Before the course started we were given the opportunity to pitch an idea for a business to our classmates through an online forum. The pitches ranged from launching an affordable middle school gardening program to supply students with fresh vegetables to a program to accelerate language learning by incorporating virtual reality. Once the class started we voted on our favorite ideas and then small project teams were formed to transition the idea from ideation to implementation using the lessons learned each day.
I made the drive from Beale Air Force base across the San Francisco bridge and worked my way down through the city towards Stanford University. I arrived at Stanford's Munger Graduate Residences for check-in and room assignment. Each dorm style apartment had a large shared living room and kitchen and each individual room had its own private bathroom.
In the morning, I checked out the Stanford Dish trail. A nice, scenic paved trail with plenty of uphill segments equaling roughly 2 miles each way. The connection between Stanford and the military runs deep. During World War II the German military had the most sophisticated air defense system in the world. The U.S. had no idea the sheer magnitude of the defense system in place and turned to academia for help. You can learn more about that history from this Steve Blank talk titled “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uA2bLrl_9Q
Later in the afternoon we had our first class gathering for a Stanford campus tour. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and led us through the campus explaining the historically significant events that shaped the school and its appearance. I was at awe at the fact that I had somehow made it to this beautiful campus and would be spending the next four weeks here.
After the tour we convened for a late lunch to get to know each other The class represented every branch of service: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, (active, guard, and reserve). I was impressed by the diversity of career fields, there were Marine door kickers, Army Green Berets, Navy pilots, Air Force intelligence officers and many more. There were also two international students from our coalition partners. The class consisted heavily of officers, out of the 36 students, three were enlisted and I was the only one on active duty.
During the first day in the classroom we were given an overview of the concepts we would cover. We were then broken into project teams that would last the entire course.
The rules of engagement for the team meetings prescribed a revolving leadership model. Every four days, a new team leader was selected and they were responsible for planning the agenda and guiding the team to complete whatever deliverable needed to be accomplished that day.
I volunteered for a team that was developing a company that would make virtual reality part of learning a foreign language. The virtual reality software and hardware would simulate the experience of being in the country where the target language was spoken. The project ideas themselves weren't the most important thing, the priority was learning to fully develop an innovative idea and execute. This was one of the main learning outcomes of the course. As one of our IGNITE directors was fond to say, "Ideas are worthless without execution."
One of the things that excited me the most about this program was the fact that the same professor's who teach the Graduate School of Business are the ones who teach IGNTE. They volunteer to be part of the program during their summer as their way of saying "thanks for all you do veterans".
The marketing sections focused on figuring out who you are serving with your new project and what benefits they are really looking for. This informs the decision of which ideas to run with when you don’t have the time and resources to chase everything down. In my organization this could apply to almost every endeavor, from executing operations to planning morale events for our Airmen. I loved this section! It's all about creating value. Is the thing you are so passionate about really going to solve someones problem? How often are projects launched because they just look cool or we think the boss will think we are awesome for doing it. But is it really solving someones problem? Does it make the mission better or our Airmen better.....Marketing really hammered home to me a way of thinking about the value the projects we launch should bring.
The course covered business essentials like accounting and there wasn't alot here I really needed to get. I will give the professor an A for making the material come alive. I have never seen someone so passionate about accounting to the point of focusing on the forensic component of the material and figuring out a companies strategy based on where they have been spending their money.
The business model sections focused on thinking about how your customer will interact with your new product or service. Building off marketing, a key insight to military projects is considering how the end user will adopt the initiative. Specifically, if the idea is so brand new it will be harder for people to adopt it so it's best to describe it in a way that is already familiar to them. I've learned about the innovation chasm before and how important early adopters are but this was a new concept for me to think deeper about the basic behavioral components of habit.
This section covered the traits of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs that can be developed through education such as creativity and focusing on becoming a visionary leader. The professor explained creativity can be coached by learning design thinking principles. This was encouraging news as I want to be able to grow in this skill. Additionally, I learned visionary leadership is not a status reserved for a few gurus who can magically see far into the future. They are like Steve Jobs of Apple who studied their domain and constantly sought opportunities to improve or advance in their areas.
My initial thoughts on the competitive advantage section was that it is only relevant to starting an actual business and did not immediately apply to being a military intrapreneur. We covered an extensive list of different advantages a company can have. From a military perspective the concept applies to the constant pursuit of strengthening our department verses foreign competitors. The mindset of always scanning the strategic environment to ask yourself where you can create a new advantage is important for all organizations.
Project team check-in
At this point, our project team had been working on advancing our virtual reality for learning language project and our course director did a check-in with our team to see how we were doing. He challenged us to think about the largest opportunity we could use virtual reality for instead of focusing on a narrow market. This of course sent us on a completely different trajectory and forced us to really think through the lessons we had covered and apply what we had learned so far.
We had a few guest speakers this week.
The first was Don Faul a Marine who attended Stanford's Graduate School of Business that launched him through a pretty amazing career trajectory through Google, Facebook, Pinterest, and now a startup named Athos.
His talk was primarily directed at the students who were transitioning out the service soon and wanted to get into the tech industry. A lot of times you hear to just take a job to get your foot in the door and then you can work your way up to something you will enjoy. Don advised completely against that. He suggested waiting for a job you know you have the passion and basic skills to do well in. His reasoning was you most likely will not perform well in a job you have no connection to so its better not to put yourself in that situation. He also talked about not getting hung up on titles and starting pay. Pick a job where you can have an impact vs. a title that sounds important. I think this is incredibly important for those in the military as well. I've got caught up on duty titles and I've seen others get hung up on duty titles. But I now know from experience, and really hammered home by Don, is it's all about the impact you make in whatever job you are in.
He also highly recommended Radical Candor as a way to communicate with employees. What I learned from listening to the video was direct feedback is vital. The leader has to first create an environment where the team knows they are cared for based on prior support that has been shown. The faster issues are addressed the faster they can be worked through. This is a major topic for military members so I took some comfort with the fact that the corporate struggles with this issue as well. Link to the video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yODalLQ2lM
We also had a panel of past IGNITERS come and speak with us. They had all separated and shared their stories of life on the other side of active duty. The reoccurring theme was that companies really value the leadership and ability to get things done that military members develop. I liked the guest speakers and really thought they added a lot of value to the course. In addition to their mentorship, we all shared contact information building up my network of people to lean on and bounce ideas off of.