Saturday, March 13, 2010

New SLaM Lab helps SDM put systems thinking into action - SDM Pulse Spring 2010

By Michael Davies and Dan Sturtevant, SDM ’07

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles about the new Systems, Leadership, and Management Lab. Michael Davies, a senior lecturer in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division (ESD), and Dan Sturtevant, an SDM alumnus and ESD PhD student, are the instructors for the course.

Michael Davies
Senior Lecturer, SDM
In fall 2009, the SDM program launched a new course: the Systems, Leadership, and Management Lab (SLaM Lab). As the name suggests, the course objective is to enable participants to integrate "hard" systems and engineering skills with "soft" management and leadership skills through a lab program, working on real-world problems.

Participants in MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) come from a variety of engineering backgrounds and are a rarity among postgraduates in the sense that they bring a maturity to the classroom that can only come from real experience in the field. These professionals, averaging 7-10 years of experience, return to education in pursuit of the additional tools they believe they need to become leaders in technical organizations.

As a result, SDM’s curriculum encompasses both "hard" technical disciplines and "soft" management skills. Some courses aim to enhance students’ ability to conceive of, and design, complex systems. These courses include product design and development, systems engineering, and system architecture. A second set of courses provides skills and theory about the human side of technology. Classes cover marketing, innovation, and strategy. A motivating concept behind SDM is the idea that the individual who possesses strengths in both areas, and who can integrate them, will have the ability to lead the technical enterprise much more effectively than someone with management or engineering skills alone.
Dan Sturtevant
SDM ’07

In 2008, SDM students and faculty discussed concerns that the curriculum was not integrating these two threads as effectively as possible. In particular, although many students brought with them the practical engineering experience that provided a strong context in which topics such as system architecture could be grounded, fewer had practical experience in management and strategy. In addition, although the program addressed leadership topics in many of its offerings, leadership skills were not taught explicitly. As a result, some SDM fellows chose to pursue other lab classes at MIT. In sum, there was growing impetus for a leadership course focused specifically on the needs of SDM fellows.

SLaM Lab was envisioned as an experiential course that would tie together the lessons of system architecture and technology strategy while giving students practical experience working with real clients on problems of significant strategic importance. The format was adapted from other excellent MIT lab courses, such as E-Lab (which focuses on entrepreneurship), G-Lab (global and emerging markets), iTeams (technology commercialization), and S-Lab (sustainability).

Students would work together in small teams for outside companies on projects that involved real-world ambiguity and noise and that required them to discriminate between the problems as presented and underlying reality, rather than on neatly packaged problem sets or case studies. Perhaps most importantly, projects would be selected based on their potential to make a real impact for the client organization.

As strong believers in a collaborative and participative approach, we approached this fall’s first class with respect for the diverse experience and perspective of the SDM fellows. The 12 students who chose to be in the first class knew that their role was not only to work on the projects, but also to actively act as sophisticated lead users helping to shape content and providing direction and feedback on this prototype program. Because this was a new course, and the first of its kind within the SDM curriculum, the participants’ input and impact resulted in major changes to the syllabus between September and December. We iteratively decided what the class focus should be based on personal knowledge gaps and the evolving needs of the clients we were working with through the fall.

Course learnings focused on the practical means for applying knowledge gained in SDM to the real-world issues presented by current (and future) projects. At the outset, the class focused on issues of leadership and teamwork. In the first week, students completed a Belbin Team Role assessment to learn about the different styles each naturally brought to projects. Students learned about the theory behind these psychological tests and discussed how results could be used to guide team formation and productive interaction. Some reading and discussion focused on leadership within different contexts. Of special interest were topics related to leading teams composed of creative knowledge workers. Over the course of the semester, each student formulated and refined his or her personal philosophy of leadership.

As the course evolved, the development of some key practical skills gained prominence. The first included techniques used by strategy consulting firms to organize and reason logically about ambiguous information. For example, we used Barbara Minto’s "Pyramid Principle," a process for creating clear documents.

The second major area included the art and science of presenting graphical information clearly. In November, the class chose to attend a day-long seminar offered by Edward Tufte, an expert on the subject. The knowledge students chose to pursue had a significant influence on both the content of the final recommendations that they offered, and the form or structure of their final client presentations. All of them eschewed conventional slide presentations for more sophisticated representations, such as large-scale one-page displays or interactive presentations. In every case this had a major positive impact on the companies that we were working with, and some of the key graphics have been very widely circulated.

There were four key criteria for the projects that formed the core of the course: there should be a systems challenge; there should be a related leadership or management challenge; the project should have real world impact, working on issues that mattered to the host companies; and the projects should have meaning for the participants, be something that they were enthusiastic about it because they could make a difference.

Seven candidate projects were proposed by students, faculty, or third parties; three were chosen for engagement. One team worked with leading global cell phone manufacturer Nokia to devise a strategy to increase software developer "mindshare" within the United States. A second team worked with local wireless power company Witricity, an MIT spinoff, to devise a standardization and intellectual property strategy. A third team worked with founders of the Venture Café (a venue for entrepreneurs to meet in Kendall Square) to explore how to make their proposed social hub sustainable.

In the next issue of the Pulse, we will expand on each of these real-world projects, and explore the impact of the lab’s work on the organizations.

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