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Teaching the Next Generation of Strategists by Living Our Values
By Lirra Hill, Director + Matt Bodien, Associate Director
Lirra: When a former grad school classmate of mine reached out looking for instructors for the inaugural class of Strategists at the Denver Ad School, I immediately felt the nervous excitement that happens before something momentous. Though I’ve mentored colleagues many times through the years, I’d yet to codify that knowledge into anything remotely close to a curriculum. How do you teach the intangibles of strategy and insight? What are the fundamentals, and where does one begin?
Looking back at it now, I realize how big of a role Egg’s company values played in the journey that unfolded. From designing the curriculum and being thoughtful about collaboration with colleagues to dancing around mishaps, living Egg’s values proved they truly are more than words on our website with relevance beyond our immediate day-to-day.
To me, good strategy has always started with good research. If you aren’t asking the right questions, your answers are moot at best, and misleading at worst. At Egg, even our pure strategy and innovation projects begin with research – it’s core to the Creative Rigor that sets any Egg project apart. So, I elected to teach Research Methods I, a sweeping 10-week overview of the critical research skills any junior planner or strategist might need to hit the ground running.
Genuine Collaboration is something that I try to live and breathe daily, being firmly in the camp that multiple minds lead to better, stronger, and smarter thinking. So, I applied it here too, realizing this was not a task I wanted to tackle alone. Luckily my colleague, Matt Bodien, is not only a brilliant strategic thinker, but also a former Teach for America fellow. He’d been in a classroom before and immediately shared proven teaching theory and methods that would lay the foundation of our course design. For both of us, having another brain to volley ideas, gut check rationale, and harken back to our own novice days was not only a relief, but a boon.
Matt: As I was learning how to teach math to high schoolers, I internalized the power of discovery, inquiry, and finding the wrong answer for math problems. In this approach, referred to as inquiry- or discovery-based learning, we gave students big, juicy real-life problems and coached them to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why (versus “solve for x!”). The benefit of this approach is that it facilitates development of higher-order thinking skills – the ability to draw connections, make judgements, and generate new thinking. It makes math a creative process instead of a game of memorizing rules.
When Lirra and I sat down to start to define the intangibles of strategy, I made my case for using the same discovery-based approach. Lirra, showcasing her usual flare for Courageous Thinking, agreed and we set off to “flip the formula” on teaching research and insights. Instead of starting small with things like “vocabulary to know” or even “the steps of research,” we started big. With only a little bit of context, we asked our students in class #1 to take a stab at deriving insights. We knew it was a tall ask and students might get “wrong” answers. But that was the point. Knowing why something is “wrong” is just as important to know why something is “right.”
Lirra: Part of demonstrating Infectious Leadership is knowing when you may not have all the answers, which is something we also wanted to share with our students. Due to pandemic precautions, our course was 100% virtual. There were a few silver linings to this format, one of which was the ease in featuring guest speakers. Including guests throughout helped first provide students with myriad viewpoints and personal anecdotes and also allowed us to lean into the expertise of those with greater experience in certain areas than our own. Tim Donza, Egg’s Managing Director of Lifestyle, dropped in for an hour to talk about moderation and Erica Foster, a Quant Associate Director, taught the fundamentals of questionnaire development and segmentation analysis.
Matt: In teaching, as in our work at Egg, things will never go perfectly as planned, requiring a healthy dose of Creativity with Purpose. The best teachers are adept at adapting on the fly to address their students’ needs, meeting them where they are and pushing them the right amount. In at least a few occasions during our 10 weeks of class, Lirra and I noticed a disconnect between us, the content, and our students. Often, this was due to us glossing over a point too quickly or not providing enough structure for feedback, but it always involved a feeling that things weren’t clicking. Though the “fix” always varied, the solution always included recognition that our plan wasn’t working, and that was perfectly OK.
Mid-way through the quarter, one of our students had a business idea targeted at a specific population she didn’t have direct ties to. We coached her to design recruiting criteria that was Intentionally Inclusive and a discussion guide that directly challenged stereotypes and biases. With this intentional research design, she learned the pitfalls of assigning one’s own value system onto others, discovering that her idea wasn’t going to meet any of this group’s needs or desires. She ultimately pivoted away from her idea, which reminded us all to keep challenging assumptions and unpacking our own biases, conscious or unconscious.
Lirra: Before we knew it, 10 weeks had flown by and we wanted to reflect, iterate, and amend to ensure our next cohort of students got the best we could offer. It should come as no surprise that we started with…research. Providing an anonymous forum to pass along candid feedback was an important step in optimizing our lectures, assignments, and teaching style. We also did some self-reflection and triangulating with the program director to see where we could re-order topics and provide more opportunities for cross-class reinforcement. We’re excited to continue the journey this fall.
On a final note, if we had any lingering doubts about getting through to our students, their response to our final question assured us that the next generation of Strategists were well on their way.
Q: What advice would you give students taking this class next?
Insights don’t mean data. It’s your thought/opinion/recommendation based on that data. Once you know that, it will help you in all your assignments this quarter. -First Quarter Strategy Student