Reflecting on Effectual Entrepreneuring Pedagogy

I have the privilege of teaching a great group of Human Centered Design and Engineering graduate students at the University of Washington in the course “Designing a Human Centered Venture.”

Last week in our eighth class of the quarter I asked these design professionals to reflect on their effectual journey through the class to date.  What follows is my collection of notes from their diagrams and reflections on the journey.

I really enjoyed the thoughtfulness and insights of your reflections on the pilgrimage we’ve pursued this quarter in learning about the mindset of an entrepreneur and the designing of a human centered venture.  Your imagery and reflections reminded me of the start of the course when I shared David Whyte’s book of poetry Pilgrim:

“In his seventh volume of poetry, David Whyte looks at the great questions of human life through the eyes of the pilgrim: someone passing through relatively quickly, someone dependent on friendship, hospitality and help from friends and strangers alike, someone for whom the nature of the destination changes step by step as it approaches, and someone who is subject to the vagaries of wind and weather along the way.”

David Whyte's Camino

I was reminded of the connection between “Camino” and the effectual path when I encountered Ann Patchett’s What Now? in my favorite weekly blog “Brain Pickings.

“Echoing Steve Jobs, who in his own fantastic commencement address famously cautioned that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” Patchett urges these new graduates to be sure to return at some point – this, she argues, would let them reflect on the series of small choices which, as William James put it a century ago, “[spin] our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” Patchett writes:

“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours – long hallways and unforeseen stairwells – eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight – there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?”

Other excerpts from What Now?:

“Nothing at all is very much out of fashion these days, as are stillness, silence, and studied consideration. Studied consideration is hard to come by with those little iPod buds stuffed in your ears and the cell phone competing with the Internet. Perhaps we avoid the quiet because we’re afraid that the answer to What now? will turn out to be I don’t know.

“It took me a long time of pulling racks of scorching hot glasses out of the dishwasher, the clouds of steam smoothing everything around me into a perfect field of gray, to understand that writing a novel and living a life are very much the same thing. The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way.

“There’s a time in our lives when we all crave the answers. It seems terrifying not to know what’s coming next. But there is another time, a better time, when we see our lives as a series of choices, and What now? represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life. It’s up to you to choose a life that will keep expanding. It takes discipline to remain curious; it takes work to be open to the world—but oh my friends, what noble and glorious work it is.”

Your diagrams and the presentations were very helpful to me as a way to get a sense of the learning that is occurring.

The following are the images from each group and my recollections of what you presented.

The Task

The Task

The Sharing of the Journey, the Learnings and the Hassles

 Designing a Venture Class

Inbound Marketing Team Diagram

inbound marketing team

Reflections from the team:

At the bottom left of the diagram you can see how we saw ourselves at the beginning of the quarter.  The world of entrepreneurs was relatively small and we were far apart from it.  As a group, none of us had any relationship with the world of entrepreneuring.  As we moved through the quarter, the world of entrpreneurs became a larger space and we now see ourselves as being a part of that space as well.

The key learnings that we got from the quarter are:

The hassles that we had this quarter were:

  • Ambiguity
  • Inter team communication
  • Experimenting
  • What is our vision?

We were really surprised by the vision hassle.  We thought we would do it once and be done.  However, we had to keep coming back to what is our vision and revising it throughout the quarter.

By the way, do you think our tolerance for ambiguity has changed this quarter?

Skip:  I don’t know yet, but that is one of the research questions I have is whether it is possible to change the Tolerance for Ambiguity.  We will retake the survey at the end of the quarter.

Software Team Diagram

software team

Reflections from the team:

What is in green is what we’ve learned this quarter.  What is in red is the kinds of hassles we struggled with this quarter.  In the middle is the essence of what we’ve learned this quarter.  The Build and Learn loop in the middle illustrates this cycle of having to build in order to learn something and in that build/learn process it is not always clear what is chaos and what is order.

We really liked the Chaos and Order loop that David Robinson introduced us to and how easy it is to focus on the order and lose sight of how we need to keep coming back to the Chaos.

At some level, the green and red text boxes on the left and right sides of the diagram represent the duality between chaos and order.  So for example the “pressure to build the best thing possible” is balanced with the chaos of accepting that a “good enough” prototype early as a minimum viable product will help us learn more from the customers.

Carrying through the chaos/order loop is our representing those things in the middle as shapes that are partly ordered and partly chaotic.

The Crowd Sourcing Team Diagram

crowd sourcing team

Reflections from the team:

When we started the quarter, we thought that we would be following a straight line from the beginning of how to create a human centered venture to arriving at the end of the quarter with a product.  Instead, we’ve been on this spiraling unknowable journey of becoming an effectual entrepreneur.  We had the hardest time getting what it means (really understanding) to be an effectual entrepreneur and to think effectually.  It wasn’t until about week 5 that most of us finally realized in our heads and in our actions what it means to act effectually.

We really loved David’s description of storytelling as “when a yearning meets an obstacle.”  Understanding that from the beginning the effectual entrepreneur is all about story telling was a very important learning.  Through the many pitches (pitch pitch pitch pitch pitch) to attract funding and resources, to attract customers, and to attract talent, the effectual entrepreneur builds their venture.

We struggled with understanding the difference between a product vision and a business vision.

It took us a while to realize that being effectual means always prototyping and going through the trial and error process with the least cost possible.  Just like in designing, a business is also always about prototyping.

And we really liked the class about fine wine growing and “glass tasting” and having another view about what it means to “not know.”

And for our team, one of the hardest things we’ve had to overcome is the very premise of Kickstarter and the crowd sourcing sites which is how to offer a service for a product that isn’t there yet?  It is so counter-intuitive.

The Hardware Team Diagram

hardware team

Reflections from the team:

Because the other groups horded the colored markers, our color scheme isn’t as symbolic and elaborate as we would like.

What really captured us during this quarter is the challenge of finding out that “we don’t know what we don’t know.”  So for us being effectual was figuring out how to generate insights as rapidly as we could.

To help us learn faster, we realized that we had to go through the “Try <=> Fail” loop faster.  We really didn’t understand that the path to success was to fail as fast as we could – to fail forward.

Like the other teams, we realized that we needed to be story telling – with our own team and with our interactions with the other teams since they were dependent on us to come up with a WHOLE product.  Sharing with other teams was a real hassle when we were struggling (and trying to fail fast).  We didn’t want to take time to share those things that weren’t working.

As we get to the end of the quarter, we feel pretty good about how we are working as a hardware team.  However, we don’t feel as good about how we are working with the other teams.  The inter-team coordination is more difficult than we realized.  [NOTE:  This sentiment was shared by the other teams as well.]

How Will You Measure Your Life?

As we finish the quarter and as several of you are close to finishing up your Masters Degree program in HCDE, I am reminded of Clayton Christensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life?  I came across this book at the end of teaching the entrepreneurship class at UW Bothell last spring and immediately sent copies to my three children.

Christensen is the Harvard Business School professor and godfather of the revised theories of innovation which he so articulately captured in The Innovator’s Dilemma.  A couple of years ago Christensen was treated for cancer and during the treatment suffered an ischemic stroke.  During that time he wrote How Will You Measure Your life?,  based on his end of class lecture he gives to his MBA students:

“When people ask what I think they should do, I rarely answer their question directly. Instead, I run the question aloud through one of my models. I’ll describe how the process in the model worked its way through an industry quite different from their own. And then, more often than not, they’ll say, “OK, I get it.” And they’ll answer their own question more insightfully than I could have.

“My class at HBS is structured to help my students understand what good management theory is and how it is built. To that backbone I attach different models or theories that help students think about the various dimensions of a general manager’s job in stimulating innovation and growth. In each session we look at one company through the lenses of those theories—using them to explain how the company got into its situation and to examine what managerial actions will yield the needed results.

“On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not. Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes Scholar class spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.”

When you get a few moments between quarters, I would urge you to read the HBR article that led to Christensen’s book and think about the implications of how you will apply what you are learning with human centered design and effectual thinking to the rest of your career and life.

Thanks again for a great set of reflections and insights.

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Design, Human Centered Design, Teaching, University, User Experience, Working in teams. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Reflecting on Effectual Entrepreneuring Pedagogy

  1. Skip, this is an interesting reflection on your course. In both my Strategic Design Planning course and my Strategic Innovation Planning course I let students do diagrams like this as well. They will now serve as upfront inputs for the next courses in order to frame last classes´experiences.

    Referring to Christensen, I am fascinated by the idea to apply theoretical frames to oneself. It happened that I came across a similar idea and wrote a paper on it.

    In that paper I am proposing a parallel between personal transformation (as an inner modus of operandi) and design thinking (as an outer modus of operandi), with both being seen as reflections of and on each other.
    I am proposing a link between the concepts of the “psychology of the utopian personality” (Progoff, 89) that links personality and utopia by means of transformation, with one that links the ’designer’ and the ideal by means of design thinking.
    I am proposing that this concept links also forward to John Seely Brown’s “learning as a practice of becoming over and over again.” (in: Peters & Araya, xi)

    The paper is available upon request. Please send an Email to and include your contact details.

    John Seely Brown (2010) Foreword: Education in the Creative Economy. In Peters, Michael A. & Araya, Daniel (2010) Education in the Creative Economy. Knowledge and Learning in the Age of Innovation. Peter Lang Publishing Inc. New York. 2010.

    Progoff, Ira (1964) The Dynamics of Hope and the Image of Utopia. In: Vom Sinn der Utopie. Eranos-Jahrbuch 1963. Rhein-Verlag AG. Zürich. 1964.

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