Advice from a Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp Alumnus

My bootcamp experience started with a mindset.

I was a student at Dal one year into my second undergraduate. I had already been the “super student” in my first degree.  I knew I could lock myself in a comfortable place, study for an hour or two every day, and nail the midterms as they came. But other than a degree with the word “honours” on it and a GPA that was supposed to indicate my capabilities moving forward, what else did I have? Computer science was a more practical field. I decided to come to Dal and supplement my skills in the sciences. I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “super student” anymore. Instead, I was going to devote my time to building up a set of practical skills that I could take with me when I left. Learning to program was part of it, but the real challenge was building my network of people. I wanted to have connections that could take what I’d learned farther than I could on my own. It was with this in mind that I read an email from ShiftKey Labs inviting students to apply for the Nova Scotia Sandboxes Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp. I applied the same day.

For me, preparation began before I was accepted. I told the manager at my kitchen job that I might need the time off. I told my partner that I might be staying in Wolfville for the first two weeks of May. And then the wait began. First, I received a letter that I had been shortlisted. We had a few days to answer some interview questions which would determine whether we made the final cut. I talked to my co-workers about each question, trying to get an idea of what the interviewers were looking for. The question I remember most was something along these lines: “Think of a time when you failed at something. What was your reaction? How did you respond?”.

My co-workers told me they were probably looking for me to show that I can take failure and turn it into something positive.  I agreed and tried to reflect that in my answer. I wrote about doing poorly in a chemistry course in my final year of my first degree. A few more days passed before I received another email: I had been waitlisted.

I interpreted this as a failure. After all, why would anyone go through the second stage of the application process and turn down their spot? Despite my answer to the interview question, I didn’t turn this failure into a positive.  I dissected each of my answers, wondering what I had done wrong. Confused and defeated, I went to sleep that night thinking of how to go about telling my manager that I would need to work those two weeks after all.

When I woke up the next morning, I had another email stating that I had been accepted into the program. My disappointment turned to shocked and excitement. I booked my bus ticket to Wolfville, packed my bags, and mentally prepared to put all of my energy into the bootcamp for two weeks straight. I was going to learn everything this bootcamp had to teach me and make as many new friends as I possibly could.

Our first night was filled with icebreakers. The one I remember the most was where we had to introduce ourselves along the lines of “I’m Alex and I want to go to Ireland” (that was my actual introduction and I did indeed go to Ireland later that year). But before you introduced yourself, you had to go around the circle introducing everyone else who had gone before you. It has been almost a year since that first night and I still remember that Kyle wanted to go the moon.

Our first night ended in Wolfville at Paddy’s Pub where we continued to get to know each other after the icebreakers were finished. I was stricken by the different backgrounds of people attending – we had people from college, undergraduates, and master’s degrees with backgrounds in psychology, English, business, computer science, agriculture, geography, and more! Every single person had something unique to contribute to our knowledge pool and I went to bed that night with an empowered feeling that I could learn something from all of them. I could have told you then that Bootcamp would change my life but that was just the beginning.

I won’t write a lot about the bootcamp’s content – I went in with almost no idea of what we were going to learn and I think that made it more valuable. Design thinking is a powerful skillset that makes it possible to generate many ideas in the hopes that one idea will be great. Dr. Jenny Baechler, who leads the main workshops, is an incredible speaker. What she had to say has influenced the way I approach problem solving in almost all aspects of my life. The Sandbox Managers were there to support us the entire time and – even more importantly – would also be there at our respective schools after the bootcamp was over. We spent our two weeks trying to design something that would help people in Wolfville to properly recycle. That was our theme, but the skills we learned were much more universal.

Over the two weeks, I made 50 new friends. We still talk and I make a point to see them whenever they’re around. Every time we ate at the Wheelock Dining Hall, I made a point to sit with people I hadn’t sat with before. We went dancing at The Vil even if we were the only ones there. I went hiking in places I had never seen before. We dressed a person as a robot and had them wander around Wolfville telling terrible jokes about recycling. It didn’t matter how late we stayed out or how early we had to get up – there was always a reason to be excited for the next morning.

One mantra of bootcamp was to fail early, fail often, and succeed sooner.  If I could rewrite my initial application now, I would write about how failure is the key to getting rid of an idea that won’t work and welcoming in an idea that will. And with the view that failure is an opportunity to grow, there are no wrong choices I can make. Each step is always a step forward.

Here is my advice to people thinking of going to the bootcamp:

  1. Don’t go because of the money. Money can come from almost anything you devote your time to, so choose the bootcamp because it offers something else that is valuable to you.
  2. Be prepared to meet passionate, enthusiastic, incredible people who will have a different way of looking at the world than you do. These can be some of the most important relationships you will make in your life.
  3. The experience is entirely dependent on the effort you put into it. Remember that if you are accepted, someone else is missing out on this opportunity. Make sure that you get more from the bootcamp than somebody who may not have been accepted would have.
  4. You will learn a lot in a short amount of time. You will likely leave the bootcamp feeling different than when you started and only the people who were there with you will really be able to understand it. Know that those people will always be there for you and that change is a good thing.

If Creativity and Innovation Bootcamp sounds like something you would be interested in applying to, you can apply online here before March 25th, 2019.

The Sandbox Discover Program: Creativity is for Everyone

Drawing comics, writing stories, and designing products are all examples of tasks that require a high level of creativity. Anything with an artistic component usually brings some form of creativity to our mind. It makes sense – creation is inherent in the artistic process. And because creativity is so salient in the artistic professions, it can easy to forget how important it is in other places. Surgeons, teachers, and chefs all apply creativity in their day-to-day professions. There are always new medical technologies being developed, new teaching methods demonstrating difficult concepts, and new dishes showing up in two-minute videos on Facebook. At the core of each of these is innovation. And in every innovator, there is an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship isn’t the first thing that comes mind in association with creativity but it’s certainly not a large mental leap. Entrepreneurs have to be creative. They design new products and services to solve problems in a world full of other peoples’ solutions. Often, the difference between a successful and unsuccessful entrepreneur is the ability to create a product or service that stands out from the rest. In doing so, a successful entrepreneur is creating something that hasn’t been created before.

If you wouldn’t describe yourself as a creative person, you’re not alone. In fact, some studies even suggest that creativity in North America is declining. But research also shows that people’s beliefs about their own creative potential don’t correlate with their actual performance on creative tasks. So, if you look at a piece of play-dough and don’t see the statue of David waiting to be carved out, don’t fret!

Creativity can be as easy as combining word stacks. In this challenge, Discoverers were asked to quickly draw random combinations of adjectives, nouns, and verbs. How would you draw a happy dragon flying? How about shy toaster drinking?

This term, ShiftKey Labs is offering the Sandbox Discover program to help entrepreneurs in Halifax to re-discover their creative potential. We say re-discover because there is a creative person inside all of us. At some point, when we were all children, we could look at a rectangular blob of clay and see a rabbit with lasers shooting out of its ears. That creative eye fades over time – often resulting from a fear of judgement. We don’t want to talk about our ideas until we know it’s the best idea. We don’t want to put forward an idea that is destined to fail. The blob of clay becomes a rectangle because we fear that nobody else will see the rabbit.

Sandbox Discover is a seven-week program led by Dr. Jenny Baechler that teaches elements of design thinking to budding entrepreneurs. Our first week was a crash course on design thinking. If you’ve never heard of design thinking (or human-centric design, if you prefer), it’s an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes quantity over quality in the early stages of creation. By observing problems in the world as they happen, we look to the people experiencing those problems to find inspiration for a solution.

Dr. Jenny Baechler leading the crash course on design thinking.

So maybe you want to help the city of Halifax become more environmentally friendly. That’s a big task. Instead of tackling the issue head-on, design thinking would encourage you to go out to places that could use some assistance. Maybe it’s a library, the boardwalk, or restaurants downtown. At each of those places, you might see people leaving garbage at tables. Maybe you notice that garbage cans are not easily found from the places where people are sitting. Or maybe you notice that there isn’t a problem with garbage. At this stage of innovation, you’re not looking for problems or solutions – you’re looking for observations to bring back to the drawing board for inspiration.

Sending people out into the real world is exactly what we had the students do in our second week of the program. Our problem was how to enhance group experiences for students at Dalhousie University. We sent our Discoverers out in groups to make observations at each of the buildings on campus. After 20 minutes, many had only observed an empty atrium, making observations about the layout of the building instead of how people were interacting. At this stage, an empty room is just as valuable as a full one. After all, it could reveal that a problem for groups at Dalhousie is a lack of places to congregate. After discussion of our findings (and some free pizza!), the night was finished.

Finally, in our most recent session, we took our observations back to the lab and started to come up with insights. Maybe the atrium in the Killam was empty because people didn’t feel welcome in the evening hours. Or maybe people were just at class. Insights don’t necessarily have to be right. They’re just a way of taking the observations we make and trying to synthesize knowledge from them. As the mantra of design thinking goes, Discoverers tried to generate as many insights as they could in order to have as much to work with as possible.

Design thinking is about using our observations to ask questions. By generating as many questions as possible, we increase the chances that our questions will spark an idea!

The Sandbox Discover program is free, includes pizza and pop each week, and occurs every Wednesday from 6:00 – 8:00pm in ShiftKey Labs (Goldberg Computer Science Building, Room 426). You can register online for it or even just show up at the door! If you’re worried about having missed the first few weeks of the program, fear not! Each workshop is modular, meaning they are independent of the material discussed in other workshops. Our last week of the program will be a three-hour Design Challenge that brings everything together from the previous sessions. Those who attended the majority of the previous sessions will certainly have an edge over those who did not, but we welcome everybody to try and apply design thinking to the task!

Our Sandbox Discoverers at work! Thank you to Shivam Mahajan for taking this fantastic photo!

So if free pizza, a wonderful learning environment, and valuable knowledge sound like something you’d be interested in, join us next Wednesday! At our next session, we’re really starting to see how design thinking helps us to generate ideas. Expect to see many sticky notes, hear (and encourage) ridiculous ideas, and experience how design thinking truly does spark innovation in everyone’s mind!I

Play is an Essential Part of Failure: Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing

If you’ve ever been around children while they’re playing tag, you’ve probably had to make a difficult interpretation. Are they screaming because they’re having fun? Or are they screaming because they’re terrified and need help? Without context, it can be really difficult to tell the difference. Play is frequently reminiscent of behaviours that are dangerous or just plain boring. Have you ever seen a toddler playing with dolls? It boils down to changing the doll’s clothes or pretending to go to work – things that, in reality, are just uneventful rituals of our daily lives. As adults, the behaviours we pretended to do when we played as kids become the norm. Picking out a shirt in the morning isn’t the fun process that it was with the dolls because we do it every day.

Play, at its core, is one of the most difficult-to-interpret behaviours that a living creature can exhibit. If you’ve ever witnessed two dogs playing, it can look vicious. They snarl, bite, and the noises they make can even be scary if you don’t know them well. In fact, modern psychology views play as a learning tool for practicing behaviours that won’t be necessary until later. Tag looks so much like running from a predator because that’s exactly what it is emulating. Play is the reason we don’t have to teach ourselves how to run and scream when a predator really does come our way.

If you can subscribe to this interpretation of play, then it shouldn’t be a huge leap to see how play helps us even in our adult lives. But, at some point, playing tag and dress-up became a thing that kids do and we don’t. Is there really any reason for that? The desire to play is still there. Video games and organized sports are still fun for adults, after all.

So where did the toys and the children’s games go? Why did they stop becoming as much fun as they used to be? One way to interpret it is this: we stop playing tag because we’ve already learned to run as fast as we can. We stop playing dress-up because we know what kind of clothes we like to put on in the morning. Now that we’ve got the basics down, play takes a different form of modeling the other behaviours we still need to practice. For programmers, this might be fooling around with a new programming language. For artists, it could be drawing exaggerated, ridiculous creatures that never make it to the final draft. This is the most important part of play: it gives us a circumstance in which failure is okay. In fact, it’s even encouraged.

There are several reasons why the majority of start-ups fail. Here at ShiftKey Labs, we completely embody the philosophy that failure should be an integral part of developing any business idea. However, if failure is going to happen, it should be early enough in the development of your idea that the consequences aren’t severe. And how do we ensure that failure happens early? We play, of course!

This isn’t to say that students at ShiftKey Labs are running around playing tag (although, under the right circumstances, they could be). Instead, play could involve making a cardboard cut-out of a fake phone with paper screens to simulate how an app might work. It could be roleplaying a phone call to a new pizza delivery service. If it seems silly, it should. If we are simulating an environment where failure is an encouraged option, then that environment should positive, fun, and contain at least a little laughter. Play makes it hilarious when you realize that you forgot to add a button to bring your user back to the main menu. And, more importantly, play makes it easy to modify your idea when it does fail. It is so much easier to add a paper screen to your cardboard phone than to program a button into your app.

Encouragement to fail even extends beyond modifying just one idea. Part of the design process involves generating as many ideas as possible. Some of those ideas might not be practical, plausible, or even possible. Maybe that edible pizza box just isn’t sanitary. But ridiculous ideas can be a great place to start. After all, a blank page can be so much more intimidating than one full of scribbles. Students who come into the lab almost never end with the idea they started with. Sometimes, ideas have to be scrapped. Sometimes, a great idea has already been done. It happens to the best of us. But it’s how we move on in the face of failure that matters so much more. Having a drawing board with more ideas ready to try out means that failure is taking a few steps back instead starting at the beginning. And if we’re going to fail, we should probably do it with a smile on our face.

So prepare for failure. Embrace it. Have fun with it. ShiftKey Labs is one of the Nova Scotia Sandboxes for exactly that reason. Build a sand castle. Laugh when the tide washes it way. Reshape it. Rebuild it. Build a moat to protect it from the water. We believe that if you can play with failure, you’ll have built your sand empire by the end of the day.