What I Learned About Leading the I-Lab VIP Programming Effort, and…
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What I Learned About Leading the I-Lab VIP Programming Effort, and What’s Next

Chris Colbert pondering holding a sign that says "What's the Problem?"

When I joined the Harvard Innovation Labs — after a career in which I built and sold a pretty reputable creative marketing firm, worked for one of country's largest educational publishers, and launched various startups — I had many preconceived notions of what the i-lab was. I’ve learned a lot in a short period of time, and that education has shaped where the programming for our Venture Incubation Program will be headed.

For one, I thought that the value proposition of the entire operation rested in the content the i-lab produced.

By content, I mean the various forms of venture education programming that we put together at the i-lab in the form of workshops, roundtables, various speaker series, and founder dinners. When I started here in the fall, I thought this “content” was where 80 percent of the impact was.

But what I quickly came to realize is that while the events are important, what is far more vital is the simple idea of connecting.

A business education built on connection

Here, the key connections may be peer to peer, student to student, founder to founder, team to team, founder to mentor, founder to advisor, or even founder to a random person walking through the building.

Why are connections so important to founding a startup or building a business? The key driver of innovation is diversity of perspective.

When you bring teams together to figure out how to solve a problem, whether the context is a startup or an existing business, the best thing you can do is to populate that group with people from very different perspectives. Whether that be folks with experiences in different industries, from different parts of the world, or with different socioeconomic backgrounds. This also includes, importantly, a mix of both leaders and followers. You don’t want all Type A personalities; you want to have a cross-section of folks who value discipline and sensibility to varying degrees.

Human factors as a driving force of creating a high performing business

Coming into the spring, we are going to put a lot of emphasis on programming that is about effecting connection, but we will also be examining the role human factors play in creating a high performing business, whether as a startup or a going concern.

What are human factors? Well, some examples are how people work together; what motivates and what doesn’t motivate individuals; how to affect accountability, focus, priorities; and how to create high performing cultures in support of high performing businesses. All these things that business leaders and employees think about every day are fundamentally about people.

The Human Factors track is our programming “beta” effort to help inculcate and educate the founders of our Venture Incubation Program teams on how best to work with people.

An easy choice: Quality AND quantity

Too often, the primary focus of programming in this startup education space is about quantity. The i-lab, as an educational venture collaborative, is no different than accelerators, incubators, or seed funds in this way. Value is placed on how many people show up, how many VIP teams we have, or how many students we are reaching.

While I think it is important to measure this to some degree — in fact, one of our goals is that 100 percent of the students at Harvard that have even a modicum of interest in innovation or entrepreneurship are exposed to what we are doing — it shouldn’t be the only performance index we focus on.

With that measure of quantity there needs to be a measure of quality. Really, we need to have an understanding of how we are impacting students, entrepreneurs, startup teams, mentors, and even our own staff.

To track this we are installing the NPR scoring system in almost all we are doing at the i-lab in order to assess quality of delivery and quality of content.

We are also doing a pre-survey/post-assessment of the VIP teams that focuses on the change in their level of knowledge, skills, and sensibilities around different facets of starting a venture.

Through this, the hope is that we see a measurable shift; that we’ve actually impacted not only their understanding, but also the way they think about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the human truths of creating a successful enterprise.

Fundamentally, we’re raising the bar for us and for the VIP teams at the i-lab.