How does it feel to teach at Harvard University?

I have always resisted the temptation to create my bucket list but surely, if had to create one, I would have in it the participation to a Harvard course. I am passionate about education and I am passionate about American movies, so I guess you can explain why this would make it into my bucket list. Thing is, I would have never thought I would participate as an Instructor!

If you are reading this blog you may know that Business School Lausanne is self-organized since two and a half years, using Holacracy as an operating system. I participated last year to a conference on self-organization in Amsterdam organized by HolacracyOne where practitioners could exchange their pains and gains in the transformation journey that self-management brings. This is all very new for the business world and still today, I can’t make a clear distinction between self-management and self-organization so please bear with me when I juggle between the two terms.

At the conference, I met Mike Lee who was completing his PhD at Harvard Business School studying new forms of organization and their limits. Holacracy has been a great part of his research and he has run an important empirical study at WAC that is a Governmental agency in the US working with Holacracy. Mike and I had several chances to exchange thoughts and some glasses of wine. There was a common idea we shared that started to emerge. We both strongly believed that organizations operating at the innovative edge with systems such as Holacracy are learning while practicing with some very powerful and novel set of organizational processes. What is new in these organizations is not only newly designed processes, but also self-management practices that people in such organizations are able to adopt. Why is this interesting? Self-management promises to be an important tool to respond to the challenges that the current Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world brings. Self-management brings flexibility, responsiveness, agility, autonomy, all things that are needed in a VUCA world. Well, at least self-management promises to bring all this. What Mike and I were reflecting on was on the opportunity to bring all these great advantages into traditional companies that are still functioning with structured hierarchies (99% of the companies is my estimate) and have no interest in adopting self-management at a large scale. Could it be possible? Can we translate the great and innovative practices from these pioneering companies like HolacracyOne into a language that traditional companies can hear and welcome? We jumped unto this challenge, and excited about the idea of creating a training on this topic, approached Harvard to see if they would be interested in making space for such an executive course. Indeed Mike’s network with Harvard was the key to open the doors to this opportunity.

What we discovered fast was that there was a huge appetite for this course and executive education. Quickly the Harvard marketing team (what a great team they have!) could fine-tune the title for the course based on their research and so our new baby was ready to come to life. The course name was (and still is) “Collaborative Leadership: Building the Organization of the Future”.

Now that we had a title, the real work started and we had to face the challenge of putting together what we believed could serve the need we had identified in a 2-day course. How do we help today’s companies to build their next version of themselves? What is the bridge that takes them from where they are today to where they will want to be in the next 10 years from an organizational design perspective? Great challenge!

Mike and I loved to discover our complementary skills, experience and knowledge. Mike can unpack very complex topics, fill them with solid research-based arguments and still explain them with a disarming simple language that makes it very hard for anybody not to understand them and believe him, what a gift! I am great at putting the cherry on top of the cake (easy one), with sense-making, as well as creating and designing overall learning experiences. So I could contribute 🙂

Having to write a course for Harvard can put you under strong pressure as you think that whatever you are doing well, you should try to do better and this is not easy to manage. My experience of working at self-organized BSL, alongside Mike’s knowledge and research, eventually took us there and the result has been interesting. We ran this course for the first time on March 14-15 and of course we were ready to expect the unexpected. Firstly, we received the list of participants two weeks before the course and had 16 of them, which was a good number for a new course. The following week, the number became 28 and, with only one week to go, we had to readjust parts of the course including buying a new set of puzzles that we used for an interactive session. Just as we thought we were ready, just 3 days before the course, we received a warning that a snowstorm was approaching Boston and it was not clear what this would mean. Both Mike and I made it to Boston on Monday and our flights were probably the last ones that made it, at least until Wednesday when the storm was gone. Harvard University closed down on Tuesday (on Wednesday our course would start), so did the airport and most other things that were simply submerged by over a meter of snow. The tireless team at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education did not stop working though it and started sending us updates. Our course participants started to go down to 22, then 16, 14, 10 and eventually settled at 12 by the Tuesday evening. Given the trend, we were happy we could still run the course, as many other courses had to be cancelled. Oh well, did you think teaching at Harvard would just be easy and smooth?

I will share more about the content of the course in a future blog, and what we learnt from it. For now, I’d just want to share the actual teaching experience. So let me tell you what it means to stand up in front of great participants from all over the world who expect a Harvard-quality level of education! Believe it or not, I felt ready and fully confident. At Business School Lausanne, we approach education differently and focus on transformative learning. Such attitude has taught me to keep the learner at the center of what I do as an educator, and this is what I did during those two days. The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive and here are some quotes:

“Carlo has great facilitation skills, sensing where the participants are, and creating a more personal connection”

“Energy, managing the learning flow, translation to daily practice”

“He is an excellent summarizer and synthesizer”

“Carlo led the discussions deftly and his real-world experience with self-management was invaluable in exploring these concepts” 

“This is a unique program!”

So, how does it feel to teach at Harvard? Definitely, it gave me great sense of recognition and sense of prestige. It‘s like playing for the football National Team but in education. At the same time, it made me once more realize how important is the work we are doing at Business School Lausanne. Our approach to education as a transformative experience is what the world needs. We had participants standing in a circle in our course at Harvard, sharing their deepest concerns and reflections. We had them engaged in a World Café and in a guided meditation. We do this every day at Business School Lausanne, and now I can confidently say that I am proud I have been teaching at Harvard as much as I am proud I work at BSL!

 

Author: Carlo GiardinettiActive in Program Development, Holacracy and directing the E/MBA programs Business