Kembel discusses focus on the innovator, not innovation

Photo | Megan Tan
During his Friday Amphitheater lecture, George Kembel, founder of the at Stanford University, illustrates how the our society views learners, doers and teachers.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

George Kembel, executive director and co-founder of Stanford University’s, presented a small gift to audience members during his 10:45 a.m. lecture Friday in the Amphitheater.

Taped to the backs of some seats in the Amp, small plastic bags hung. Inside each one were black dots smaller than grains of sand.

“I didn’t know what these were about eight weeks ago,” Kembel said. “They are eggs of one of the oldest living creatures on Earth.”

They were the eggs from the genus Triops, a species of small crustacean that has changed very little since the Jurassic period, 300 million years ago. He and his son Jonah viewed the creatures at a zoo in Utah.

Kembel learned that the animal’s eggs have the ability to enter a suspended animation when water is not present; they can survive like this for decades. Kembel and his son purchased a box of suspended eggs from the gift shop — his wife said the purchase was more for himself than his three children. They placed the eggs in a tank and waited.

“And sure enough, 24 hours later, these little things were swimming around; they were about the size of a pinhead when they started moving,” Kembel said. “And you can see that that’s a small thing compared to their full potential, about 3 inches.”

Shortly later, Jonah became distracted with something else, much in the way children often do, and the Triops died. They never reached their full potential, Kembel said, even after waiting so long to hatch. He hasn’t really been able to stop thinking about it since.

Kembel was the fifth and final speaker of Week Eight’s theme on “Sparking a Culture of Creativity and Innovation.” He said Stanford’s focuses on awakening creativity by focusing on the innovator, not innovation itself.

Stanford’s brings together graduate students and faculty in the fields of engineering, medicine, business, law, the humanities, sciences and education to study and create innovation.

The Triops story served as an analogy for his students. Awakening the students’ creativity isn’t enough. Once educators arouse creativity in students, he said, the creativity has to be nurtured, or it will die.

Few classes at the have more than 10 minutes of lecturing, he said. Most of the classes are focused on firsthand activities in order to stimulate the students’ creative minds.

One of the “secrets to nurturing creative potential,” Kembel said, could be the practice of switching between the roles of teacher, learner and doer. Educators, students and professionals should be able to change roles on the fly, he said.

“This has been at play for a while now at the,” Kembel said. “Our students and faculty and industry leaders are increasingly switching roles — back and forth and back and forth — until it gets harder and harder to tell who’s who in the classroom.”

Whether they’re beginners in the field, the ones who switch roles the most, he said, appear to be the ones who develop fastest as innovators.

While explaining the role of the student, Kembel put on his 3-year-old’s backpack, one clearly made for that age. He said learners should look at things they are familiar with in an effort to see something they didn’t expect.

The creative process for students involves a series of steps. Students must empathize with the people they want to serve, define a problem, come up with an idea to solve it, build the prototype, test the prototype and, finally, tell the story.

Each time, he said, the way in which the student invokes the process should adapt.

“If the way you are working isn’t changing,” Kembel said, “it’s often a sign that you aren’t learning.”

There’s a difference between thinking about something and actually doing it. To emphasize this, Kembel put on a pair of running shorts. The story behind them, he explained, is that his wife once asked if he was a runner. His response was that he owned running shorts. She pointed out that that doesn’t mean he’s a runner.

While explaining this role, Kembel told a few success stories from students in classes. As students in classes put what they know into practice, they essentially become the professionals right away.

In the classes at the, Kembel said, some end up with half the students garnering revenue within five or six weeks. In companies Kembel has been involved in, it has taken up to two years to earn any revenue at all.

Lastly, he put on a pair of glasses to explain the role of educator.

“Taking on the posture of teacher means having a heart for nurturing the potential of others,” Kembel said. “To do this, we have found we have to let go of some of our more traditional views of what teaching is and jump in before we are ready.”

Recently, 88 executives took a workshop of new content. During the final debriefing, they were told that in 15 minutes, 250 new people were coming in — and those 88 had to teach them what they just learned.

Some of those executives jumped from their seats before the instructions were even complete. Kembel described the scene as “inspiring.”

Those three roles, he said, should be readily available at any given moment.

“My dream is to focus the world on innovators, to take our eye off the hunger for growth long enough to pay attention to the fundamental source of it,” Kembel said. “That’s human ingenuity, the stunningly diverse talents that are available to us, the human capacity, our curiosity, our inventiveness, our empathy, our collaborative spirit, our resilience.”

Q: What counsel do you give to innovative people stuck in static and rigid organizations — other than suggesting that they leave those organizations?

A: Exactly. When folks come visit the, they might be coming from a place that feels counter to this way of working. And when they come to the, some of them actually come and vacation there and it’s like a summer camp experience; they worry when they come back with this new passion, that all the antibodies will come out in that company and crush it. For me, the story of Doug Dietz at G.E. (a G.E. executive and attendee who modified the appearance of the MRI for children) was one of the huge things where I realized, “That’s a huge company.” And they have a lot of rigor in their processes — as they need to — in order to advance with the reliability that they have. And those processes sometimes can be counter to the type of rule-breaking that you need. For me, seeing that Doug did that gives me hope. What I saw him do was, he didn’t try to run through permission with the regular channels; he had a personal experience that was so powerful that he didn’t care what was in the way; he just went for it. So that’s the first thing I would do, is if you have that in you, the first thing you need to do is to expose — whatever your work is, whether it’s in technology or in health care — and get out, as Dev (Patnaik, founder and CEO of Jump Associates) mentioned, and have that empathy for someone. Then you have a powerful experience, with a story to tell, that you can use to just come up beside another person that is wayward enough within your organization and say, “Would you like to work on this with me?” Now you have two people, and you introduce them to this process, and then you start prototyping, and pretty soon, other people are walking through the hallways — we had this person from DirecTV come for our workshop, and he didn’t have permission either; he didn’t have space, but he just went out to watch kids who were watching TV and realized they couldn’t read the remote control. They prototyped something out of a foam block that had fewer buttons, and the kids loved it. And he just claimed a space in the hallway, because they wouldn’t give him space. It just so happened that it had a window and a bench, and they put up whiteboards; and so now, every time everyone walked through the hallway, they were confronted with these new human stories. And this work, that was big and up and out and open — that’s not usually what most people see in their companies — and that just continued to accelerate, and partners wanted to be a part of that remote control. So little steps accumulate over time. One of our faculty said, “Small behaviors accumulate to big changes in belief.” So take that passion, find a partner in crime, take one or two little steps to go find someone who has a story, take a little step to prototype your idea, and that — that tangibility — where human, really helps the ball move forward.

Q: How does the help its students finance their ideas?

A: What’s interesting is they get their own financing, so I can imagine us playing a role — in a while — but that was not our agenda. Our agenda was to equip our students to blaze the trail themselves. And in some sense, if you put too much underneath them, then they’re not learning to sort of develop the sort of rigor and resilience of putting their own feet on the ground. What I find is students who are learning to work this way instead of just thinking their way through the problem and designing a PowerPoint presentation that they’d give in front of venture capitalists with a plan that no one believes anyways. If they go out, and they’ve been in the coffee shops, and they’ve seen people read the news and they have an application that is not just an idea — it’s actually been used and tested so all the things that aren’t working have been falling off. They’ve been winning all the venture capitalist business plan contests out there, because when they talk to the investors, they have stories of real customers; they actually have stuff out in the world. They actually don’t usually use a PowerPoint deck; they just have stuff on the table. And the investors are like, “This is what we want to invest in,” and they get their funding. So we see, it takes care of itself in some ways.

Q: In valuing diversity on a design team, what must be the common quality shared by all the members?

A: That’s great. The common quality, I would maybe come at from lots of different directions. But one way is, first, attitude. Having an open heart and attitude of empathy and caring about others and this bias towards action. You would add those process steps of empathy and action; empathy and action are the things that help to make better decisions. So that’s the underpinning to their diversity. They’ll have diversity in discipline — like a business expert and a technologist and a psychologist — that’s radical diversity that pulls a team apart. They also have diversity in style. Some people, like me, like to generate ideas; some people, like my wife, like to just get things done; and some people are just trying to care for the team, and some people are trying to keep things moving. That adds diversity and tension to the team as well. When you have uncertainty about which way to go — like which user to design for or which product to ship — usually we resolve those out of force of argument or force of personality in a company, or we just take the one we can agree with, and usually those aren’t the best ones. And so, something about empathy and prototyping as a common underpinning when you’re not sure which way is meaningful, which users — once you start meeting people, you start to gain empathy; which path is important, which gives you direction once you actually — instead of disagreeing which direction will work — have been trying it. If you’re uncertain, try both — it becomes very clear which one works. So, it ends up, both of those work as a great decision-making broker.

Q: Have you thought about applying collaboration to other systems? This question specifically says, “When technology now allows for individuated learning platforms, in K–12 education, how do we incorporate collaborative learning teams? How do they interface?”

A: How many of you have heard of Khan Academy? I’ll explain it — a few of you have. K-h-a-n, that’s the last name of the guy, Salman “Sal” Khan. I think it might have been mentioned a while ago; I’ll tell you a little bit about it. It gives a good example of the intersection of technology and learning, what it might mean for collaboration. So about technology, and education and collaboration; so Sal Khan was an investment banker, and he was tutoring his cousins in math because they needed help, and he’d read over their shoulder. Then his cousins moved away, I believe. So what he did is, he would just record his little instructions on a videotape and put it up on YouTube, so the kids could watch him from far away. And what happened is, all their friends started watching the videos, too, because they’re having trouble in school. Then, pretty soon, something like 2 million kids now are watching Sal Khan videos to self-pace their learning. Now, he’s got backing from the Gates Foundation and many others, and curriculum that covers areas and disciplines — that is really remarkable. A couple things that they’re finding: One is that inverses the classroom — it increases collaboration. You assume that you do video — individual learning — that means everyone spreads out. What happens is, instead of teaching happening in the classroom and homework happening at home — where they’re unsupported or the parents have to show up — the teaching happens at home; they just watch this video, and they can pause the teacher when they don’t get it. They can rewind, and listen again; they rewind, listen again; they can try it. Then they come back into class, after hearing a great lecture, and then they work on their homework in class, with each other. Kids who have learned it help those who don’t, and the teacher ends up being a coach, and he or she can be there the moment the kid is struggling with the topic, which is where the learning happens. I think it actually increases collaboration. There’s one more thing, if we have time, that is amazing for me. With all of these videos, they also get metrics that you can see where your kids get stuck and pause the video, or how quickly they move from one module to another — that you don’t ever get to see very often. What they found is the same thing; where kids were making progress leaning into a new subject, and they test them, and they spread out. Some kids get it quickly, and some kids get it slowly. In a traditional education, we then track them; these kids are put in remedial classes, or regular classes or advanced classes, and then they’re in that for the rest of their educational career, and they never catch up. The amazing thing about what Sal and his team are finding is: same things; they get introduced to a new topic and spread out, but if you allow the kids to self-pace, every time in almost every subject, eventually, they all get it. It makes me realize how much we’re leaving on the table in terms of our kids and their potential. If we can marry — it’s not self-pacing and everyone online and no one in classrooms, or only in classrooms and no technology — the marriage is really powerful; self-pacing at home, so everyone gets it — and working together, that’s more collaboration — increases our learning together. It’s a really exciting time for education.

– Transcribed by Sarah Gelfand