Four Classroom Teaching Differentiators in a World of TikTok and Other Digital Innovations

A strategic issue that many professors face within the university is how to teach in a world when one is both competing for attention in the Digital Age and also trying to justify value-add over other methods that people can use to educate themselves. For example, people can read books. They can watch videos on TikTok or YouTube. They can take classes remotely or even do self-study using online platforms. At the core when it comes to the classroom, professors compete against other learning resources that scale dramatically and are delivered at lower cost. I am all for further development of those types of resources and educational models, recognizing their benefits, challenges, and limitations. With that as context, I wanted to share some thoughts about how a professor can differentiate themselves when it comes to the traditional classroom and adding the most value.

The digital world doesn’t necessarily scale that well when it comes to compassion and developing interpersonal relationships, so I think a first key differentiator for professors can be to try to foster a good environment that connects real people together. That means focusing on multiple connections. Connect students to one another, perhaps via icebreakers. Encourage higher-level connections by fostering team-building and having people share their wants and desires. Set up a safe environment where people can learn. Invite constructive feedback. This past week I told students that I really “loved” how some of them were really blunt about their dislike for one of the assigned readings. They provided feedback that they weren’t sure how it was relevant, and so I did my best to frame things in the proper light (e.g., some pain is good for them, here are the essentials to take away beyond the classroom). Where students are receptive, I also try to make some time for students to meet me and one another outside of the classroom (e.g., meeting for coffee, drinks, breakfast, potluck dinner).

A second idea for differentiation is related to personalization (which is something I teach in my applied behavioral economics course). While professors often have responsibilities to follow specific instruction plans, I think there may be increased opportunities for students to be able to personalize (portions) the type of instruction they would like to receive. I recently held a class that allowed students to choose one of four doors that they could open, and then I led the class discussion in a direction based on what door they voted to open. I have heard through the grapevine (i.e., in this case Reddit) about other professors creating “liquid syllabi” where students can completely edit and provide suggestions to a syllabus via Google Docs and the like. I am not sure how workable that type of approach would be in reality. However, there seems to be value to customization and personalization of instruction, which is something else that digital platforms may not be able to do as well. I also think that being able to provide feedback to students on their work is a point where professors can differentiate themselves. However, given the size of classes, number of assignments, types of assignments, etc. there can be limitations on scaling this.

A third idea is around just-in-time education and providing bite-sized snippets of education (TikTok excels at bite-sized snippets). There is so much out there for students to learn. As professors learn where students’ interests lie, what their aspirations are, and where they are having trouble, it may be possible for professors to provide mini content or crash courses on material. As an example, I have often told students that they will likely see Scrum/Agile project management methods when they go into the working world. Perhaps one of the most brilliant books I have seen is the format of the book, Scrum: a Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction by Chris Sims and Hillary Louise Johnson. The book is about 50-pages long with simple to-the-point language, a lot of cartoon-style drawings. It can be read in 20 minutes. For a classroom setting, I’ve even digested down this book further into a 2-4 minute crash intro to be delivered at the point when I sense students might need or want such information. While it may be harder for professors to compete against the digital world when it comes to delivering bite-sized, engaging information, perhaps there are opportunities to combine approaches from the digital world into the classroom (e.g., more use of Cameo, TikTok, YouTube, digital exercises/games).

A fourth area of potential differentiation is to provide students with opportunities to connect with the outside world. This could be by having guest speakers, offering unique case studies, facilitating access to projects in industry, or helping students develop new skills that can be used when they leave school (e.g., learning tools like R or Python). On the flip side to this, universities appreciate when alumni and companies can help to enrich the student classroom. Possible ways to help include donating money, sponsoring/hosting student projects, guest speaking, and offering to provide materials that can be used in the classroom. I am very thankful to people at companies like Acorns, Personal Capital, Telefonica, Vitality, Voya, and others for helping both me and my students with their learning journeys.

One of my aspirations in life is to give back to students and enrich their lives in some way. I am evolving my thinking on the best ways to teach in the classroom, so I welcome ideas and feedback. At some point, I also hope to think about how to extend teaching beyond the traditional classroom. Perhaps a topic for a future post.

Giving Students an Opportunity to Customize Their Classes

This past week I tried an experiment of allowing students to customize a portion of a 2.5 hour class. Students were given an option to “open” one of four doors, and then I would lead the class discussion in a direction based on what door they voted to open:

  • Door 1: Experiential activity (P2P-related)
  • Door 2: Agile/Scrum crash course (team-related, something you will likely encounter in business)
  • Door 3: Chapter 1 & 2 quiz “show”
  • Door 4: Idea on prospecting for research host

As an example, for Door 3 students could put me in the hotspot by having me present a short piece of research and then quiz me based on concepts in Chapters 1 and 2 of the course book.

The voting didn’t quite go as I expected it would. Students chose Door 1 over Door 3. Perhaps list item primacy effects? Perhaps they were caught off guard by being given this choice in the first place?

You might be thinking, “what was behind Door 1?” Well students got to role play that they were fishing together. They got to try different communication modes based on concepts from improv (e.g., “Yes, and”). The goal of the exercise was to help people develop better team communication styles as an early part of the process of forming project teams.

Regardless, in the end I think students had a good experience. Only time will tell I suppose.

Reflections on My Roles and Purposes as a Teacher (A Personal Manifesto)

As we prepare to head into the 2022 fall semester at Cornell, I wanted to jot down some key thoughts on my roles and purposes as a teacher.

  • I care about my students and want to help them to learn something, go as far as they they are willing and able to go my classes, and be better prepared to achieve their goals in life.
  • While I have training as an academic and respect and nurture those skills, given that most of my students will be on professionally-destined tracks post-Cornell, I hope to bring to bear my experiences and insights from working for many years in the commercial world. In my past classes, students have told me that this is one of my big differentiators as a professor.
  • Being part of a university requires me to grade students. Admittedly, this process makes me uncomfortable. Comfort and grades aside, I will try to provide students with as much feedback, support, and encouragement as my role will allow me to do.
  • While I know a good deal about some things, I don’t know everything. In fact, I know close to nothing about many things. I have limits, and when I run into them, I will try to leverage my resourcefulness to try to point you in the right direction.
  • We will learn things together. I will learn from you, and I hope you will learn some from me, the other instructors, teaching assistants, and your classmates. We have a connection as aspiring people and through Cornell. Let’s make the most of our limited time together, through the good and the bad.
  • The fall is upon us, and I am ready to be on “team you”.

PhD Seminar on Nudging and the Field: Birdseye’s View from a Practitioner-Researcher

Presenter: Steve Shu

Seminar Purpose: To introduce PhD students in Behavioral Decision Making to key considerations and processes for pursuing field research projects with corporations.

Seminar Agenda (3 hours):

Part 1: Academic Realm – What do researchers care about and what strategies do they use to proceed with research?

  • Qualitative review of academic researcher needs
  • Discussion of research platforms
  • Open discussion on field versus lab research

Part 2: Company Realm – What strategies can companies use to develop the right level of commitment and fortitude for behavioral science initiatives?

  • What it takes to get behavioral science initiatives implemented
  • Behavioral GRIT™ concept for planning
  • Role of information, choice, and process architecture during planning
  • Role of mass and personalized concepts during planning
  • Blindspots

Part 3: Field Research Case Examples – How might one both succeed and avoid trouble?

  • Case 1: Lens on the business development process and pitching research ideas to corporate hosts and collaboration partners
  • Case 2: Lens on a large enterprise host, aligning goals, working implementation details, and leveraging opportunities
  • Case 3: Lens on the digital world and a venture-backed host

What Are The Best Management Consulting Books?

There are four books that I recommend as core to the generic practice of consulting. These are:

  1. The McKinsey Way by Ethan Rasiel
  2. Process Consultation by Edgar Schein (dry read)
  3. Flawless Consulting by Peter Block (optional and highly recommended for those coming from engineering versus consulting backgrounds)
  4. The Pyramid Principle:Logic In Writing and Thinking (for managers & consultants especially) by Barbara Minto

Beyond the generic core, there are three major dimensions that come to the top of my mind when considering practitioner-level knowledge of the management consulting space:

I have developed a working reading list that attempts to cover many of the areas above. It is a list for entry-level to advanced management consultants. It can be found here.

And for those readers seeking books and information on getting a job with a consulting firm, there are a number of other books out there. One site that sells such a book (“The Consulting Interview Bible“) is ManagementConsulted. As an aside, back in 2009 Kevin Gao (ex-McKinseyite) interviewed me for ManagementConsulted’s Life as a Consultant series.

The best historical account of the consulting industry I’ve read is The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World by Walter Kiechel

Finally, I just released a book entitled The Consulting Apprenticeship. The book focuses on nuances passed on during apprenticeship and complements the four books I mention at the beginning of this post or can be read standalone. More info at

The Consulting Apprenticeship is available for purchase at Amazon.

Edit (November 28, 2017): I just completed a new book, So What Strategy by Davina Stanley and Gerard Castles. The two authors began their consulting careers at McKinsey & Company (communications specialists). The book is thematically aligned with the books above, and I’ve written a review of the book here: The So What Strategy – A Highly Recommended Book for Business Communications. I also recommend considering their online courses here.

Book Review of “The New How” (Business Strategy Book)

It is atypical for me to write a book review for this blog, but Nilofer Merchant’s “The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy” is very respectable contribution to both audiences of this blog and the process of strategy development in general. In particular, the book does two important things beyond other strategy books:

  • it breaks down the ivory tower of centralized strategy and addresses, in detail, the roles and responsibilities that each employee must fulfill in the new model, and
  • the book explicitly documents a collaborative process that one can use to develop strategy, a process which from my vantage point has only been addressed either through mentorship and transfer of tacit knowledge or in fragments within other documents.

The book divides strategy into two domains – 1) where a company competes, and 2) how a company competes. The premise of the book is that the former topic (where a company competes) is well-addressed by existing strategy books, such as those by Porter, Chan, Kim, and Mauborgne. Nilofer’s book addresses the gap in business texts regarding the latter topic, which includes day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter strategies, such as “how do we grow sales of product XYZ” or “how do we grow sales of division Y by Q%?”  As she writes, “One person’ strategy is another’s tactics. The unnecessary and fruitless war of what is tactics or strategy or execution must end.”

Part 1 of the book provides a call to action for individual employees and leaders. But the book goes further by providing specific responsibilities that each person must fulfill. Where I admire the book is in its approach to addressing each employee’s role. Whereas “older” methods of strategy may have been focused on executive management teams, this book provides context, terminology, and frameworks for educating a broader audience. As an aside, I am also struck by the fact that Nilofer does a good job of incorporating concepts of improvisation into the strategy development process, culture, and mindset of employees. Improvisation is especially a soft spot for me given my involvement with Business Improvisations, a collaboration between business academics and improvisation instructors which helps companies in areas such as innovation, leadership, teamwork, etc. through customized, experiential learning sessions.

Part 2 of the book goes into greater detail on process of strategy development. It breaks down the process into four major areas:

  • Question Phase – articulating the problem scope and assessing the current state of the organization
  • Envision Phase – creating options for the organization developing criteria that would be used to evaluate options
  • Select Phase – using a “MurderBoarding” process to sort, tune, fix, etc. options
  • Take Phase – creating accountability, identifying who does what, and getting down to interdependencies and execution.

Although the book goes into much greater detail on all of these areas (with specific examples, charts, tables, etc.), one of my favorite charts is the MurderBoarding overview chart (copyright image reproduced below from “The New How” via permission from Nilofer Merchant). I often find this part of the strategy development process to be at risk of falling apart – this part of the strategy process is inherently messy, and unless the team focuses on a disciplined reference framework (like the one here), it becomes too tempting and easy to try to cut corners. Look carefully at the chart and see if you have been tempted to cut corners in the process. For example, did you forget to test the idea in part before finalizing the strategy? Or did you forget to vet and refine the criteria used to evaluate a strategic option?

Diag018Even as an experienced management consultant and manager, I would highly recommend this book (I’ve also added it to my popular Crash Course Consulting Reading List). The book is practical and covers a body of knowledge that has been largely undocumented to date. Whether one explicitly uses the processes Nilofer describes, the book still provides a good framework for assessing how one is doing. This book is well-suited for corporate executives, strategic planners, general managers, and management consultants. It would also be good as a textbook to supplement strategy and/or consulting courses.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts!

What I Didn’t Learn In Business School I Learned From Improvisation Instructors

Well I suppose technically speaking I learned this as part of instructional and experiential sessions at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and Duke's Fuqua School of Business, but I didn't pick up improvisation instruction at the Chicago Booth School of business more than a decade ago when I first got my MBA (side note: a cohesive mix of business theory and improv training definitely would have been good for prepping the cohorted classes).

Without getting technical and being too precise, what does improvisation mean to me (apologies to my mentors for cutting corners)? To me improvisation is about reacting in the moment at the top of one's intelligence and skills to serve not oneself but the greater good.

But there is a lot of confusion about what improvisation (or improv) means. Does is mean "acting" and "being funny"? No. Does it mean "making it up as you go along"? No.

Considering that I am a jazz drummer (long-time hobbyist), I would have thought I understood what the term improvisation means. After all, improvisation is something that is done in jazz music (e.g., bop, fusion) all the time.

I am realizing that improvisation is really a general foundational skillset and knowledge area that gets augmented by domain-specific areas. So "jazz improvisation (on the drums)" builds on concepts of core improvisation by adding things like common ride cymbal and snare drum comping patterns, song structure, phrasing, and supporting the band (above all). On the other hand, "improv acting" can include other concepts and specializations such as "physicality" (which seems to be about making it seem like you are interacting with real physical objects on stage when there is only thin air) and even "improv musicals".

As such, business improvisation is about taking improv concepts, developing specific specialties, and applying them in business situations. So core concepts of business improvisation can be further developed in areas such as creativity and innovation, teamwork & communication, change management, crisis management, merger integration, and conflict management. To take it a step further, these applications can be further used in situations related to sales & marketing, customer care, operations, and general management.

So what did I learn from my improvisation and business academic mentors? A lot, but here I'll share the tip of one area. It's about focus (of attention). Focus is something that needs to be worked on very consciously. And for me, there are elements of situational specifics. So for example, focus in a jazz improv session (a la Miles Davis) is different from focus in a sales meeting and which is different from focus in the household when you are talking with family. One can take one's skills too much for granted and move on autopilot. So a potential hazard of expertise is that one loses focus and/or one falls into the same habits. Improving focus requires constant work. And while I may go into more detail in a later post, some key elements of tweaking focus are around warming-up and supporting the team (and building on ideas).

Note: I have recently taken on a fractional, management role with a firm specializing in business improvisation training and human capital program development. If you want to learn more about programs that can be developed for your organization, please feel free to contact me. Thanks!


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