This fall, I took three MOOCs or Massive Online Open Courses . It is impressive how these work. Thousands of people register for them and no one pays anything. The courses I took were:
- Storytelling for Change by Acumen and the Ariel Group – this is being offered again in January if you are interested
- Scaling Up Your Venture Without Screwing Up by Stanford Graduate School of Business
- Introduction to Decision Quality by Strategic Decisions Group – this is also being offered in January
All the courses took 5-6 weeks. There were video lectures, readings and assignments every week. You could take the course as an individual, or you could sign up to join a team of people from anywhere in the world. I formed a team for the first two courses and took the decision quality course as an individual.
Storytelling for Change
From 2011-2013, I lead a Storytelling Initiative at National Wildlife Federation. I developed a training program to teach how to tell and gather stories. I was interested in taking this course because I am still very passionate about storytelling, and I was curious to know whether there had been gaps in my training.
I was very pleased to find that my training had many similar concepts as this course. I was even more pleased to learn and polish skills such as:
- having a passionate purpose for why you are telling the story before you start
- the importance of telling a story in the present tense, even if it took place in the past
- the importance of including more color in my stories for the visual thinkers (I am great at kinesthetic or “touch/feel” detail, but less at color).
- being in the moment when telling a story and bringing your full presence
- adding more expressiveness to storytelling
The instructor, Greta Cowan, is a leadership coach who helps people speak authentically about their passions. She brought so much energy to the video lectures – you really felt like you were in the same room with her.
Early in the course, we were asked to imagine an upcoming meeting where we could move someone to an action through a story. I imagined a job interview for a job where I could coach people on storytelling. As the course progressed, I improved my story with each new skill. I recorded a video of myself telling the story for my final assignment – here’s the video. This is a story about an interaction I had with my colleague Em. I felt the story illustrated the power of storytelling in building a team.
This story was greatly improved by working with a partner named Ime. She registered for the course and joined my team through the online system. Once a week, we scheduled a phone call to discuss our assignment. She gave me a lot of suggestions on improving this story and providing a fresh ear for the story. She actively practices public speaking through Toastmasters. It was great to get matched with someone randomly who helped so much.
At the end of the course, the course instructors sent an email to all participants, highlighting some final assignments. My video was featured, along with five others. I emailed the course organizers, and they said that 11,000 people signed up for this course. She did not have the info about how many completed this assignment, but I felt honored to be one of six videos featured from such a large class!
The course encouraged us to keep a story journal into the future. You note things that happen in your life, or stories you hear, that illustrate a good point. You lay out their details in your journal so you have them at the ready when you need to make a point at an interview or speaking opportunity.
Scaling Up Your Venture Without Screwing Up
The second course I took was taught by two professors from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton. This year they published a book called Scaling Up Excellence: How to Get More Without Settling for Less. It compiled years of research on start-ups.
Huggy and Bob were both very funny even when communicating some sophisticated observations about what can go wrong in scaling situations. I looked forward to their lectures each week, as well as many wonderful interviews with people who have lived the scaling experience from many well-known start-ups.
For this course, I had the good fortune that Shannon Landin joined my team. Shannon is the co-founder of a non-profit located in Florida called Codecraft Lab, which teaches kids how to code. We met on the phone once a week to do our assignment. We focused our analysis on Codecraft Lab since they are working so hard to scale right now. Shannon had lots of real life challenges for us to analyze. I found myself pulling out my coaching skills from Innovation Engineering to help Shannon seek solutions. For our final assignment, we made a video about how we would apply the course concepts to help Codecraft Lab. Shannon & I wrote the script together. I recorded it because I had more available time than Shannon.
At the end of the course, Huggy & Bob hosted a live one hour webinar where they highlighted student work and once again, my video was chosen. In this case, there were about 15 videos featured. I asked the course organizers how many students took this course, and they said 28,000 people registered and 1,171 submitted a video for the final assignment.
My favorite concepts from this course were:
- Have a clear mindset for your venture – Most people think about scaling as increasing your footprint i.e. your number of products, services, employees or offices. But Huggy & Bob found the start-ups that were most successful were those were a clearly articulated mindset that every employee knew in their core. These were lofty ideas in most cases. It reminded me of the Blue Card that we write in Innovation Engineering, which is an inspiring but short document that senior leadership must write before one can innovate.
- Are you Catholic or Buddhist? – This refers to your approach when scaling. Will every office be exactly the same, no matter what? Or will you adapt flexibly to new circumstances? Neither approach is right/wrong. It’s just a decision one needs to make and communicate.
- Do you have a hot cause / cool solution? – You will only scale if are actually solving someone’s problem . This is again something right out of Innovation Engineering, where we coach people to clearly choose a customer with a clear problem and then a clear promise than answer the problem. We test with our ideal customer to see if the problem resonates with them.
- Having enough process & structure – They call this “reducing cognitive load” and it speaks to the issue that many founders don’t want processes, but at some point, their brain/heart/body can’t be everywhere. I view myself as a light-handed project manager, someone who wants just the right amount of process – but I want that process super clearly communicated so people understand what is flexible.
- Hiring people who feel a balance of commitment and obligation – If you get people who are “talented terrors,” you won’t get a good culture for growth. And it’s all about being clear what each person is doing. Some people need to be in the lead, and some need to do “guardian tasks” to keep things running. Matching people to the role is not always easy.
- Going from Bad to Great – Even a little bit of bad can overwhelm a lot of good, so you must address the bad before you can be great. It means addressing the small things that drag down your culture like people looking at their phone at meetings.
Introduction to Decision Quality
When I was taking the Storytelling for Change course, I received some generous feedback from other students around the world. I was communicating with a student from Ireland who highly recommended this third course, so I took it. It talked about how generally we are irrational when making decisions, but there are ways to organize our decisions to make them more rational. I had never heard of the world of decision quality, so I learned a lot. It reminded me of process maps I drew in the past.
There are a lot of amazing free courses in the world
Taking these courses was like attending college for a few months again. I have always enjoyed being a student, so the classes felt like a vacation – a return to my comfort zone after a fall with many changes. By the end of the third course, I was ready to venture further from my comfort zone, and take on new challenges.
I was amazed by the quality of these free offerings, and these were just the classes in one system. There is Khan Academy, and many other systems that are also offering great classes.
Thanks to Angela de Burger for suggesting the Scaling Up course, which is what got me started!