Yenching Scholars Participate in Peking University Social Innovation Do Camp

This year, seven Yenching Scholars: José Izquierdo Fernández (Spain, University of Granada), Alexandria Williams (United States, Wesleyan University), Laura Grunberg (Germany, University of Cambridge), Maya Cypris (Israel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Fu Duanling (China, Wuhan University), Jeffrey Niu (United States, Columbia University), Mohnish Kedia (India, University of Cambridge), had the opportunity of participating in the Peking University Social Innovation Do Camp, a social innovation challenge for the Yintai Foundation with 13 other Peking University students. The program is designed for 20 university students with diverse major and cultural backgrounds to solve a social innovation challenge. One of our Yenching Scholars, Laura Grunberg (Germany, University of Cambridge), shared her reflections on the program with us. 

4_meitu_1.jpgFrom left to right: José Izquierdo Fernández, Alexandria Williams, Laura Grunberg, Fu Duanling, Maya Cypris, Jeffrey Niu, Mohnish Kedia

What one week of intensive Social Innovation with the Do Camp has taught me

Thank you to the Yenching Academy and their kind support, through whom we were able to experience this eye-opening week. 

This year, I was one of the 7 Yenching Scholars who had the opportunity of participating in a social innovation challenge for the Yintai Foundation (part of China Yintai), with other Peking University students and professionals. Under the guidance of two experienced facilitators from the Do Camp, our challenge was to develop a new kind of shopping mall experience – one that created social impact but also new demand for consumption, and had to be scalable so as to work not only within the luxurious Yintai shopping spaces but in any mall.

Whilst I had experience in the luxury retail industry, consulting and project management, working within constantly-changing groups and thinking about business issues from a social aspect was entirely new to me. Thus, there are a few lessons that I would like to share:

1. Accept uncertainty, don’t control every detail

The inherent difficulty of this challenge was that we were given an opportunity, rather than a problem to solve. In addition, we did not visit the mall until the second day of ‘ideation’ (brainstorming). We knew that we could not predict the outcome of the project, and that the time frame was small. Initially, we thus simply wrote down as many ideas as possible individually under extreme time pressure, pushing ourselves to think fast and broad. This was in many ways frustrating and frightening when one would run out of ideas or ‘hit a wall’ – many times, the uncertainty of what this project could or should be was extremely difficult to handle.

What we realized as the challenge progressed, is that the very uncertainty within which we found ourselves at the start, is what allowed us to think broadly and come up with hundreds of ideas – some of which were then further developed during the focus phase, whilst others were put aside. As such, every participant was empowered to generate ideas. Without the time pressure and uncertainty, we would have immediately made assumptions about the context, thinking inside rather than outside the box. At the start of any innovative project, it is important not to limit oneself and to embrace uncertainty. 

2.     See the opportunities before the challenges

After having seen the mall and talked to the consumers on our second day of ‘ideation’, we began understanding the context of our project and the resources available to us more. We also began seeing the possible constraints of the luxurious space within which this project would be placed: many of our ideas would not fit or have real social impact in this context.

However, we continued to be pushed to see opportunities instead and learned to think about challenges through the opportunities. Thus in groups, we were for example made to write down all the possible resources that we had available to us in this project, all the possible opportunities, and then all of the challenges. We then had to connect the opportunities and resources, to understand how these could help us solve the potential challenges. When working on a project, it is crucial to realize that most challenges can be solved. Thus, whilst the context allows one to focus a project by selecting and developing realistic ideas, it is key to not limit oneself, to continue thinking outside of the box. As Steve Jobs said: “"The customer never knows what they want until we show them".

3.   Simple tools can yield great results

As we only had a very short number of days to complete the project, complicated project management tools were not an option despite the huge variety and size of the overall group. Consequently, throughout the whole process, the only tools available to us were exercises such as diagrams and drawings, and materials such as post its, paper, markers, white board and tape. This however, rather than being too simplistic, was perfectly adapted to our project, simplifying feed back processes and communication in general. Every morning, we had a ‘kick-off’ meeting and exercise where our learnings from the day before were drawn onto large sheets of paper, and our goals for the day were defined. In the evenings we would then have a ‘wrap-up’ to discuss what we had achieved and shared any learnings or any other valuable information acquired through-out the day.  The larger group was separated into smaller groups for each exercise too, allowing closer teamwork, and after each exercise the group would tell the others about their conclusions.

What this came to show, is that great project management does not require complicated methods or materials. What matters, is choosing the right methods for the particular type of project. In our case, empowering the creativity, enthusiasm and strong communication within and among the teams through these simple tools was key to our success. 

4.   Differences can be a strength – but we must be aware of them

Within our group more than ten different nationalities were represented, in addition to many academic backgrounds ranging from Guanghua’s MBA courses, to the Yenching Academy, to other PKU departments. Furthermore, we were constantly switching teams for the various exercises given to us – giving us a chance to work with everyone within the group. Thus not only were we from different backgrounds, but could never get used to a stable group dynamic. This was arguably one of the most difficult and rewarding exercises itself.

Naturally, there was a tendency for the same people to be drawn together, and for some to talk louder than others. To tackle this issue, our facilitators organized an exercise where four different communication and conflict resolution styles were discussed. Thus we could understand which category we fit best. Each category then gave advice to the category that was most different, in terms of how to communicate better with them.

During our final pitch, we split into two groups working on two different ideas and the impact of the on-going discussion on differences within a team could be clearly seen – ultimately what makes a great team is not necessarily everyone thinking and acting the same, but everyone being able to use their own strengths to create synergy. In my group for example, we tried to actively include everyone, allowing us to prepare an innovative pitch in only a day. This included a prototype App made by an IT major, evidence that our plan could be implemented as two people had researched similar projects and an immersive experience for the clients, as the others created the physical prototypes with tables, paper and pens.  A balanced team is a strong team. 

5.   Great Solutions are a process, or how one should never marry an idea

This last lesson is one that I could not stress more. Throughout the process many of us found ourselves ‘marrying’ an idea that we came up with, as we fell in love with it and perceived it as the best solution possible. Naturally, when this idea was questioned by group mates, team mates, or shut down by our clients during the early stages, we defended this idea ardently and felt hurt when it was critiqued. What we all realized in hindsight however, is that our idea may not have been so great after all, and that it had to be put it aside, or developed it into something better by combining it with other ideas, or adding new ideas to it.

The two final ideas: a three-part recycling ecosystem (interactive trashcans, an information hub, and educational robot-mascot); and an experiential rotating exhibition hub - were thus truly an amalgamation of many good ideas that were both innovative and suited to the context. Both of these ideas had been turned into two great solutions that had been developed as a group. What we learned is to fully invest oneself when working on an idea, but to never fall too in love with it so as to become blind to any issues within it or reactions to it. A good idea is simply one small part of a great solution.

In conclusion…

Today, I am proud to be part of a larger group of Doers, who are passionate about developing strong management expertise and other business abilities, but remain conscious citizens with a strong sense of social responsibility.

As we are moving towards a world where business cannot ignore society anymore, learning to see business and social impact as inseparable will be a skill that all future leaders should strive to foster. To tackle this challenge, we must learn to work in global teams, accept the increasing uncertainty of this world and focus upon the vast opportunities that exist, to make this world a better place 

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