Schooled on drones and design

image courtesy of Cochrane Summer Economic Institute/Collegiate School

image courtesy of Cochrane Summer Economic Institute/Collegiate School

In July, Hard Yards supported a Department of Defense sponsored discovery and design event to accerlate counter unmanned aerial surveillance (CUAS) solutions. More simply put, we quickly assessed current efforts, stakeholders, and helped teams develop a few options to field prototype solutions in the near term to defend against enemy drones. Armed with this very real and current national security challenge, and sponsored by the Collegiate School, I had an opportunity to facilitate a mini design sprint with the students at the Cochrane Summer Economic Institute and we focused on the same problem. For the Department of Defense, this is a typical day on the job. For these students, it was a heavy-weight challenge they knew nothing about, with peers they only just met.

After reflecting on the experience, the students taught me the following lessons:

“The Power of a Team with Diverse Perspectives”

A magical thing happens when you throw people together in a room to solve a problem that they care about. Within minutes, the students organized around the shared goal like living cells, which, for teenagers navigating their unique brand of social norms, is a multi-layered process. And while these high achieving students are used to being evaluated and rewarded on an individual basis, they were able to experience the exponential power of a team. With zero time to worry about failure, they encouraged each other, took turns taking the lead, tinkered with ideas and produced results that were far greater than the sum of its parts.

“Having a Process...and Trusting the Process”

Forcing teams to slow down in order to move fast may seem counterintuitive, but it is essential to the design process. Using divergent and convergent thinking techniques, the students became comfortable navigating ambiguity and going beyond “right vs wrong” to floating in the world of “maybe.” They learned to push past the first set of messy ideas and trust that more would come with deeper thought, collaboration, and prototyping. Taking comfort in a structured process to help guide their thinking, they were then able to devote their creativity to solving the problem at hand.

“There are no bad ideas.”

One of the biggest hurdles in coaching teams is establishing psychological safety right from the start. If this does not happen, the team can quickly stall out and burn through precious creative energy. By getting the bad ideas out of the way first and playing the “turn your worst idea into a winner” game, the students were able to laugh with each other, lower their defenses and solve together. This principle became the foundation for one of the best ideas: a drone that could spray a liquid to disable the adversarial drone’s blades or add dangerous weight without risking civilian life below.

Thank you, Trina Clemans, of Collegiate School for the opportunity to watch innovation in action. My biggest personal insight of the day was the importance of sharing the WHY: that our goal was real and urgent--and then watching as the students quickly coalesced into a team. Clearly there were no counter-terrorism experts in the room, but that did not disrupt their belief that they could achieve the outcome. If a group of high school students who just met can work effectively toward a shared goal in less than half a day, imagine what your teams are capable of.