Marilyn Jian Yi Caton (2Y 2021) meets change with innovation by creating a new Kellogg Slack channel for networking and team-building.

Part One: Learning to Innovate in a Virtual World

By Marilyn Jian Yi Caton (2Y 2021)

Constraints drive innovation

I was hanging out in Gies Plaza on my last day in the Hub when I ran into Professors Meghan Busse and Florian Zettelmeyer, who had just come from a Zoom training session for faculty. I was just about to empathize with them for being forced to unexpectedly re-create their upcoming curriculum when I realized I had misread the situation. They weren’t just going to grin and bear it, and virtual teaching wasn’t just an obstacle to overcome. Instead, they couldn’t wait to use technology to innovate in classes that they had taught for years. While I listened, they were already brainstorming ways to encourage interaction across everyone in a virtual classroom, not just the person sitting next to you like they would’ve done in person. I had read it before in business articles and interviews, but this was the first time it really hit me: constraints really do drive innovation.

Failure as feedback

When Northwestern’s approach to social distancing was first announced, many students had concerns about a virtual Spring Quarter. After all, one big reason why people get a top MBA is for the relationships built while on campus or traveling together. I wanted to address this loss much as my professors did – not re-creating what we had, but intentionally trying to build something new and different. To do this, I used the time-honored elementary school strategy of Guess and Check, aka throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. And with that, DIY Kellogg (#diy_kellogg) was born: a Kellogg Slack channel serving as a virtual networking facilitator and playground for creative remote team-building activities. At least, that’s what it was supposed to be. I wanted to be experimental on principle, but actually found it extremely difficult to implement things that I didn’t think people were going to like. Finally, I hit upon a new philosophy – that failure was actually a valuable way to find the edge of what works and what doesn’t.

Change is constant

In the two weeks since I founded DIY Kellogg, it’s grown from a handful of interested students to one of the largest Slack channels in the Kellogg workspace. In that time, we stumbled onto a rhythm of events, communication, and general channel interaction that was starting to settle. In fact, I had just started feeling comfortable with how things were going when I realized the beat was changing again. It seems incredible after all this unstructured time, but the quarter officially starts up again next week! While I had intended to just keep swimming, I realized that there are soon going to be many other organizations running virtual events (student clubs, KSA, Kellogg administration) and DIY Kellogg needed to find the right niche for us all to provide the best experience to the Kellogg community as a whole. It might take something like making strategic choices about what activities to support, collaborating with other event sponsors to avoid experience overlap or gaps, and formalizing team roles to make running DIY Kellogg a sustainable effort through 2020 and beyond. To be honest, I’m not really sure what that looks like yet, but check back in a couple weeks – I’ll let you know what we landed on.