts organizations, work within budgets. How do we create the freedom to explore new ideas that might not have a specific purpose or deliverable, but are simply to explore. Does having an executive board member on the team stifle the creativity of others, or does that visibility into the process transfer knowledge to senior management and ultimately allow the team the space to continue exploring? What if the journey becomes bigger than the Opera? Are resources allowed to explore ideas that may not be directly relate back to the organization?
A recent conversation with a C-suite executive confirmed similar dynamics within even ‘innovative’ corporate entities. An ever-present tension within design thinking is the static organization vs. ever moving rapid innovation. One constantly, inherently, and tensely enabling the other.
We moved through analogous experiences into revised concepts. We decided on an idea and created an entire prototype within a week. The team put together an intimate games evening type of event where the participants interacted with SF Opera artists through a curated set of activities designed to foster a real connection between artist and audience. I saw the entire team shift into professional hustle mode. Everyone was fully on-board and engaged. It was an amazing event to pull off within a week. But we were so impressed (and exhausted) by our efforts, that after the event, we took our foot off the pedal. Our metric analysis was poor. Our data capturing was incomplete. Consequently we did not iterate off our learnings. We reached base camp 1, as if we had just climbed the entire mountain.
We were blessed with a large diverse team with a broad set of skills. All are incredibly passionate about the opera, whether they had been with the organization for 15 years or for just 3 months. But within large teams lies a double-edged sword. A breadth of talent and energy from which to draw. But perhaps also a dispersion of authority. Who assumes leadership and does it follow traditional Opera hierarchy? Does it need to? I like that everyone collectively embraces it, but who owns this project? I am still not sure.
A big part of this class is focused on leadership and leading your team through uncertainty. You project authority and subject matter expertise that may even belie your experience. When I asked a room full of artists, albeit now in administrative positions, whether they were familiar with the term cadence, it was the first time they doubted my sensibilities! “Trust us, we know how to hold a beat,” they exclaimed.
The beat can either be an eloquently mixed house track that quietly eases its way into your life, as if it was always there, in tune with your breath, your gait, perhaps even your disposition. Or it can be a memorable event, one that takes you to a place, for a moment, an instance, etched in some way into your memory, to be nostalgically recalled from time to time.
We were sitting in one of our final meetings with most of the team, discussing the project, what worked, what did not. How could we create sustainability? How could we infuse design thinking into our daily work lives? How could we share it with others in the organization? It was telling that, even though we weren’t ‘brainstorming’, several team members ‘yes anded’ when replying to each others’ suggestions. Our eyes caught. It was a very happy moment for both Indya and I. At some level, some part of the beat was now part of them.
Would I consider the project a success or a failure? I would say that we failed, but that failure is necessary. Without it, have we truly pushed any boundaries? The difference is that nine months ago, I would have done my utmost to hide that fact. Today I state it clearly such that I, and maybe even others, may iterate off our learnings. We fail fast, we learn, we improve. ‘Ta da!’
Our team has begun to embrace failure, yet I fear our natural inclination is to dip our toe in the water, rather than take the plunge. The journey continues. Cadence is maintained. A super talented, diverse, and passionate d.Opera design squad lives on. Let’s see where they will go.
The uncertainty that was May 2016 seems but a distant memory of a younger less mature Ravindra version 29 point 0. Travel, experiencing the uncertainty of life, and making friends with the unknown breeds a perspective that is simultaneously casual, liberating, and enabling. There is no try, only do.