Group mentoring & the value of perspective

While I’ve been doing team mentoring (two or more mentors matched with a single team in the same session) for over eight years at the MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS), this past week was my first experience with group mentoring, courtesy of the MIT Innovation Sandbox Fund. While much of the operations of Sandbox on their web site is for mentors and student teams only and is password protected, I think I can share a bit about the process without revealing anything proprietary.

First lets look at the program from the public front page of the site:

The program is…

  • Accessible — All 11,000 MIT graduate and undergraduate students can participate. Sandbox is not a contest that “picks winners.”

  • Educational — Designed to fit within the traditional university experience, Sandbox helps students pursue entrepreneurial ideas alongside classwork and research activities.

  • Personalized — Student teams are matched with mentors and given personalized curricula that best support them in moving their ideas forward. 

  • Practical — Students learn by doing, and gain real world experience in moving their ideas from concept to impact. 

As to Personalized, I’ve written elsewhere that personalization is the major business trend of the 2000s: Business megatrends can lift all boats. Personalization is key to creating mentor teams and assigning teams to mentor; it’s not a simple pairing off methodology.

Student teams are indeed matched with mentors at The Sandbox. This year it’s team mentoring, similar to the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, but Sandbox partners a fellow, in my case a PhD EE student, with an experienced entrepreneur mentor. So far nothing remarkable yet …

But by putting several project teams in the same room together with two mentors – called group mentoring – makes for a very enriching experience, both for the founders and the mentors. We mentors get to meet lots more students and learn about their projects than we would have with just our one-on-one sessions.

After introductions are made all around, each team gives a short high level explanation of their project – not a pitch, just a spoken word only introduction. Then the fun, and the Educational aspect kicks in. We encouraged each team to make suggestions and recommendations – not critiques – about their fellow students’ projects. And as Alan Kay has said Perspective is worth 80 IQ points. While most team members are in engineering or scientific courses, their country of origin, native language, interests and many other factors differ. Group mentoring is an excellent proof point for the value of diversity. Without exception the comments made about each team’s project by the other team members were thoughtful, insightful, and helpful to the team. We mentors spent most of our time moderating, keeping our comments to a minimum, so as to leave the bulk of the hour to the students.

In group mentoring not only do the participants meet other teams and get to interact with them, it’s not a one-shot deal. There will be multiple sessions.

Of course, if you are interested in group mentoring I highly recommend you keep the group small: three to four teams, especially if each team consists of two people. Otherwise in the hour allotted time no one will get enough time to speak.

The group mentoring session was also Educational, as we mentors did offer advice and guidance. And perhaps most importantly we introduced the Business Model Canvas as a tool for the teams to help structure their startup businesses.

And finally, as with all good mentoring sessions, we handed out a homework assignment, the same one for each team.

My only recommendation for anyone seeking to emulate the group mentoring model would be to allow more time, we have 60 minutes, VMS allows 90 minutes for its team  mentoring sessions. And of course the pre-meeting time investment for mentors goes up 4X for group mentoring.  Be sure to allow time to review each team’s application or business plan before the meeting. It’s an investment of time well spent.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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