What Olympic level coaching + training looks like in a weekend idea sprint
AKA the average weekend for a TKS Director.
As many are getting their 🧀 dip spread ready for the live stream of Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay, I’m prepping for a live stream for filling souper bowls with sopa de ajo as a break during a 24-hour idea sprint set to solve global problems.
With 200+ students across the TKS Boston and Global Virtual programs competing in two separate idea sprints, it’s an unconventional way to spend the weekend, ie. nothing I would rather be doing. Innovation is my sport of choice.
For context, if you need to catch up on TKS as a whole, check this out. The tl’dr is it’s a 10 month accelerator for teens to train skills and knowledge needed to solve the world’s biggest problems, ie. the 🤓 zone, aka. the place for people who care and who want to make the world better spend time to figure it out.
What flavor of better? Well, that’s up to the students. They work on projects in different areas of exponential technologies and sciences, and they explore their interests for where to build for impact. Rather than build 🦄 companies valued >$B, the goal is 🦄 people who solve problems that impact billions.
I’ve designed and run hackathons, make-a-thons, and idea sprints in the past, but what made this weekend more interesting was the fact it was integrated into a continuous process of training within the Innovate first year program. Rather than a one-off attended event, it was an invite only competition to jam out on what futures could and need to be built.
The mixture of mindsets, skillsets, and knowledge needed to compete is trained over a 12+ previous sessions, and the repetition in practice allows for more full results at the end of this sprint. All the pieces coming together is like an innovation skill stack sandwich.
The innovation skill stack is like a good🍔:
- Teamwork pt.1, top down, is like the top bun. The whole project needs to be led by solid project management. If this is stale the first bite won’t be trusted.
- Knowledge is the meat of it. Coming in with specific knowledge in the fundamentals, applications, and latest updates of a focus topic of choice in technology enables a juicier baseline. To use the full time for research and feedback is to cook up something juicer as no one likes a half baked burger.
- Core skills are the accoutrements that can make or break the whole composition. Fullness in texture requires freshness in time boxing, research, brainstorming, storyboarding, slide design, and pitching.
- Mindsets are the added zest from various condiments. Setting intentions to bring open curiosity is the same satisfying bliss point that ketchup has been engineered to bring to 👅 buds. While, a relentless figure it out mindset is like good mustard, packing a surprising punch.
- Teamwork pt. 2, bottom up is like the bottom bun. There needs to be active collaboration and participation or things get messy and fall apart.
And as with food, the end of an idea sprint, presentation matters.
It doesn’t matter how hard or how much work a team does, if the idea cannot be presented well at the end, it falls short. That kind of disappointment from invested time that goes unmatched from poor communication is worst than the disappointment from the empty promises from burger commercials to make them look so good v. the reality in delivery.
For anyone curious in the coaching perspective, this next section is for you. 👉 If you want to just get right to the good stuff and see what the students cooked up, then scroll to the bottom.
The Prompt: Solve a real problem, really quickly.
For this weekend, teams of 2–4 had 24 hours to make a 4 minute pitch. To get everyone to cook up something worthwhile, guard rails are needed and best paired with clear intentions for the output. This helps align every team for what to include and how to make decisions for what doesn’t make sense.
🎯 The four marks of success:
- Feasible — no moonshots for tomorrow, blueprints for a better future today. If a team had this first thing Monday, could you help them build it out?
- Technical depth — having enough understanding to teach concepts simply to anyone regardless of background. Also, get ready to fend off questions from knowledge experts
- Visuals — explaining complex topics simply. Show don’t tell.
- Real problem — no fluff or perceived problem. What kind of validation do you have for how this problem exists in the world?
Like iron chef 👩🍳👨🍳, there was a secret ingredient. Announced beforehand, the main purpose was to find a new idea by combining two focus topics. Innovation by intersection.
The Process: Coaching for results, and training for progress
As a program director, I’m not a teacher 🙅♂️; I’m a coach 📋. My role is not to set project ideas top down or determine what/how each team spends their weekend, but instead to train emergent, bottom up results. My main intention for the weekend is to coach for velocity, to push speed and direction, and to develop the best projects possible in 24 hours.
The top three ingredients for coaching for results are a (1) structurally unstructured schedule, (2) making it real, and (3) feedback, feedback, with more feedback.
1. Structurally unstructured scheduled.
Tl’dr — intentionally open calendar for teams to decide works best for them with guardrails on the kickoff, cycles of feedback, and the finish.
The hackathon schedule was intentionally set as a choose your own adventure style weekend where each PM and team member could decide how they wanted to spend their time.
There is no prescriptive nature for what marks the right way to go about it.
- Some teams just want to complete the objective. Cool 👍.
- Other teams want to make the most of the extra programming and community events. Cool 👍.
- And some teams go hard. Cool 👍.
The only failure is in failure to show up or to participate at all. Uncool 👎.
One of the main drivers for achieving results is the level of commitment. How committed is the team overall to their growth and ready to sink in the messiness of the creative process? Nothing will substitute the ability to put in the work.
Bringing it back to the metaphor of a sports team, the weekend hackathon is like the regional invite-only tournament. As one spends the weekend away with a new team to compete for 🏆, those that are most growth oriented make the most of the unique nature of the opportunity.
There are certain structures for support (like extra feedback sessions) that allow for rapid iteration and development if integrated into the schedule. Pop-up opportunities (like extra community events), which only happen with the tournament-like style commitment, help build new relationships.
Coaching trick for navigating structurally unstructured calendar: Help set everyone’s intentions before the event so they can communicate with their team to hit the ground running to align.
2. Make it real.
Tl’dr — the teamwork is real, the prompt is real, the judges are real, and the conversations are all real.
This may sound obvious, but it’s not. Two things dilute hackathons from getting real results: lowering expectations or playing a make-believe game.
There somehow is a difference between an event made for “teens” or “students” and those where real work gets done or real projects are developed. Most people think it’s cute to hear a younger person say anything remotely technical. Lowering expectations is the death to any real results.
Also, some hackathons become gamified to the point of pageantry just to win the headlining prize through a pretentiously fluffy pitch. Too much glitz or glamor takes away from the grit of the creative process. It becomes a linear optimization for a speech competition rather than the circular process of discovery and development.
Example for idea validation:
- Uber for dog walkers. Mickey mouse.
- Predictive modeling for preventing cytokine storms. Legit.
- Why: Most teams fall in love with their first idea because it’s obvious and it’s easy. And while what is easy might have some market opportunity, as I’m sure there are dog owners looking for some extra help, the first idea is rarely the most interesting or most impactful. With a little extra exploration and research, teams can find things that matter. We need more smart people working on more important problems.
Example for problem understanding:
- We are thinking of stopping food allergies. Mickey mouse.
- We are currently exploring how to prevent type 1 hypersensitivity immune responses to peanut allergens, Ara h 1, 2, 3, and 6. Legit.
- Why: Scope and depth. The first pitch could map to 8 different major allergens as a problem statement, while the second speaks specifically to peanut allergies, is looking towards preventative measures, and has a quick google search to understand the main root cause, cupin and prolamin superfamily of structural proteins. One google search and 10 minutes of reading separate the first one and second one. By asking why this problem exists and seeking understanding, teams can narrow down on the root cause quickly.
Example for visuals:
This slide shows five different applications of gene editing. Without highlighting one, the presentation stays at a surface level, and by using clip art, the visuals do not add any extra value. Mickey mouse.
This slide is part of a project using machine learning to determine what single nucleotide polymorphisms allow for leukemia cell proliferation. The breakdown includes the kind of data, how it works, and what model will be used. Legit.
Why: Visuals matter. The human brain is really good at processing visual information, and good visuals help build a bridge for understanding to help anyone in the audience follow along.
While there was some swag on the line for the top team, the real prize was getting to pitch to people with real experience who have built startups, invest in different technologies, and research across Harvard and MIT. It’s a treat to get air time with invited judges both for feedback and for the chance to leave an impression, and for those who joined, there is value in hearing the kinds of questions and conversations that happen. The winning teams also follow up mentorship times to continue the conversation with the judges. In my opinion, these are more real stakes than a free headset or big cash prize.
Coaching trick for making it real: Meet the students where they are in the present process and maintain high standards to set the direction for what they will be working on in 10 years in the future. Finding interesting problems, seeking understanding, pursuing technical depth, and drawing up final visuals can all be filtered through the lens to check relevance future self.
Shout-out to all the judges, Haroon, Manu, Vivek, Kaden, Andrew, Ramesh, and Ethan, who took time out of their Sunday to jam with us.
3. Feedback, feedback, and more feedback.
Tl’dr — the best way to accelerate the growth of a team and their project is to understand what’s the gap between where they are currently and help raise the bar for what’s possible.
The event itself was built with multiple channels and loops for feedback. As the fastest way to accelerate growth for an idea is to get extra perspective for where to build. There were three routes for feedback:
- Program directors had open office hours for 15–20min white boarding sessions, workshops like brainstorming and picking ideas, as well as drop in AMAs.
- Student to student. Slack channel post anything, DM any team, as well as a global event to meet other people working in the same space.
- Second year and alumni mentorship. I’ve been at events where experts ruined or distracted from the results. And so for this event, having students who have trained through the program before can offer on the ground perspective.
Coaching trick for high quality feedback: Mix curiosity, with humility, and desire to figure it out for high quality feedback.
Without curiosity, imagining what the future will be becomes more bland than a 🧀 dip without jalapeños. Curiosity is the spice that pushes what’s possible, and like the sensation of spiciness on the tongue, it’s spreads easily.
Without humility, ego gets in the way, and a coach is limited to prior knowledge or presumptuously trying to be right.
Without a desire to figure it out, feedback sessions fall flat.
Recipe for my 15 minute feedback sessions.
- 2 minute pitch from the team. What’s the update? Where are you at now? no time for fluff.
- 5 minutes of questions and searching online. I have a bias to action to find holes in their arguments and being helpful for ideas and resources to patch them.
- 8 minutes of white boarding and questioning. to see what else breaks and determine additional action items.
- 2 min: Team comes in with genomic data x blockchain idea. As they review their progress, I review and read slides.
- 5 min: Determining what’s missing — a clear unique value prop and insight for where to start deploying this idea. Research top company in space, Nebula Genomics, and give as case study.
- 8min: Question time. Intentionally open ended questions so teams can filter what’s most important for them: Where do you start for use case (clearer problem statement)? What’s the outcome and impact of getting this data on a blockchain (what’s the so what?)? What kind of data will you need to collect and how will it be transacted (use case + back end mock up)? Who benefits and how? How do you translate the value for your users (ie. front end mock ups)?
The most satisfying sessions are the ones where it is a two way street and I learn something along the way. Shout-out to the cytokine and biocompatible heart stent group for hitting that bar. Check out their pitches below.
Shout-out to all of the students, alumni, and directors who spent their weekend giving feedback to help everyone on their 24 hour journey.
The results: 🏆 Top 5 team pitches in TKS Virtual + Boston
My caveat: All work is credited to the students. It is 100% of their doing. I enjoy the role in coaching for results, but what gets done is ultimately up to them.
My intention for the embedded feature is to showcase their work as I know more people would enjoy it than could make it to our finale. As I run both TKS Boston and TKS Virtual programs, I included both features below. These are their submitted pitches, all final pitches were done live.
Best Overall TKS Boston: ECoG for helping nonverbal people communicate
Best Overall TKS Virtual: GUT app for personalized health advice using microbiome data
I wish there were more accelerated scrimmages to jam on how to make the world better and there was a way to root for teams as one would invest as much time, money, and attention rooting for their city’s sports team to make it to the Super Bowl.
Maybe for the future, we’ll get jerseys to start to make that happen… But for now catching some 😴 to recover from the sprint and prep for the next one.
- 24 hours + 15 topics across exponential technology or science +150 ambition teens = 47 ideas to make the world better.
Tips for a successful hackathon
- Have a structurally unstructured schedule
- Make it real: the prompt, the feedback, the judges, and the final conversation.
- Feedback, feedback, and more feedback for rapid development.
Tips for coaching for results through a hackathon
- Help teams set intentions and prep before for aligning on commitment and scheduling.
- Maintain high standards for where the students will be 10 years from now.
- Pair humility with curiosity and remove the ego to get to giving high quality feedback.
👋 Hey, I’m Michael, an Olympic level 🌎 innovation coach training future CEOs @ TKS. Previously, startup founder, design engineering instructor @ Harvard, and program director @ Cornell. Always 👨🍳cooking up something new.
And if you made it this far. My gift to you, a deliciously easy sopa de ajo recipe a la Anna Thomas.