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Creative serendipity via Zoom.

Is it possible? Or is creative collaboration simply another casualty of the COVID era?

Silicon Valley is built upon the idea that creativity often comes from serendipity. When Steve Jobs commissioned the design for Pixar headquarters, he wanted an open structure with everything converging in the atrium. He said he believed that many great ideas come from running into someone by chance on the way to the bathroom and having a spontaneous discussion. He wanted Pixar’s new building to foster those little moments of serendipity.

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Silicon Valley lore is filled with stories of serendipity, really, from that time the internet was invented over pitchers of beer in a dive bar to the fact that Larry Page and Sergey Brin met on a walk in San Francisco, got into an argument, and went on to found Google.

But now, COVID is upon us. Meetings are on Zoom. Discussions are on Slack. Chance encounters are rare. The only person you’re likely to run into on the way to the bathroom is your dog. So is collaborative creativity dead, yet another casualty of coronavirus?

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” — Steve Jobs

These were the thoughts running through my head this past Spring when I got the word from Stanford University that I’d be teaching my entrepreneurship course online. For ten years I’ve taught my course in a physical classroom on campus, and I built the entire course around the Silicon Valley notion of how magic happens. On our first session together I always tell the students that the most important thing they will get out of the course is sitting in the seats around them. I encourage them to spend the quarter getting to know each other, having meals together, going on walks around campus together, dreaming-up grand ideas together. Cross-pollination between smart passionate people is how the magic happens.

So how the hell was I going to recreate that on Zoom? How was a going to tell 50 little video images on my screen to “go make some magic together”?

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But I did my best in the Spring 2020 quarter, and then went on to conduct the Summer edition of 4thly Startup Accelerator completely on Zoom as well. I learned a lot and now, as I’m getting ready for Stanford’s Fall Quarter, I feel more prepared for delivering a decent-quality experience via Zoom.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:

  1. Set the ground rules together.
    Immersive experiences happen when you are fully immersed. They don’t happen when you are treating the Zoom call like a TV show in the background. So in our first session I suggested to the class that we create the ground rules for the quarter together. Collectively, we decided that cameras should be on for every call. No joining the call from your car, or from the bathroom, or from a friend’s party. Full immersion means being fully present. Those rules were created together, and we held each other accountable to them.
  2. Reduce lecture time, increase discussion time.
    When I teach in a normal classroom, I tend to do 45-minute lectures followed by some discussion. Via Zoom, it’s better to flip this. No one wants to sit and stare at lecture slides on their computer for 45 minutes. Better to lead with a few thoughts and then encourage discussion. Engagement matters.
  3. Use the Zoom name tag feature the way it’s supposed to be used.
    The good news is that Zoom displays each person’s name by their image. The bad news is that it displays the name you signed-on with. It might be your girlfriend’s name, or it might be your smart-ass name, or it might be some cryptic email address. Make everyone change that to their first name — the one they want to be referred to in class. If you make everyone use the feature as a classroom name tag, then “robertzundwig563@7wt.net” becomes simply “Bob”. You’ll be surprised how much this helps interaction between the participants.
  4. Breakout rooms are your friend.
    The breakout room feature on Zoom is really powerful. In my Stanford class we used it for a Design Thinking exercise where I broke everyone up into small groups, then brought them back together, then broke into small groups again. In the 4thly Accelerator I used it to randomly place people into rooms paired with others, so they could get to know each other. Nothing fosters personal connections like putting people in small rooms together. It’s a great Zoom feature — use it.
  5. Make everyone a presenter.
    I make my students each give a presentation to the whole group at least once during the quarter. Any topic they’d like. It’s part of getting to know each other, and it’s part of facilitating cross-pollination. It also switches-up the Zoom paradigm — it’s not just like watching TV, because sometimes you are the one on the TV!
  6. Silly Games.
    Well, hopefully meaningful ones, actually. At the beginning of the 4thly Accelerator I asked each participant to send me an email telling me what their personal superpower was. Toward the end of the program, after everyone had gotten to know each other a bit, I asked them to guess who said their superpower was “empathy”, who said their superpower was “spreadsheets”, etc. It was a fun way to have some laughs and see how well we had gotten to know each other via weekly Zoom calls.
  7. Connect in ways other than Zoom as well. I create a private LinkedIn group and have everyone join it so that it’s easy for the students to see each other’s professional backgrounds (you never know when you’ll need a mechanical engineer to collaborate with!). Also, we have a Slack workspace and I encourage people to message each other directly, have 2am brainstorming sessions, jump on a quick call to discuss an assignment together, etc.
  8. A thousand other ways.
    The polls feature on Zoom is a great way to get engagement. The whiteboard feature allows you to draw and others to annotate. And other video conference platforms have similar features for fostering engagement. Use them to create interactive experiences. All of these things get you away from the passive TV paradigm.

Those are some of the ways that I have found, so far, to make a virtual classroom more multidimensional and dynamic. Maybe, just maybe, a moment of creative serendipity might happen, one that would put a smile on Steve Jobs’ face. At the very least I hope I am making the online experience a little less boring and a little more meaningful.

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None of this is ever going to replace physical interaction. I do not think that online tools can ever fully replace the magic that happens when humans are physically present together. It’s hard-wired into us — our genetic history is about gathering around campfires together, telling stories, brainstorming, laughing, feeling personal chemistry and creating new ideas. That’s how humans function best.

I can’t wait until COVID is over so that we can get back in the classroom again. But until then, we have to make the most of the tools that we have. Fortunately, the tools today are pretty damn good.

Do you have ideas or experiences to share? I’d love to hear them at bret@4thly.com

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Stanford • 4thly • Miller Center

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