In 2014, I saw Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh speak in downtown Las Vegas. Of all he said, what stuck with me most was his notion of ‘collisionable hours,’ in other words: hours spent colliding with people sharing ideas. He conjectured that transplanting people in different communities has the potential to improve them by introducing diversity-in-thought and fresh ideas. I always thought the theory was interesting, but I never really experienced it much in-practice until Cornell Tech built and opened its doors to its new campus on Roosevelt Island.
Universities all around the world structure curriculums to enhance potential for interdisciplinary interactions; it’s quite possibly one of the best arguments one could have to go to college nowadays. It’s also why most institutions require math, science, and humanities general education requirements (among others) to graduate. Cornell Tech, however, was methodically designed to maximize those opportunities.
As a graduate student in the health tech program at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, I’m surrounded by masters students pursuing their MBAs, law masters, and technical degrees like computer science, operations research, and electrical engineering. Enrollment this year was at approximately 250 masters students, and I’m amazed everyday how the campus was designed to improve the probability of collisions.
Take, for instance, one of the days I recently experienced:
Though it’s not necessarily representative of my everyday, it really does highlight that I’m surrounded by a culture that is supportive, generous, and agile. As such, I’ve identified a couple patterns I believe enhance opportunities for catalyzing these interactions in other environments as well:
1. Create spaces that cultivate interactions
There should always be opportunities to meet people you don’t everyday and have cross-function topics of discussion. WeWork has championed this originally through co-working space, but they continue to push these boundaries with other ventures like co-living through WeLive.
Cornell Tech also designed its campus for maximal interaction. Through communal spaces with open-floor plans, students also reap the benefit of every faculty department being housed in the same building. Gabe Ruttner, a friend who started the company Ursa out of Cornell Tech, told me many of his early business development relationships have been sparked by introductions to campus visitors. He recently said to me: “This place is a community in its truest sense. The environment offers much more than just a set of desks.”
2. Design structured interactions between people of different backgrounds
Organizations and businesses should strive for different departments to collaborate on projects together; bringing these varying perspectives will undoubtedly yield inventive thinking.
One of the ways they do this at Cornell Tech is through required experiences like the Studio Curriculum, but there’s also potential to take classes with students in other programs: in fact, it’s recommended we take courses in other departments. In addition to learning in conjunction with business, engineering, and law students, I also had the opportunity to work with them on projects. We have monthly scrums where we pitch our projects to other Studio teams and ask for their candid, critical feedback; we’re also sure to leave our feelings at the door.
3. Create open communication channels
Create communities that are constantly open to helping each other out, and always ask people, “what’s your biggest challenge right now?” to determine how you can be most helpful. Try to get buy-in from everyone in the ecosystem, regardless of their seniority.
Use platforms like Slack, GroupMe, and groups on WhatsApp. They’re faster than e-mail, and they really let you take advantage of the Network Effect. It may seem counterintuitive, but it actually saves you hours from needing to schedule lengthy meetings to get everyone communicating. This does not, obviously, replace face-to-face meetings; it just reduces their frequency and duration. Another one of our practices is to bring everyone together for a targeted Town Hall. We do these monthly as a student body, but they also occur with specialized topics like student life with our Dean Dan Huttenlocher or program directors to discuss the curriculum. No matter what, aim to involve all leaders from every area and level.
Cornell Tech also recently allowed me to ‘take-over’ their Instagram stories for a day as an individual student. My mention as a health tech student prompted a Roosevelt Island resident to reach out and propose a way we could work together. By allowing me to officially represent Cornell Tech, I was able to more seriously engage with residents in a more personal way I couldn’t on my own.
4. Get everyone on the same page
Find ways people can go through a shared experience. A student recently told me his favorite aspect of Cornell Tech is our Sprints. Sprints were inspired from Jake Knapp’s book Sprint and take place monthly for us. It’s a block of time where there are no classes and we commit to a 24-hour work block (except the time we’re sleeping) with our multidisciplinary teams. It’s also certainly when we get the most done.
Companies could also similarly benefit from asking their employees to wholly commit to developing and prototyping an idea for a week by starting with the simple question, “how might we…?”
5. Don’t forget to get out of your bubble
Though much of the time I spent in graduate school is with fellow students, one of the most refreshing aspects of being a part of the Roosevelt Island community is my participation with local organizations: the school, senior center, and art gallery to name a few.
I even took a course that encouraged us to observe a local organization and work with them to create a technology or design a service project to address one of their challenges. We initially strove for intra-organizational impact but quickly realized we should also have inter-organizational forums to unite their respective leaders and again elevate the Network Effect.
That is what Cornell Tech intended when it won the NYC Tech Campus bid in 2011. Its aim was not to solely have an identity as a “Campus of the Digital Age”, but also one with a deep connection and commitment to serve its local inhabitants. Transplanting a bunch of academics on a narrow island will surely shift its dynamics, and ideally they maximize positive collisions and therefore serendipity.
What’d I miss?
This is definitely not a comprehensive guide to fostering a collisionable environment but hopefully it’s a helpful start. Maybe someday we can all harness that energy from water cooler talk and direct that to an idea or action you wouldn’t come up with on your own. But then again, perhaps we really DO want to have that conversation to determine once-and-for-all if that dress is truly white and gold or blue and black.
A version of this post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
I don’t know how many hundreds of technology challenges I’ve heard from doctors over the years. Among those, having the sufficient data they need to tailor individualized treatment plans and to prevent delayed diagnosis are among pain points most frequently mentioned.
Last May, Health Tech Masters Students at Cornell Tech and Emergency Medicine residents at NY-Presbyterian aimed to bridge the gap between technologists and clinicians by hosting a first-ever conference of its kind: one that emphasizes the use of mobile devices to conduct medical research.
The ResearchSuite Conference, organized by chief emergency medicine resident Mark Shankar, took place at NY-Presbytarian Hospital in New York City and brought together over 50 physicians and engineers passionate about the emergence of mobile health for medical research studies. The gathering explored the use of ResearchSuite in this collaboration, referring to the suite of tools available to create applications for medical research. This includes frameworks like Apple’s ResearchKit and ResearchStack, whose development was led by Cornell Tech Professor Deborah Estrin to create Android applications that serve a similar purpose.
Estrin, who provided the keynote address at the conference, also shared her excitement about the collaboration. During the opening preliminary, she described her personal experience as discussed in her TEDMED talk all the hurdles she faced attempting to gather data about her ill father before the end of his life that led to her renewed interest into mobile health.
After learning about smartphones and wearables data gathering capabilities from students at Cornell Tech, resident physicians matched with technologists to create research studies for a few areas that relate to the patient populations the clinicians frequently see: Congestive Heart Failure, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and Pneumonia. Groups then formed frameworks for studies using the PICO method: identifying the patient population, intervention, control, and outcome of how a mobile research study could be generated.
It was a first stride towards a partnership between our organizations we hope endures and thrives. Interdisciplinary teamwork to solve challenging tech problems is fundamental to Cornell Tech’s Studio Curriculum, and many of us hope to become ambassadors to spread this way of thinking as discussed in our required reading for Studio: Sprint. All in attendance were thrilled that engineers and subject matter experts could come together to create meaningful outcomes in just a couple hours. In the end, I’m confident and hopeful to see other similar synergies between technologists and clinicians in the future.
You can view my slides from the conference here.
A version of this post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
As part of my graduate curriculum at Cornell Tech, we were tasked to get our hands dirty. Dirty, as in, speak directly to our customers for some critical, unfiltered feedback before we got too far into product development. The reality of the matter is: the truth is seldom squeaky clean. In fact for us, this time it was far from it.
We spent last week on Roosevelt Island, future home of the Cornell Tech campus, at the Carter Burden Center of Aging to experiment voice-activated technologies with seniors to test the following idea: “How might we provide consumers more control of their health data?”
Any data collected would reside with the consumer, rather than electronic health records that patients rarely access these days.
After testing our technologies, we expected rave reviews but were floored when we heard comments like this one:
“I don’t need this in my home.”My first thought when we received the less-than-stellar feedback was of course:“What do you mean you don’t need this? We just spent a couple months building this thing for you!”
But don’t worry, I didn’t say it.
You’ve probably heard before, and you’re about to hear again: build em’ something they need. But here’s something you probably haven’t heard:
Test your tech product with someone that doesn’t even use tech.
Some of our participants had never swiped on a smartphone before, let alone written an email. What did this enable exactly?
The authenticity that connects the user to technology.
Rather than asking about the product in its traditional use cases like most customers were, participants at the Center of Aging were requiring us to unlearn everything we had held to be absolute truths about our product in order to answer their questions. Questions that, to us, seemed obvious like:
In that process, one of the most illuminating questions we asked them was the following:
“What did our device not ask you that you would have liked to have been asked? Though we tested with other variations of the aforementioned phrase, that one allowed us to get most directly to the mind’s of our users.
From this surprising, and somewhat disappointing experience, we learned: when going through the product development process, consider getting your product it in front of a total newbie. In other words, not only someone that has never interacted with your technology before, but rather someone that has never interacted with technology, period.
One of our users didn’t even have any contacts programmed into her cell phone. Rather, she carried a list of names and numbers in her purse incase she needed one for reference.
The benefits this kind of testing are two-fold:
First, it rids the user from intended use, eliminating any biases that may exist. And second, more importantly, you’ll find yourself getting to your “lowest technology denominator” that will undoubtedly optimize your user experience for others.
The process we followed to extract knowledge from our users was the following:
This was largely because when you are asking people to provide you with their feedback, they typically default to their critical feedback vs. sticking to constructive comments.
In all, we learned more from our experimental users than months of hypothesizing how potential users would interact with our product.
Aristotle once said, “The more you know, the more you don’t know.” If we were to construct a corollary from our experience, it would be: the less (your users) know, the more you’ll know as a technologist.
Test often, test widely, but most importantly, test with a newbie.
What makes people exceptional thinkers? Or more broadly, how does one become extraordinary in all aspects of their mind — a mind that thinks BIG and is devoid of rampant hesitation and fear that constricts our potential? This was the question posed by Mindvalley’s founder and CEO, Vishen Lakhiani.
Next week, Lakhiani is releasing his book, The Code of the Extraordinary Mind: 10 Unconventional Laws to Redefine Your Life and Succeed on Your Own Terms.
The book follows Lakhiani on his personal journey from barely affording to pay his bills to starting his ed-tech company that serves many millions today. He features conversations with some of the world’s most remarkable visionaries including Richard Branson, Ariana Huffington, and Elon Musk, among with many others.
The underlying message is his exploration is identifying the four key stages in transcending from the existing world as you know it to one where you are extraordinary:
He recommends analyzing these areas thoroughly to take an inventory of how successful we feel in each of those areas so we can constantly assess when we’re due for a growth check-in.
When he led his team to break a monthly revenue record, he also realized his mind was in the wrong place: postponing his happiness until he attained some future goal.
“Have big goals — but don’t tie your happiness to your goals. You must be happy before you attain them.”
For many of us, we have a plethora of aspirations we’d like to accomplish with our lifetimes, but mistakenly exert too much energy focusing on the future. In alignment with his prescription for routine meditation, Lakhiani advises to fully engulf our minds in the present — being happy while slowly striving towards where we envision ourselves in some time.
The book also explores how we we can go about making ourselves happier. In his research, he’s found there are three key areas that contribute to lifelong happiness: special and unique experiences, personal growth, and meaning. As you may have predicted, these components all tie back to the Twelve Areas of Balance as you consider and plan what bliss truly means to you.
To address the happiness dilemma, Lakhiani’s favorite exercise is running people through his exercise: the ‘Three Most Important Questions’. He has posed these questions to all of his employees, in addition to children in the United States and students in African villages:
When it comes to identifying how you’ll contribute, Lakhiani believes we need to not choose not a career, but rather work that is “mission-driven.” What does this mean exactly? It means identifying what you deem is your purpose and allowing that to guide all of your consequent decisions.
From meeting some of the world’s most influential visionaries, Lakhiani identified to following commonality:
The most extraordinary people in the world do not have careers. What they have is a calling.
He defines a calling as one’s contribution to the human race to leave the planet better for consequent generations. In that process, work dissipates because we are all rather doing things that excite you.
Lakhiani asked another founder of Singularity University and the X Prize Foundation, Peter Diamandis, the following question: “What makes someone extraordinary?”
It’s having a heartfelt passion and emotionally driven passion — something you want to solve on the planet that wakes you up in the morning and keeps you up at night. For other people, it might be something they despite or some injustice in the world they want to solve.
Having seen Lakhiani speak on numerous occasions, this book has it all: losing his job after returning from his honeymoon, leading his team to break $1M in monthly revenue, and even references an interaction between his seven-year-old and Nicki Minaj’s song “Anaconda.”
If you want to learn more, you can pre-order your copy of The Code of the Extraordinary Mind: 10 Unconventional Laws to Redefine Your Life and Succeed On Your Own Terms here, scheduled for release on May 10th.