Finding clarity through blinding lights

May 29 2015

An unprecedented concern has reared its head in the Lab this summer: while we go about our work throughout the day, it is altogether too quiet. No one has to institute quiet time. No one has to go to any dramatic lengths to get everyone’s attention. Interns have actually asked permission to interact with people from other teams or to make any noise at all.

By Wednesday morning, John Clark, the lab’s director, had come up with a way to change that. He realized that we needed to do something to bring the fun back into the work we were doing, and his decision came just as we were working on our products’ value propositions. As groups determined what their target customers would value in their products, Clark made our task into a competition: the next morning, we would be subjected to high-pressure interrogations to explain and justify our ideas. My team walked in just before 9 a.m. on Thursday, half-convinced that Clark had already forgotten his plan to interrogate everyone. But then we saw the lights.

Clark and Sam Harrington, the assistant to the director, had cleared out a corner of the room and set up blinding portrait spotlights. There was a sound machine to make noise effects when we walked in. And there were eight other interns who were more than ready to force us to justify every assumption we’d made up to that point.

Roddy and the rest of the comments team pitches at the senate hearing. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

Roddy and the rest of the comments team pitches at the senate hearing. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

Each team pitched for two minutes, and then spent between 20 and 30 minutes on the “stand” answering questions. It was an intense period of time, and no team could answer every question. At the end of the so-called “Senate hearing”, we debriefed by discussing what our next steps would be and how to more critically vet our assumptions.

This activity definitely accomplished its goal of making us have fun and get loud. The sound effects machine was on constantly, filling the room with virtual applause, suspenseful music and vomit noises. And team members surprised themselves with how well they were able to answer the questions Clark and the rest of the lab posed. We learned that we knew more than we thought we did, which was comforting after the whirlwind of activity our first three weeks.

The interrogations also helped us embrace a maxim Clark has been repeating since Week One: “take your ideas seriously, but don’t take yourselves seriously.”

The scenario we acted out was, admittedly, pretty ridiculous. At this stage of the game, we did not have nearly enough research to prove that our ideas would definitely work. None of us were able to speak in depth about how our products would work, so to an extent we had to be silly. We felt like kindergarteners playing grown-up, which made it easier to relax and open up about where our hold-ups were and what assumptions needed to be looked at more. We were able to approach this really intense questioning without fearing that we were being judged based on our responses, which freed us to be honest about where we were in the process.

Every group is facing a unique problem or hurdle that makes forward progress seem difficult, so opening up about unanticipated hiccups was a way of reassuring people that the process was still working. I think this gave us hope that even if the problem statements issued to us the first week seem like huge challenges to tackle, they can be turned into desirable, feasible and viable products by the time we finally pitch at the end of July.


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