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Olin College Commencement Speech
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Good afternoon. Today is a very special day for those of you graduating and your parents but it is also a special day for the world.
Here at Olin you have had a unique kind of educational experience – one that I wish more graduating seniors had had from our colleges and universities across the globe and certainly one that I personally wish I had had.
Yes, I went to Brown University – also a great school – but I was trained to be just a technical geek – worshiping technical problems that could be solved with mathematics, physics and computation.
Problems were like clocks; we viewed them as mechanisms that we could take apart, analyze, and solve through aggregating partial solutions. All problems were seen as technical in nature, isolated from the contexts that made them messier to work on.
But you are different – you have learned that many significant problems are, at their root, socio-technical. And that the problem, as stated, is almost never the real problem. You have learned how to unpack the problem as it is integrally associated with the context in which it is embedded.
You see the problem from many angles - the social, the cultural and the institutional as well as just the technical.
In design parlance you have learned to unpack and extend the brief – a talent you will find critical for all things as you venture forth from here today.
I did not have the luxury of your education but experiences quickly taught me the importance of looking beyond the problem as stated - to follow the problem out into its situated context and let it take you to its roots.
Serendipity has a habit of helping us discover what others have overlooked or never thought important so that we are forced to reframe the problem again and again. This assumes that we can listen deeply to what is being said and to what is not being said. …. To listen to the backtalk of the situation.
I joined Xerox PARC as a youngster and one of the first problems I was asked to explore was how to improve the reputation of a machine – in fact for one of our most complex copiers with many processors and networks inside of it – yes in the early 80s.
In fact, although he might not remember it, Bill Glavin, who is sitting here in the audience, was the one who had the faith in us to say ”please explore”, and to give us the freedom to approach it any way we wanted.
You can imagine – this was like letting a kid loose in a candy store. But reality soon struck. On talking to the chief engineers we discovered that they had one simple design goal – to maximize the average time between failures of the machine.
But why was this the most important criteria? No one had ever asked the engineers that.
So we grabbed some anthropologists (remember this was in the early 80s) to explore the situation more fully and we discovered that it was not the average that mattered at all. It was, instead, the variance.
In fact, if a person encountered the machine broken two or three times in a row, they would start to construct stories about how bad the machine was, even though it worked perfectly most of the time.
So, if it was the variance or the clustering of machine failures that lead to the machine’s reputation why not have the machine, itself, call up the xrx tech center and report that it is broken?
Even better, why not have it tell the tech center what exactly was wrong.
Simple enough to do – but we could do more;
The machine had all kinds of process control loops in it so we could actually build a little AI engine that would look at the trajectory of these control parameters and with predictive analytics it could anticipate when it would break and why and then we could schedule a repairman to be on the scene before that happened.
Without really telling folks much about what we were doing, we built these machines and installed them. Then one day, in one of our trial installations, there was a knock on the door from the repairman at the precise moment that the machine broke. This caused quite a commotion. Word of the machine’s prescience spread like wildfire and within the week a national magazine had picked up the story.
Our machine’s reputation had been built; we had created an emotional effect of delight. This was far more than we had ever expected.
For many this is where the story ended but for us it was just the beginning of being able to imagine a different kind of relationship between machines and their environments; it was the first instance of the internet of things: things talking to things, things self-diagnosing and calling for help from the people in their system.
We realized that if this took off we would not have enough IP addresses for each thing have its own IP address. This led Steve Deering (with a computer scientist in France) to design the internet protocol IPv6 and the rest is now history – some 20 years later.
What was it that made this kind of innovation – and constant innovation - possible? I would say, without hesitation, that it was the generous mentorship of key individuals. I, myself, have had the great fortune of working with three great mentors – Bill Glavin being one of them.
I am sure every business book you have read has mentioned, in one form or another, the power of mentorship. But what is mentorship beyond being just a close relationship with a ‘teacher’? What do we really mean? And what does it mean or need to be today? These are not just idle questions and perhaps they are now more important than ever in this rapidly changing, networked age as we depend on your willingness, as you venture forth today, to become ‘reverse mentors’ for the rest of us. Yes, in today’s exponentially changing and increasing complex world where most skills can get quickly out of date we need your experience as much as you may need ours. But being a good mentor or reverse mentor has substantial subtlety to it.
Mentorship is not just good personalized teaching. It is a shared space of cognition and it is a shared space of imagination. As a shared space, it means that mentor and mentee sit metaphorically side by side working through a problem together. It is mostly a difference in experience that differentiates one from the other. And one person may function as mentor in certain things, while the other mentors in reverse in other things. I see this all the time in my own area of cloud computing.
But for mentorship to work there are five shifts that are necessary to activate it – these shifts are not foreign to studio based learning. In fact, most of you graduating today have experienced fragments of what I am about to talk about. I call your attention to it now since Olin has armed you with much more than just engineering knowledge. It has cultivated in you a mentoring disposition that will make you powerful leaders.
1st Shift: From criticism to critique… a critical distinction I might add. Criticism is about judgment. It is a hierarchical relationship like teacher to student.
But in critique, as many of you have experienced here at Olin, there is a deep sense that you are working on the problem together.
It is about trying to deeply understand what is preventing forward progress.
Perhaps a small metaphor can unstick you, can help you see the way forward – sometimes it is an image or a suggestion.
But always the critique tries to unpack how you are thinking/imagining and then tries to discover what kind of suggestion might unleash a deeper understanding of the situation at hand. Often times, through a demonstration of possible next steps.
2nd Shift: From text to sketch… Mentorship is a partnership – working shoulder to shoulder (at times) often hovering over a sketch that is meant to be both provisional and evocative.
Text provides instructions but sketches are abstract enough to be open to different evocative readings.
3rd Shift: From head and hand separated, to head & hand functioning together.
We think, we imagine, we create by engaging our whole self, our whole body. The brain does not stop at the neck but permeates our entire body. Instincts live throughout.
A generative dance between head and hand especially done shoulder to shoulder with a mentor can simply be amazing.
4th Shift: From worshiping creativity to honoring imagination. Surprisingly most discussion about education and innovation focuses on creativity, not imagination.
But true breakthroughs in understanding come from being able to hold a vivid image in rich detail suspended long enough in your mind’s eye to be able to bring into view what it is that you do not yet see or know.
For the problems we now face in the 21st century we need vividness and texture to sense what might be needed given their complex nature. And then we need skills – extreme skills – to bring that unfamiliar thing seen into the real world.
Imagination and skills will be of increasing importance in the networked world of the imagination economy.
5th Shift: From surface listening to deep listening. How do you listen to the undercurrents and inchoate beliefs of the person speaking and listen as much to what is not being said as to what is being said.
I say all this, now, because you, at Olin, have experienced, to some degree, each of these shifts. Yes, you can operate just on the left side of each of these shifts and do an ok job. But if you focus on a ‘way of being’ stemming from the right side of these shifts you will be amazed at the influence you can have and the help you can provide all of us in mastering the challenges we face in the 21st century.
Mentorship (and especially reverse mentorship) calls for you to operate in a space of confidence and generosity. Confidence in the authentic knowledge of what you can do, and generosity to share while being open to discovering what you do not know, open to receiving from others on equal footing. And, please also be open to the adventure of discovery and the challenges of bringing authentic clarity to an increasingly confusing world.