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And now for something completely different! The Wish Game.

This Blog is an email from my son, Doan Winkel, who is the John J. Kahl, Sr. Chair in Entrepreneurship & Director, Muldoon Center for Entrepreneurship at John Carroll University, Cleveland Heights OH USA.

Sure I am a little biased in thinking Doan (who is our son!) has offered his students something really different, but I thought there might be something in here for you, the reader, in terms of learning about just who your students are, their curiositiy, fears, and wishes; perhaps for our purposes in mathematics coursework as relates to the study of mathematics.

Read on from Doan. . . . . . 

“I can see this course will be the furthest thing from what I had anticipated - but in a great way!” - Jessie S. (student)

I learned about The Wish Game that Rebeca Hwang conducts in her Stanford entrepreneurship course, and my mind exploded with ideas for my MBA course! I threw out my plans for that course and redesigned the entire course around this one activity.

A Quick Review

Students write down big, specific wishes, such as being able to meet a celebrity, or visiting a certain place. The professor chooses one person to be the wish grantee, and the rest of the class works all week to deliver that wish at the beginning of the next class session.

This exercise is about hyper-collaboration, so all students benefit by working together under considerable constraints. I saw this as a powerful path to students learning entrepreneurial skills like ideation, customer interviewing, prototyping, selling, and mobilizing resources through iteratively practicing them.

Learning My Students’ Perspective

I purposely did not share my syllabus or any details of my class with my students prior to the first day. They tried (hard!) to get details, but I remained stoic in my refusal to ruin the surprise.

On the first day of class, I introduced myself, highlighting some details about me that show students I tend do things differently. The kind of details I shared:

  • I met my wife at a rest area while on the way to Grateful Dead shows
  • I hitchhiked from New York to Detroit
  • I have been banned from Canada

Here is my “Who Am I?” slide I show

All 27 students introduced themselves by sharing their name, favorite concert, and something unique or interesting about themselves.

I want to understand the context my students exist in when they are in my course, so I next put them through the Fears and Curiosities exercise. In this exercise, students post Post-It Notes on the wall that contain

  • the things they fear when thinking about life after their MBA, and
  • the things they are curious about when thinking about life after their MBA

What they fear most is not enjoying their job, not making enough money, and not being successful.

What they are most curious about relates to finding & enjoying their job, to maintaining & building new relationships, and to relocating/independence.

I explained to the students that the skills they would practice in this class would help them directly address those fears, and directly explore those curiosities.

I next wanted to understand how these students conceptualized “entrepreneurship” and “innovation”, so I showed this slide:

The students identified fairly typical topics, such as:

  • Ideas / opportunities
  • Problem-solving
  • Selling
  • Prototyping
  • Customer and Market Research
  • Legal Considerations
  • Strategic Planning

We discussed why these topics, I added some of my own from my experience, and then I moved into introducing the course.

Students sat up straight. I saw the anticipation building in them. It was really cool to watch!

I explained the core skills I invited them to practice throughout the course:

After this point, just to build the anticipation to a fever pitch, I asked students how they were feeling. Aaron G. said

“I think this class will challenge me in new ways that I have not been challenged in before, and quite frankly, I imagine they are the things I need to work on most.”

Introducing The Wish Game

I finally introduced The Wish Game, explaining they would each come to class next week with three wishes and their name written on a piece of paper. I stressed these wishes needed to be specific, they should be meaningful, and they should be big, and let them know we’d come back to that to practice a bit so they understood better. Next I explained the following steps we would follow:

I saw blank stares of complete confusion, maybe dismay, a healthy dose of fear, and a pinch of regret here and there. But what I saw overwhelmingly was a mix of curiosity and excitement.

“This is the unknown. It scares me, but excites me at the same time. I feel safe because I believe Doan will be a good guide on this journey. But I also feel scared, because it is such a different way of learning. I can’t wait to get started!” - Michael (student)

There are a few ground rules I shared with the students:

  • Have fun!
  • Do nothing illegal, & nothing you wouldn’t tell your grandmother about face-to-face
  • I contribute $50 per wish, and each of them contribute $10 per wish. Unused funds roll over to the following week
  • If they want to meet somewhere other than our classroom to deliver the wish, they had to tell me by Sunday evening

Practicing The Wish Game

My three wishes would be:

  • Have a conversation with my sister Laura, who passed away in 1998
  • Walk on Saturn
  • Hit the winning shot of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game

I guided the students through brainstorming how they would deliver the Saturn wish next Tuesday. One student mentioned I would need a space suit, so they could buy a space suit costume from Amazon. Many students Googled facts about Saturn - one mentioned the temperature there is -178 degrees Celsius. Another student volunteered that they should fill the costume with ice so I would be REALLY cold.

Some students began discussing the possibilities of using virtual reality. They assumed someone built a program about Saturn, so I encouraged them to find out. They couldn’t find one so they abandoned that idea.

One students suggested rigging me up in a bungee apparatus and suspending me from the ceiling so I felt weightless. (Now we were talking!)

Once the buzz rose to a crescendo and I knew the students were thoroughly excited and engaged in brainstorming ideas to deliver my wish, I gave them their task for the next week. It was to pilot test their wish-granting skills with my son (he’s the good-looking one in the middle down there).

We chose the “See the Mona Lisa” wish. After collecting money, the students had $330 available to spend (I let the students know that if they had financial hardship, they did not have to contribute, so some did not). The class set about brainstorming again.

Some mentioned virtual reality. Some mentioned drawing it on the board. Others mentioned purchasing a replica. One woman asked if she could interview my son. I called him and they asked him questions about why this wish, what it was about the Mona Lisa he liked, had he been to France, etc.

Many of their questions were very ambiguous questions that my 13 year old son had some trouble answering, but some were pretty specific about what he liked about the painting. He mentioned he liked the simplicity. And he mentioned he liked bread and cheese.

Eventually, the class settled on trying to recreate the scene of the room in which the Mona Lisa sits.

A couple students mentioned they have been in that room, that the painting is actually very small, that there are tons of people there and you can’t really see the painting. Students made suggestions about bringing in tons of people, about playing French music, about having people mill around and speak French. The brainstorming and organization was understandably chaotic this first time.

Because I have 27 students in my class, many of them sat silent through this process and a few took the lead. I imagined this might happen, and secretly hoped it did.

I wanted students to feel left out, because I wanted them to come back next week and suggest I split the class in two and deliver two wishes each week (one per group). With 13 weeks in the semester and 27 students, delivering two per week would be great. I wanted the students to want to participate, and to design a solution where everyone could be more engaged. More on that later.

Delivering The Wish

Student did not contact me during the week, other than some fun texts of versions of the Mona Lisa they thought my son might like better than the original, like this one:

I arrived with my son before class and had him sequestered where he couldn’t see the students constructing the wish. I must say I was disappointed at their effort - here is what they brought:

  • A framed replica of the painting - but much larger than the real one
  • Baguettes and a variety of cheeses cut on a cutting board
  • Grape juice in plastic flutes (I told them no champagne, or they would have brought champagne)
  • A set of retractable belts like you see in airport TSA lines (to block off the painting)

They rested the painting on the whiteboard trough where the markers go, put the retractable belts in front of it, set a chair there, with the bread, cheese and drinks on a table next to it, played French music, and said I should bring my son in.

The next 5 or so minutes were probably the most awkward of my entire life. My son entered, wasn’t sure what to do, nobody said anything, he made his way to the chair, sat for a few minutes, ate some cheese, thanked them for the wish, and left.

We debriefed the experience. Students discussed their confusion, the chaos of brainstorming, and of delegating tasks. We talked about expectations of doing the minimum - doing what is safe - or of stretching for what seems impossible - doing what is uncomfortable. Students shared what they learned - some talked about how difficult collaboration is when the goal is uncertain.

Some talked about how important it was to talk to my son to understand why that particular wish is important to him. Others talked about the frustration of not knowing how they could and should contribute, and also about entrepreneurship being hard. I showed the lessons I hoped we learned (which we absolutely did):

I saw lightbulbs coming on about the potential of this exercise as a learning tool for entrepreneurship and innovation. A realization creeped across their faces that they missed an opportunity. As one student anonymously informed me after class,

“I am sorry we failed in delivering Ethan the experience he dreamed of. We fell short of our potential. Now we understand that we can go big!”

I urged them to take risks, to think big, to put themselves in the wish grantee’s shoes. We talked about how awesome it would have been for Ethan to walk into the room and actually imagine himself being in that room in the Louvre.

I challenged my students that they were capable of recreating that room, and that they missed an opportunity. Not an opportunity to make my son happy, but an opportunity to prove to themselves they could make it happen.

(I felt like what I imagine an Indiana High School basketball coach feels like after a HUGE halftime speech to energize his players).

Playing the Wish Game Again

One student did raise his hand and suggested it was really difficult for 27 students to feel engaged in one wish. Another student piggybacked on this and suggested we split the class into two groups, so that 26 students could have wishes granted instead of just 13. YES!!!!!

We split the class into two groups. I drew two pieces of paper. One had the following three wishes:

  • Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
  • Repel down the clock tower at John Carroll University
  • Sail around the world

The group decided to deliver the wish about the clock tower. This is the highest point on our campus. It will be basically impossible for them to pull this off in reality because nobody is allowed in the clock tower (due to liability concerns), but I’m excited to see what they come up with for this!

Administration Building (ca. 2003), John Carroll University

The other piece of paper had the following three wishes:

  • Pitch at a Chicago Cubs game
  • Start a successful business
  • Win the lottery

The other group decided to deliver the wish about pitching at a Cubs game.

  1. entrepreneuership
  2. fears
  3. wishes
  4. wish game

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