Bernard Roth: An interview by Bob Morris


RothBernie Roth is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering at Stanford University. A longtime veteran of the Stanford design scene, he first came to the Stanford Design Division faculty in 1962. His most recent activities have moved him more strongly into experiences that enhance peoples’ creative potential through the educational process. His primary intention as an educator and person is to empower his students, colleagues, and friends to have fulfilling lives.

Bernie is a co-founder of Stanford’s d.school and is currently its Academic Director. He brings to the d.school a wealth of experience in teaching design, an intimate knowledge of the functioning of Stanford University, and a worldwide reputation as a researcher in kinematics and robotics. Together with Doug Wilde and the late Rolf Faste, Bernie developed the concept of a Creativity Workshop. This has been offered to students, faculty, and professionals around the world. These same techniques have been made available to d.school students and are described in his new book The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life.

He has found that these types of learning experiences enhance students’ ability to make a meaningful positive difference in their own lives. He is especially pleased that his activities at the d.school have contributed to creating an environment where students and coworkers get the tools and values they need for realizing the enduring satisfactions that come from assisting others in the human community.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Bernie.

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Morris: Before discussing The Achievement Habit, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Roth: It was a Stanford colleague, Bob McKim. He was my first close friend after I arrived at Stanford from New York. He grew up in the San Francisco area and had attended Stanford so he was very hooked in to the California scene. He introduced me to the concepts associated with the human potential movement and to the people associated with the Esalen Institute in the mid-1960s.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Roth: That would be the late Ferdinand Freudenstein, my thesis professor at Columbia University. He was a serious scholar and at a very young age one of the world’s leading researchers in kinematics, the science of motion. By example, he showed me what it meant to be a serious scholar and to develop an in-depth knowledge sufficient to propel me from a young student into a strong contributor on the world stage

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Roth: When I came to Stanford I was a fairly traditional engineering professor. I was interested in teaching my technical subjects and in doing research with my PhD students. My interests and energies were devoted to recreating, for my students, the experiences I had had as a graduate student. Then my colleague Bob McKim invited me to join a weekend he had arranged for faculty at the Esalen Institute. That experience opened my eyes and my heart to the idea that there was more to being a good teacher than giving students technical content. From then on, dealing with the whole person became one of my major teaching goals.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Roth: I feel the main benefit I got from my formal education was learning how to get the job done. I was a fairly irresponsible teenager. When I almost flunked out as an undergrad, the shock was a wake up call, and I learned to always do my work, even if it meant not getting any sleep. Then when I got to graduate school I was poised to absorb the habit of studying on my own and learning new and difficult concepts. These experiences made me the person I am today and gave me the self-efficacy to tackle new challenges and take control of my world.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Roth: I love this quote. I believe I operate in a similar manner in dealing with my students, colleagues, friends and family. The first parts of the quote contain the elements of what we call empathy in the problem definition phase of design thinking.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Roth: Absolutely correct. In my experience a lot of time and resources are wasted in blind meaningless pursuits foisted on organizations by leaders that should have known better.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Roth: I certainly agree. The material in my book is a good example of this. When I began teaching this material in the mid-1960s, it was considered completely far out and subversive for an engineering student to deal with these human centered concepts. Today, courses of this type are the rage, and are heavily oversubscribed. I am certain that in a few years there will be so many different versions of these types of courses that the concepts will be viewed as cliché.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Roth: Yes, this has been my experience. Understanding what is going on when something seems wrong has led me to breakthroughs in my research. Interestingly, this quote can also be linked to the design thinking idea of learning from failure.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Roth: This one is bit tricky. Vision can lead to a lot of things. Some times it is hallucination. However, other times it can provide inspiration. I would reinterpret this to say: Decide if your vision is actionable or if you just want to keep it as a comforting pipe dream.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Roth: This reminds me of another saying: “If it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.” This was one of the favorite sayings of Rolf Faste, one of the people my book is dedicated to. It is one of the curses in our society that children grow up with the mantra: if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Yet, the schools rarely deal with the issue of how to decide what is worth doing.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Roth: I agree with Davenport and Manville. In fact, I even go a step further. I think even great leaders (of which there are not as many as is usually assumed) could profit from tapping into others to enhance themselves by using the wisdom of a collective.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Roth: Yes, this is very close to a basic design thinking principle, learning from failure. We often construct a trial balloon, usually called a prototype, of an action in order to test a concept. It is usual for there to be failures involved. If the failures reveal a previously unrecognized truth, we consider the “failure” a great success. We have a saying; fail early and often in order to succeed more quickly.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Roth: If it is true, it makes sense. Stories can be inspirational. And, in order to tell a good story it is useful if one understands more than the isolated events. One needs to fully understand the big picture and how the story can appeal to the listener’s psyche. These are all tools a great leader finds very useful.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Bernie cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Achievement Habit link

The Stanford University d.school link

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