Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles introducing the new Systems, Leadership, and Management Lab.
In fall 2009, MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) launched the Systems, Leadership, and Management Lab (SLaM Lab) to give students hands-on experience focused on using system architecture and technology strategy skills while working on real business problems.
The first class began with team formation. Students completed Belbin Team Role assessments to learn about their different work styles, then evaluated how best to create teams with a range of strengths and skills. This step was important, according to senior lecturer and course instructor Michael Davies, because leadership is less about the qualities of the individual than about organizing groups of people to work together.
"The nature of most business work is, it is done effectively in some kind of team," said Davies, who is the founder and chairman of Endeavour Partners, a boutique consulting firm focused on technology businesses. Davies described the class process of team-building as "a very close analog for a classic managerial project." The students, like business leaders, had to consider such questions as: How do we organize ourselves? What are the mixture of skills needed? and Which combinations of people will work together effectively?
Next, students were given overviews of about half a dozen potential projects, ranging from creating a marketing strategy for a fabric that heats up to analyzing the standards landscape for an MIT startup. All projects presented systems challenges, related leadership or management challenges, and real-world impact. The three selected and pursued (based on student preference) ranged from a major global company to a nascent startup, still at the concept stage. The projects— for Nokia, Witricity, and Venture Café—are detailed below.
Project described by team member Ritesh Shukla, SDM ’09
Some members of the SLaM Lab Nokia team pose
with their cellphones. They are, from left,
Andrei Akaikine SDM ’09, Sahar Hashmi SDM ’09,
Ashok Dhiman SDM ’08, and Ritesh Shukla SDM ’09
Some background: Although Nokia is a world leader in the cell phone market, with about 40 percent market share, and as high as 80 percent or 90 percent in some parts of the world, the company has a very small presence in the United States—less than 10 percent market share. While smart phones are a hot commodity, and America has emerged as a leading player in this field, most Americans don’t even think about buying such a phone from Nokia. This lack of mindshare is also present within the emerging mobile developer community in the United States. This is a concern because it means that the next generation of innovation is not being created for the Nokia platform.
The SDM team therefore set out to investigate who is developing applications (apps) and what might interest them in creating apps for Nokia. They determined that developers could be split into four groups:
- Hobbyists — Those who create apps for fun and aren’t necessarily motivated by cash
- Individual software developers — More serious developers who want to earn a little extra money or build their resumes; some members of this group are also interested in social rewards, such as the kudos that come from writing a cool app
- Revenue-motivated companies — Gaming companies and others that expect to make real money from applications
- Service companies — Facebook, Yahoo, Fandango, and others that don’t expect revenue for an app, but use cell phone applications to reach their markets; in these cases, the app is a means of delivering a service
In addition, they found that the higher one goes up the cell phone value chain, the less relevant platform specifics become. The business of writing applications is what matters. Though Nokia has a richer development environment, it has not been able to cash in because other factors hamper the motivation for writing apps.
In making its final presentation to Nokia, the SLaM Lab team closely followed the teachings of Edward Tufte, a noted expert on presenting information graphically. They created a single slide that showed the developer segments, their interests, Nokia’s current status, the relationships between the various interests, and the ideas/suggestions for Nokia. The presentation also included a prioritized list of recommendations. All this dense information was presented parallel in space rather than sequentially, as in traditional presentations. Team members then presented their recommendations to Nokia senior management. The presentation format fostered a rich discussion because it allowed everybody at the meeting to have all the relevant information on one page. The content of the presentation as well as the presentation format was well received.
"The Nokia team’s result was outstanding," Davies said. "[The managers at Nokia] were delighted; it gave them a whole fresh perspective on what’s going on."
Project described by team member Jeff Davis, SDM ’09
WiTricity is an MIT startup founded to enable distance charging of electronic devices. The company’s technology creates a beam of electromagnetic radiation which, in resonance with the receiver system, spreads out to cover a distance of up to a few yards, allowing devices such as cell phones to recharge wirelessly.
The company is small and still working on its intellectual property (IP). It’s also not the only company working to provide wireless charging, and some of its competitors have been trying to create standards that could affect its business. WiTricity therefore asked the SLaM Lab team to assess the standards landscape in interfaces for wireless charging. The fundamental question was: Should the company spend time now helping to create standards for this burgeoning industry, or table that concern until its IP portfolio is complete?
To address this question, team members examined the standards options under consideration, evaluated WiTricity’s IP portfolio, and researched the competition. They then laid out a decision tree (a tool taught in SDM) to evaluate various options— walking through a number of scenarios from decision to result. Using skills learned in SDM’s engineering risk benefit analysis class, the team also analyzed the probability of various outcomes and their consequences.
Through this process, the team determined that it’s unlikely that standards will be passed that are incompatible with WiTricity’s technology. Furthermore, the stronger the company’s IP portfolio is, the more likely it is that any standards passed will accommodate their technology. The team therefore recommended that the company focus its efforts on developing its IP.
The WiTricity team presented its recommendations to company CEO Eric Giler. "The CEO’s response was, ‘This gives me a better way to explain what’s going on here than anything else I’ve seen,’" Davies said.
Described by team member Carrie Stalder, SDM ’09
Of the three projects undertaken by SLaM Lab this year, Venture Café was at the earliest stage. Although some focus groups of potential users had been held the previous summer and a survey had been conducted about needs, the business was still in its pre-launch period when SLaM Lab got involved.
Venture Café opened its
alpha location on the
11th floor of One Broadway
in Cambridge this spring.
The SLaM team began by using the SCQA (situation complication question answer) technique from Barbara Minto’s "Pyramid Principle." That helped the group to structure its thinking and get to the point of creating a framework that would help the cafe make decisions about which features to implement.
The team also used system architecture tools to evaluate features, assessing how strongly each one would serve the cafe’s overall goals.
"The project gave us a structured way to think about things, which was really our goal," said Carrie Stalder, SDM ’09, who is also the manager of the Venture Café. The cafe launched its prototype gathering spot in March.
"Our interaction with the SLaM Lab has been nothing short of amazing," said Timothy Rowe, founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center and founder of the Venture Café. "Three students—Carrie Stalder, Cyndi Hernandez, and Mario Montoya—sat down with us to map out the metrics that we should use to guide our planning and rollout. After developing these, they went on to take increasingly significant roles helping us actually roll out the concept, with Carrie emerging as the manager of the cafe, with Cyndi and Mario actively working alongside her to help get it off the ground. This is a great example of mens et manus, and is what MIT is all about."
Plans for SLaM Lab
In reflecting on SLaM Lab’s first year, Davies said that the only thing that matters in this course is whether the client is happy—and each one was. "In every case, this year’s projects had a positive impact," he said. "This is not an academic exercise; the motivation for this comes from the real world. You actually have to do this in front of real businesspeople."
"A very valuable part of the class was being able to connect with and learn about how the other teams were going through their process and using different tools to work through their problems, which may not be connected to ours in any way," Stalder said.
SLaM Lab will be offered again this fall, Davies said, adding that a pre-SLaM offering, SLaM Praxis, will also be offered this summer. "The plan is to make the lab more about projects and teams and put more of the decision-making into the summer course," he said, noting that interested students are very strongly encouraged to enroll in the summer class.
Designed to provide students with real, hands-on work experience, but in a supportive environment, SLaM Lab adds a key component to the SDM curriculum, he said. "These are the things that I found really helpful and useful in my 20 years experience—practical management skills," Davies said.
Stalder noted that SLaM Lab drew on tools from several SDM classes, including system architecture and product design and development. "It was a good capstone for the whole [SDM] program," she said.