The Girls Middle School Program that Develops Graduates with Valuable Life Skills

A crowd had assembled at Google’s auditorium to see one of Silicon Valley’s yearly highlights.  It was Entrepreneurial Night.  Forty young women from the Girls Middle School (GMS) had assembled in teams of three to five to pitch their new companies to a panel of Silicon Valley venture capitalists.  As the girls presented their value propositions, some of the standing-room-only crowd was moved to tears by the girls’ earnest and surprisingly impressive presentations.

A businesswoman, Kathleen Bennett, who believed that young women were not getting the education they needed to flourish in our world, formed the Girls Middle School in Mountain View, California, in 1998.  It’s a diverse, serious school for 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade girls.  The girls take math, science, computer science, and a language every year.  They also take shop.  That surprises some people until they realize that these girls are about to become young innovators and may need shop skills to make their products.

A month before their presentations to the venture capitalists, the seventh-grade girls had gone through a two-day “boot camp” to learn how to form a company and write business plans for their new initiatives.  They presented these during Entrepreneur Night to the venture capitalists to get funded – one or two hundred dollars.  They recruited parents and other professionals as their “board members,” who also acted as mentors.

Every month the girls sent their boards a performance report.  They learned about product design, marketing, inventory control, sales, collaboration, and the ups and downs of forming a business.  They acquired other skills that most of us didn’t learn in the seventh grade, such as using spreadsheets and calculating return on investment.

Each year the girls create a broad array of products and services.  Some are trinkets they sell to friends, and some are services. One team wrote a book called “Middle School: How to Deal” available on Amazon.  At the end of the year, the young girls met to dissolve their companies.  They paid back their venture capitalists with interest, learned social responsibility by giving thirty percent of their profit to a charity of their choice, and split the rest among the team.

Customer Focus

The young women of GMS learned a great deal about what it means to create an innovation.  But what is innovation?  There are, unfortunately, a confusing number of definitions.  For example, Merriam-Webster defines it as “The introduction of something new.”  That definition is not specific enough to guide an aspiring new innovator.  A more precise and useful definition is:


Innovation is the delivery of new customer value in the marketplace with a viable business model.


If customers don’t buy or use the new product or service, it is not an innovation.  The “marketplace” can be in any segment of society, but people must use the offering.  In addition, if there is no way to sustain its delivery into the marketplace, it will disappear and cease being an innovation.  There are over 4,000 mousetrap patents but only a few dozen realizing significant sales – the others are inventions: not innovations.

Value creation is the process of developing innovations, and entrepreneurs are those that pull together the resources and introduce them into the market.  All activities start by identifying an important unmet customer and market need.  That is, the end-user is the focus of all value creation activities.

Creating innovations requires learning, searching, discovery, synthesis, and knowledge creation.  Value creation is the process of developing surprising, sustainable offerings with new value for customers.  It is a process of understanding the market ecosystem, unmet customer needs, existing competitors and alternatives, and possible solutions.  The larger the innovation, the more surprising is the new knowledge created.

Active Learning

The lucky young women of the GMS have taken a big step forward in understanding how to be innovators, creating value for their customers.  They have learned some of the most valuable skills, human values, and business perspectives one can have in today’s world.

All innovations create surprising new knowledge: the more significant the innovation, the more surprising the new knowledge.   The ketchup bottle that stands on its “head” is a modest innovation.  When I first saw it, I was surprised, but then I immediately realized it solved a real problem, pounding on the end of the bottle to get ketchup out without splashing it all over the table.  Its increasing utility across many products makes it a sustainable innovation.

Some say the goal of innovative success is failing fast.  No, the goal is to learn and create fast.  Success requires that we learn and create new knowledge faster than our competition.

Ten learning principles from the educational sciences facilitate the rapid and effective creation of the new knowledge required.  These principles define how people best learn, improve, and create.  They are too often applied incorrectly or not at all. The power and benefits from systematically using these concepts are rarely appreciated.

These ten principles enable and sustain the key for all learning situations – engagement.  People who are fully engaged will more likely learn effectively, persevere, and succeed.  In the context of value creation, the core principles are:

  1. Iterating: Repeatedly doing the task – to create and deliver value to customers
  2. Feedback: Providing real-time feedback from multiple perspectives, including partners and customers
  3. Teams: Forming minimal teams at the start with essential complementary skills
  4. Mentors: Engaging proven innovative practitioners to add explicit and tacit knowledge
  5. Knowledge: Rapidly accessing the information required through a collaborative network
  6. Amplifiers: Providing infrastructure, applications, and methods that accelerate value creation
  7. Incentives: Emphasizing achievement, involvement, and empowerment with shared rewards
  8. Values: Ensuring enviable human values – respect, collaboration, commitment, responsibility, and trust
  9. Big Ideas: Focusing first on learning and applying the few, most fundamental value creation concepts
  10. System: Providing a complete networked value-creation ecosystem aligned with the enterprise

Together these ten principles enable effective and efficient knowledge creation.  As we will describe, these concepts apply in some form to virtually every learning and knowledge creation activity.  They apply to all professionals who must constantly learn, improve, and create new solutions for their customers.

In subsequent posts, I will describe how other fundamental concepts further define effective value-creation methodologies.  They include complexity analysis, behavioral science, and organizational structures that promote exponential improvement.


  1. Iterating

Repeatedly doing the task with constant ideation and reframing, synthesizing, experimenting, presenting, role-playing, reflecting, predicting, and building one idea on another.

The first fundamental principle is doing – deeply learning new ideas by applying them experientially.  As Confucius said, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.”  In this case, the learning is to identify unmet customer needs to develop unique solutions that deliver value to customers with a sustainable business model.

This requires intense iteration of the plan for creating the proposed innovation.  We have never seen a team initially iterate aggressively enough.  David Kelly calls this “radical collaboration” to emphasize the intensity of iteration required while working with others.  But when captured this way, there is genius to be found in one’s colleagues and partners.

After attending an innovation boot camp, the girls immediately applied the ideas they learned. They had to “do.”  Inevitably they found that their understanding was incomplete. During boot camp, many of the ideas presented had seemed easy, but they discovered that applying them was not so simple.

They learned that identifying their customer’s needs and developing products for them required hard thought and a large amount of discussion, information gathering, and experimentation.  At the same time, they had to figure out how to make their products and sell them while making a profit.  By directly addressing these problems, the teams confirmed what they understood and what they didn’t. The girls were engaged in experiential learning – obtaining skills and meaning from direct experience.


  1. Feedback

Rapid real-time feedback and assessment from multiple perspectives while asking questions, sharing experiences, and discussing points of agreement and disagreement.

As the GMS girls put their business plans together, they generated one idea after another and completed iteration after iteration of their plans.  They discovered that progress was accelerated by showing their ideas to each other and their friends, families, and mentors. The girls learned that the more rapidly they iterated and received feedback from different perspectives, the more rapidly they improved.

Once the young women put their initial plans together, they had to face other challenges. Did their target customers want their products, and could they make a profit?  There was only one way to find out; they needed to approach potential buyers.

Making the first presentation to a customer is often a sobering moment because few teams get it right at first.  Only by asking prospective customers to buy the product while soliciting feedback is it possible to understand what is wanted.  It always takes multiple iterations with feedback from potential customers to design products that fully satisfy customer and market needs.  Often a completely different approach is required.  Rapid, recursive feedback with customers – co-creation – is often a critical step in understanding customer’s needs and the marketplace.

As the GMS girls participated in the activities listed above, they were constantly synthesizing the information they gathered to develop a deeper understanding of the issues involved and the solutions to address their customers’ needs.  That is the creative, imaginative part of value creation.


  1. Teams

Concise groups with the skills, experiences, perspectives, and human values necessary to identify and address the major issues for an important unmet problem.

No matter how smart you are, you are not remotely smart enough to create innovations by yourself.  Rapid progress is only possible by tapping into the “genius of teams.”  Innovation is a collaborative effort, and genius comes from putting together teams with the essential, complementary skills.  Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had exceptionally partners in Steve Wozniak and Paul Allen, among many others.  It is unlikely we would know who Gates or Jobs are today without their starting partners.

Team formation is a project.  It takes time and effort to form productive teams and to communicate among team members. Consider that in software development, adding staff should proportionally increase the number of lines of code produced.  But that rarely happens. The communication costs between staff go up exponentially with staff size.  At some point, adding more staff reduces output.  Because of these costs, the minimal possible team performs best, as described in the classic book, “The Mythical Man Month.”

Studies show the optimal team size is between three to five, like at the GMS.  If the team is too small, it lacks different perspectives.  If it is too large, not everyone will be fully engaged.  At SRI, new teams started small. Usually, a person with a business focus, a strong technical person, and a person good at operations or execution.  Other teammates would be added as the initiative progressed and the critical issues to be addressed were uncovered.

The girls on each small team of three-to-five brought different experiences and skills to their ventures.  Scott Page calls these attributes a person’s “toolbox” of capabilities, in addition to one’s native intelligence.  He means that each student brought different perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, and predictive models to help address the team’s challenges.

Page points out that often, “progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our IQ scores.”  This observation is especially true when a problem is hard and complex.  In these cases, rarely does one individual have all the skills needed to address every part of the proposed solution rapidly.  Page’s research supports several conclusions:

  • “Diverse perspectives and mental toolboxes enable collections of people to find more and better solutions and contribute to overall productivity.”
  • “Diverse fundamental preferences frustrate the process of making choices.”

Alan Kay cleverly captures the first point by observing that “Perspective is worth an extra 80 IQ points.” Or better, valuable perspectives, heuristics, predictive models, and skills are worth an extra 80 IQ points.  If, for example, a teammate has already solved a challenging part of a proposed solution, that knowledge rapidly moves the team forward.  The best teams consist of individuals with high intellectual capabilities, enviable team values, and useful complementary perspectives.  If everyone has the same mental toolbox, then only one person is needed.

Teams provide other advantages.  When confronted with a mental roadblock, you can feel paralyzed and demoralized.  Teammates help us get “unstuck” by adding energy, emotional support, and fun when things get tough.  Having a colleague say, “Please explain that to me again in a different way,” is often enough to keep making progress.

Page’s second point emphasizes the importance of assembling the right team.  If teammates are not valued, needed, or seriously disagree about their venture’s direction, they will likely produce either disappointing results or fail.  Success requires teammates aligned with the mission who bring unique value-adding perspectives.  Restating Alan Kay, it follows that the wrong perspective may be worth minus 80 IQ points.  Diversity is not the goal; it is diversity that adds value, a point often misunderstood.


  1. Mentors

Proven practitioners to provide explicit and tacit expert guidance, emotional support, and motivation for value creation teams.

The school recruited “board members” to advise the young women. These community professionals volunteered their time to help the students succeed by acting as the girl’s tutors, coaches, and mentors.  Having a knowledgeable tutor – someone who is a proven practitioner – is a powerful way to learn.  For example, studies show that having a tutor can help D students become B students or better. For this reason schools often provide tutors for athletes, who have little time for studying when practicing a sport four hours a day.

In dictionaries, the terms “tutor” and “mentor” overlap.  Here the use of mentor signifies an expert. That is someone who has professional levels of knowledge, has extensive hands-on experience, and can form an ongoing relationship with the mentored person.

For first-time innovators, the path to be navigated feels forbidding, like being in an unexplored jungle on a dark, rainy night.  Where do I start?  What is my first goal?  What happens if I get lost? Although there are fundamental concepts to be followed when creating innovations, there are no equations or exact solutions.  Innovation requires formal knowledge plus proven insights and heuristics, which practitioners have learned over a lifetime of mistakes and successes.

Having a practitioner mentor, who has been through similar experiences many times, is a powerful way to advance rapidly.  Since it is a “jungle” out there, mentors act as “jungle guides,” providing guidance about what works and what doesn’t.  Their experience allows for feedback that is clear, direct, and comprehensible. They also offer emotional support and motivation.

Consider the example of an excellent violin teacher.  There are endless mistakes a young player can make, like holding the bow incorrectly.  Teachers who have learned how to spot problems and solve them based on a lifetime of experience help students advance more rapidly. Jascha Heifetz, the preeminent violinist of the last century, had the best teacher of his era, Leopold Auer.


  1. Knowledge

Leveraging existing knowledge and using concepts, frameworks, and other value creation aids to amplify collaboration, learning, and knowledge creation.

Value creation requires acquiring new information, leveraging each person’s and other’s knowledge, and using concepts and language that facilitates collaboration for value creation.  When a team begins a new project, the first step is to understand the market ecosystem, including technology trends, demographics, competition, legal issues, business models, and much more depending on the proposed innovation.  Too often, there are barriers in organizations that impede access to essential information.  Value creation teams require an open network of partners inside and outside the enterprise to rapidly provide the information and resources needed.

Because value creation teams have different skills and perspectives, they must share the language and concepts required for value creation.  This includes definitions for innovation, value creation, invention, types of customer value, and value propositions.  These definitions and others will be included in another post describing the i4i Value Creation Playbook.

One of the major issues in value creation is in identifying the actual need to be addressed.  People can readily identify problems but determining the actual need to be addressed is very hard.  Generally, the problem needs to be “reframed” repeatedly to discover the need to be addressed.  Most people jump immediately from the problem to their solution, and it is almost always incomplete or wrong.  In the i4i Playbook, multiple approaches for reframing are described.

We all have our unique mental capabilities, experiences, and knowledge — our mental toolbox.  Thus, we all learn, think, and create differently.  Some girls might describe solutions as stories or analogies and others as images, sketches, or mockups. The girls found that their different perspectives helped in tackling their seemingly daunting new projects.  They helped them to understand their customers’ needs better and to create possible solutions more rapidly.

For some, the “aha” moment might come from a sketch, an analogy, an equation, or a simulation. Representing information in different forms improves learning, understanding, reasoning, and, ultimately, communication with potential colleagues, investors, partners, and customers. As a rule, the more realistic the representation, the better the feedback.  Often a bad image is better than a terrific description.

Different approaches also uncover other aspects of a solution so the team can move forward faster. This concept is fundamental to mathematics.  They know that complex problems require multiple representations to create solutions efficiently. Switching from one representation to another uncovers different parts of the problem, allowing it to be solved. As a rule, to reason and think creatively about a problem, at least two different representations are required.

In 1993 Andrew Wiles created a worldwide sensation by proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. At the time, it was the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics, having confounded the best mathematicians for over 300 years.  His published paper included dozens of different representations and was 150 pages long.

People with dyslexia, for example, can develop learning styles to match their capabilities.  One of my most accomplished colleagues gives beautiful, clear presentations. Even though the concepts described are complex, the presentations are easy to understand and compelling. They almost always include elegant, hand-drawn sketches of the different ideas presented.  I asked him how he developed his remarkable ability.  He said, “That is the way I think, in images.  I am dyslexic, and text is confusing to me, so I use this approach to understand and communicate my ideas.”


  1. Amplifiers

Aids and forums for learning, including computers, Internet, spreadsheets, simulations, computer applications.

The students brought more than their mental toolboxes to speed up the value creation progress.  They also brought knowledge of other productivity tools.  These might include the use of video teleconferencing on the Internet, collaboration software, specific algorithms, CAD applications, spreadsheets, and much more.  Simulations and prototypes are especially effective at quickly making progress and inspiring new insights.  Steve Jobs insisted that new ideas had to be fully prototyped.  A new graphical interface had to look as it would in the product.  It was not enough to describe it or sketch it out.

Productivity tools are not free. In addition to their financial cost, they take time to learn.  With better tools, humans must raise their capabilities too. This goes back and forth – better tools, more capable humans, better tools, and still more capable humans.  Douglas Engelbart called this co-evolution and the building of better tools to create even better tools bootstrapping.  These two processes are like compound interest, producing exponential improvements in productivity.

Next, I mention perhaps the most powerful value creation amplifier.  In the global innovation economy, technological improvement is often at rapid, exponential rates.  To innovate at the speed of the market, our innovation processes must match that rate – they must be exponential.  To improve exponentially, ideas must compound, with one idea building atop another.

Exponential improvement comes from getting feedback from others and then compounding that knowledge.  Working this way often improves the value creation process by orders of magnitude.  In a subsequent post, I will describe the NABC value propositions (Need, Approach, Benefits/costs, and Competition) and a framework for recurring team meetings that facilitates exponential improvement.  We call them Value-Creation Forms.

Forums are team meetings every 2-to-4 weeks, where 3-to-6 teams give 3-to-10 minute NABC value proposition presentations and then receive feedback from multiple perspectives.  Forms provide access to information, resources, reframing, and exponential-like improvement. Value-Creation Forums were a centerpiece of the SRI-wide value creation architecture that allowed SRI to beat IBM by seven years in the development of Siri.


  1. Incentives

Achievement, inclusion, empowerment, competition, and camaraderie are among the most powerful incentives.

We find that the most powerful incentive is achievement.  Focusing on a challenging, meaningful task and addressing it is incredibly motivating and rewarding.  School sports are an example. Non-profit groups worldwide are also exemplars, where people, for almost no pay, help others who are sick, infirm, and starving.  The military’s Special Forces are a profound version of this principle.

By every account, Steve Jobs was a demanding and mercurial person. But many superb professionals stayed with him for years because he provided the opportunity to do extraordinary work.  His team knew they couldn’t achieve as much and be so proud of their work somewhere else.

To further encourage success, the GMS created a family of positive incentives.  At the end of the year, the girls paid back their venture capitalists with interest, gave 30% to a charity of their choice, and split the rest among the team members.  Some of the teams earned several thousand dollars over the year, so their financial rewards were tangible.

As in any business, they added up how much profit they made at year-end and compared their performance to the other teams.  Not everyone was equally successful, which was another valuable lesson. The program is not just a feel-good activity where everyone gets a trophy for showing up.  It is easy to focus on financial incentives, but experience shows that other motivations are almost always more effective.

An additional incentive is a friendly sense of competitiveness.  The girls didn’t want to let their teams down. They wanted to succeed to be admired by the other groups, teachers, mentors, and family. They are often motivated more by themselves than by their teacher’s expectations. The teams divided up their tasks so that each girl was challenged and engaged.  They learned about teamwork, collaboration, giving presentations, selling, and negotiating successfully to get things done.

A final incentive is the sense of camaraderie that comes from tackling something that seems impossible at first and then succeeding.  That kind of accomplishment stays with you much longer than financial rewards.  The GMS young women will undoubtedly tell people about their innovative experiences for the rest of their lives.


  1. Values

Enviable human values – respect, collaboration, responsibility, enthusiasm, and trust.

Positive human values are critical.  If teammates are not respectful, collaborative, trustworthy, and supportive, rapid feedback and intense collaboration are impossible.  There are times on every major project when the team must work, day and night, for weeks to make a critical deadline.  Just one horrible person on a team can bring progress to a screeching halt. The collective IQ of the group drops to zero.

Everyone has been on teams where someone was disruptive. They talk too much, criticize everyone’s ideas, are cynical, come late, never agree with anyone, and don’t do their part.  My university friends say that faculty meetings too often include someone like this, making them unproductive.  To avoid these meets, participants often either don’t show up or meet somewhere else to move forward.

When a team agrees on their goals and is working productively, it can be great fun. You are with your friends doing what you want to do, and you are experiencing “flow” – time seems to disappear.  And when done, the feeling that comes from working together and realizing a great accomplishment is exhilarating.  That is a great team: where you are working hard, hanging out with your buddies, and achieving something meaningful.

All the GMS teams had to address team issues.  Who would do what and would it get done on time?  Resolving these common issues is an essential lesson, as it is required to accomplish any meaningful project throughout life.


  1. Big Ideas

A relentless focus on the few essential concepts and behaviors required for success.

There are a relatively small number of big, fundamental ideas in every field.  I started in physics, where the big ideas include those from Newton and Einstein.  There were dozens of other laws and endless equations, but a relatively small number that are the most important.  To be a physicist, you must understand them.

Value creation and innovation are like that too. There are a relatively small number of fundamental ideas but endless variations on their themes.  This post is about one of them: the ten active learning principles that accelerate learning and knowledge creation.  In subsequent posts, I will describe others, including core value creation concepts and definitions, Value Creation Forums, understating the difference between important and interesting opportunities, and market positioning.

A central concept the GMS young women learned is that creating a new product or service is measured only by what customers want.  It was not enough to be smart, or clever, or inventive.  What the girls thought was ultimately irrelevant; it is what their customers thought that mattered.  This significant change in perspective requires focusing on the external world and being empathic about their customer’s needs and not just their own. The failure to deeply understand and apply this concept is a significant reason why so many products fail.


  1. System

The application of all the active learning principles for value creation in an empowering enterprise, which results in a Networked Improvement Community (NIC).

Individually the concepts just described are all helpful in making the value creation process more efficient and effective.   Most teams use some combination of them.  However, their real power comes from combing them into an effective overall system.  In a later post describing the i4i Value Creation Playbook, I will show how to do that.

Throughout these posts, a central idea is that value creation requires rapid access to information in a supportive environment based on the principles of active learning.  Information is to innovation as wind is to a sailing ship.  Access to information is a primary responsibility of the enterprise and government.  In extreme cases, if there are too many information barriers, innovative success stops.  With no wind, there is no sailing.  In another post, I will describe how the Israeli intelligence service addresses this issue: there are no barriers, but it comes with great responsibility.

A major advance is that all professionals are now online with videoconferencing.  Being online effectively makes the world “transparent,” so partners can be more easily added from around the world. In another post, I will describe an idea from Douglas Engelbart called a Networked Improvement Community (NIC).  The core idea is that networks of capabilities can be brought together to create exponential improvement for more rapidly solving the world’s urgent problems.

A complementary requirement is that the flow of information must exist in a noise-free, predictable ecosystem.  As in the sailing metaphor, success requires a calm sea.  In an enterprise, the enemies of innovative success include uncertainty, politics, non-transparency, reorganizations, management changes, and on-and-off funding. These, and sudden changes in government policy, all create noise, confusion, and uncertainty.  They impede value creation and innovation.



“It was also great fun.  Have you ever noticed that?”

At the end of the program, I visited the GMS with the program director at the time, Traci Green, a charming, outgoing woman who is a marketing executive in her professional life.  She is a terrific role model and mentor for the girls.  While at the school, I wanted to understand better what the girls had learned.

I asked one of the girls, “What has your experience been like?”  She said, “Dr. Carlson, have you ever noticed that it is really hard putting a team together?”   “As a matter of fact,” I said, “I have.”  She continued, “But have you noticed that when you do, different people generally want to do different things?  For example, I like to talk, so I became the Vice President of Sales.  Judy is very creative and likes to build things, so she became our Vice President of Design and Manufacturing.  And Sally is good at math, so she became our Chief Financial Officer.”

“And by the way, Dr. Carlson, I don’t know if you have noticed this, but although this was a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun.  Have you ever noticed that?”  I said, “Yes, I have, but unfortunately, not as early as you in the seventh grade working on a project like this.”  Alas, how many of us have?

The GMS girls worked hard, but it was gratifying and often fun. By working together, the students discovered that there was genius in the collective intelligence of their teams and great satisfaction in addressing a challenging problem and succeeding.

The ten fundamentals of active learning for knowledge creation and innovation are highly effective. We will return to them repeatedly as the benchmark for evaluating innovation best practices. Few rigorously practice these principles, and, as a result, failure rates and wasted resources in companies, government agencies, and academia are often atrocious.  What is most disturbing is not the waste of financial resources; it wastes precious human resources.

When properly combined, as at the GMS, these concepts produce surprising and often transformative results. The valuable lessons these young women learned will last a lifetime.  As you will discover, their experiences are remarkably like what is required by adults forming innovations and new ventures.



The Girls Middle School, Entrepreneurial Studies:

Sara Borden, Sarah Miller, Alex Stikeleather, Maria Valladares, Miriam Yelton, Girls Middle School: How to Deal (Chronicle Books) 2/17/2005

Active Learning, Wikipedia, 4/4/13:

Experiential Learning, Wikipedia, 12/4/2013:

  1. B.Merriam, R. S., Caffarella, and L. M. Baumgartner, Learning in Adulthood: a Comprehensive Guide (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., San Francisco: 2007)

David Kelley, see Wikipedia:

Page, Scott, The Difference (Princeton University Press, Kindle Edition, 2008)

Alan Kay, Wikipedia:

Douglas Engelbart Institute:

Frederick P. Brooks Jr., The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (Addison-Wesley Professional, 8/12/1995)

Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem, Wikipedia, 4/4/13:’s_2_Sigma_Problem

Andrew Wiles on Solving Fermat” Last Theorem, NOVA: 11/01/2000: