Jump-Start Books for Consulting Project Classes

I teach a couple of consulting projects-type courses at Cornell. One is a Grand Challenges capstone-class for Dyson undergraduates in helping companies and organizations address one or more of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The other is a flagship-project class that is part the Masters in International Management program as part of the global CEMS Alliance, and it involves student collaborations and exchanges with 33 other top business schools and universities.

Each of these cohorts has different team compositions, problem statements, and situations to address for their client. Projects can involve diverse topics like addressing sustainability of the food supply chain and manufacturing capacity, promoting economic development and greater social equality in another continent, customer and market fit of a new product, workforce evolution given Gen Z, or marketing, branding, and product strategy for an international company.

Although projects are diverse and hard to find common bases of foundational knowledge, I have found it helpful to have bite-sized jump start material to help students get grounded. As part of the core, I have provided excerpts from my own book on bread and butter consulting concepts (for free), references to The So What Strategy for consultative communications, and a breathtaking short pocket reference to Scrum. These are all quite short books as evidenced by the spine thickness. People don’t have a lot of time to read given the heft and time pressures of projects.

Given that quite a few projects involve customer discovery, market fit, and/or diverse constituent interviews, I have decided to also add “Talking to Humans” as part of the reference books that I’ll draw from for these courses. It is a quick read book that can be completed in 1-2 hours. And it can be a great book to go back to for quick reference before doing any qualitative customer / product research.

Reflections on Hong Kong UST DBA Program Session

This past week I gave a talk to students part of the Hong Kong UST DBA Program regarding implementing behavioral finance initiatives in companies. The talk covered some case studies that varied in different dimensions relative to the degree of integration of science and degree of organizational complexity. I have often emphasized that organizations that want to implement behavioral initiatives need to consider dimensions of Goals, Research, Innovation, and Testing (GRIT) among other behavioral-specific considerations (e.g., choice, information, process, and personalization architecture).

However, one of the most striking parts of the discussion for me surrounded the notion of ethics, which has come up a number of times in my discussion with students.

Although I was only able to touch on two angles in my HKUST talk, for the core classes I teach, I offer at least three different lenses for thinking about behavioral economics and ethics: 1) goal alignment between the company and the end user, 2) nature of behavioral intervention design (e.g., how much control does it exert), and 3) moral foundations and considerations (e.g., care/harm, fairness).

There are clearly other considerations that could come into play (e.g., to what extent comfortable sharing behavioral intervention thinking publicly; legal versus ethical 2×2). However, it is good that students think through ethical considerations. Things aren’t always as black and white as we’d might like, so it’s important to have multiple lenses through which one can evaluate situations.

Short Blurb for Behavioral Economics and Human Behavior Project Course (AEM 4000, Spring 2023 at Cornell University)

For Dyson students looking to get a short summary of what is different about my AEM 4000 section, here is short blurb:

The theme for this section is around Behavioral Economics and Human Behavior. This section is designed to introduce students to the field of behavioral economics and how it can help us understand and influence human behavior. Through a combination of lectures, discussions, and hands-on projects, students will learn about key concepts like heuristics and biases and how to apply some of the ideas to real-world situations. Students are not expected to have prior training in behavioral economics. Core training will be delivered through lectures, discussions, and reading assignments. Topics will include heuristics, biases, role of behavioral architecture, and consultative methods. Core training will also cover selected behavioral economics cases that address societal issues, which can enhance creativity and help students to take broader perspective on the application of behavioral principles. In addition to the core training, students will work on sponsored projects. While the problem statement and deliverables for sponsored projects vary by semester, each project should involve applying principles from at least one area of consumer research, behavioral research, behavioral audits, experimental testing, and/or solution design. Students will receive project support to help with skills development, knowledge development, and project navigation (e.g., through coaching, pointers to prior research insights and frameworks).

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