IDEAS2010 winners retreat reflections

IDEAS held its annual winners retreat May 25-26 at the always welcoming and excellent MIT Endicott House in Dedham. Over the course of two days, participants were asked to work with their team members and fellow winners to plan their next year of work, with an eye toward long-term impacts.

Although we didn’t get around to some of the more adventurous options like firewalking and gravity-less flight we had a great time interacting across discussions and activities like:

  • Project roadmap: plan the ultimate outcomes you envision for your project, and wrap around each the objectives, activities, resources, and timeline necessary to achieve those goals. Laura Sampath, International Development Initiative manager and Daphne Dhao, MIT alum and superstar IDEAS volunteer, led great discussions and workshops that privided practical tools for project planning, including a discussion of “Asking the right questions.”

  • Team building: Roy Charrette of Training Path led us through an engaging and fun set of activities designed to reinforce important principles of good communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. Despite the 90 degree weather, team building always provides a welcome and refreshing break from the more cerebral work of project planning.
  • Resourcing projects: We were all flagging a bit by the time dinner wrapped up, but nonetheless somehow endured a solid hour and a half discussion around ways to meet the financial, material, human, and organizational needs of teams as they grow. Lots of great resources across the MIT community and beyond were surfaced. We’ll be consolidating these and kicking them back out to everyone in the coming days.
  • Working in the community context: inventor and instructor Amy Smith (IDEAS, D-Lab, and IDDS founder), Scot Frank (IDEAS winner and Global Villages coordinator in the Department of Engineering), and Jose Gomez-Marquez (IDEAS winner and founder of Innovations in International Health at MIT) led great discussions around how to think about and navigate working in the community context, providing great lessons and insights from their own work across health, economic development, agricultural processing, and energy projects spanning Uganda to Nicaragua to Tibet.
  • Working with IDEAS: Jen Cook, PSC office manager extraordinaire, provided a very practical and essential guide to working with IDEAS – from accessing award funds to planning international travel. This was definitely one of the sessions that provoked the most questions and clarification – who doesn’t want to know more about how to spend their IDEAS award!

I learned a lot from this year’s teams. In particular, one of the “aha’s” that surfaced for me is the implicit tension between participatory development approaches – where inventors, entrepreneurs, problem-solvers – listen carefully to the needs of communities and co-create with them solutions to those problems, and effective project planning – through which we develop clear milestones to great ideas that we’re looking to bring to communities to address their problems.

Solutions? One is to keep your approach as flexible as you can. Create opportunities for community-wide conversation and planning early in the life of your project, and ensure that you have the right disposition and mechanisms in place to account for new information.

Another insight I gained from this group is the value of cross-team idea generation and exchange. We often focus really heavily on supporting teams to strengthen their internal  capacity to carry out their work, and don’t create enough space for teams to share information and advice with each other. In this case, the value was demonstrated during our discussion of resources teams can look to for support – it was amazing to learn that students are deeply connected to initiatives like IEEE’s Humanitarian Network and prizes. We need to do more to surface these exchanges.

Some thoughts for next year? Lots, but a few highlights:

  • Find the resources to lengthen the retreat. The first day is a long day, and folks need more time to enjoy the spectacular Endicott grounds while getting to know each other. There’s also an appetite for more work time.
  • Involve mentors. It would be great to involve folks who have been involved in earlier activities like judging. I’d like to see if they’d join us as team mentors for the duration of the retreat, working side by side in planning and problem solving.
  • Integrate documentation early. Find a way to introduce tools like Google Docs, Basecamp, or other basic shared tools so that teams can establish the modes and habits of project documentation and communication from the start.
  • Create pitches. It would be fun to wrap the session with a staged project pitching session that would set team up for success at venues like Pecha Kucha Nights, O’Reilly Ignite forums and others where they can pitch and network.

Alright, that all folks. I have to get back to work.