A MOOC for Growing an Organization

A MOOC for Growing an Organization

Instructors: Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton
Department/School: Stanford Graduate School of Business - Digital Learning Solutions
Course: Scaling Up Your Venture Without Screwing Up (MOOC)
Audience: Entrepreneurs with a venture they want to scale and MOOC participants interested in how organizations deal with the “problem of more.”


Professors Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton spent much of the last seven years researching the differences between organizations that scale well and those that scale badly, compiling the lessons they learned into their book Scaling Up Excellence: How to Get More Without Settling for Less. They were interested in sharing these insights with participants seeking to solve real-world problems. In particular, they wanted to help entrepreneurs avoid common decisions and patterns that resulted in failure.


  • Rao and Sutton draw conclusions about a particular aspect of scaling, and illustrate their point with anecdotes and very brief case studies. For example, a “Catholic” organization (Intel, In-N-Out Burger) will attempt to closely replicate an existing model with each expansion, while a “Buddhist” organization (Ikea in China) will flex its model to meet local needs. A debacle or “clusterfug” occurs when a group experienced some mixture of illusion, incompetence and impatience (e.g. Pearl Harbor, New Coke, Uber surge pricing.)

  • The central theme of the class was the practical application of these lessons to a real world venture. For example, participants were asked to imagine a future where their own business fails - and then trace back that failure to its root causes.

  • The course was offered on the NovoEd platform, chosen to facilitate group interaction.

Online Strategies:

  • Team Formation: Participants formed groups to address a real world scaling challenge. Teams were formed in the first week to enable groups to work together as quickly as possible.

  • Assignments or “milestones”: These focused on applying the weekly lessons to an actual venture (often the participants’ own). They were either written or video-based, and peer reviewed by 3 or more other participants.

  • Video lectures: Brief (under 10 minute) lecture videos, each concentrating on a different aspect of scaling. We shot these in the GSB’s studio on a greenscreen background, and composited the professors into a virtual, animated environment. Graphics and photos reinforced the teachings.

  • Interviews with scaling experts: We interviewed ten industry leaders at their offices or on campus. They answered practical questions around topics including hiring, company culture, changing roles as a company expands, and dealing with major setbacks.

  • Multimedia Case Studies: These used video, animation, graphics, and interactive data visualizations to enhance a written case. Created for an “on the ground” MBA class, the Peixe Urbano case focused on the rapid growth and contraction of a Brazilian startup founded by a GSB alumnus.

  • Weekly Participant Showcase: Professor Rao highlighted notable participant work in a weekly video.

  • Final Project: The assignments culminated in a group presentation, which was delivered in video format.

  • Live Webinar: A final course wrapup with professors Rao and Sutton included instructor comments on participant projects, questions from participants and interactive polling on the sli.do platform.

  • Active monitoring of participant communications, including discussion forums: We sought to answer communications from participants within 24 hours, “triaging” problems into technical or content-based categories. Throughout  the course, we would also reply to selected participant comments to keep discussion forums active.

Lessons Learned:

  • Short lectures and high production quality led to a high rate of video watching. An average of 95% of most videos were watched before viewers “dropped off” (see data below).

    Participants found the videos informative and useful.

    • “Please don't close the course. I want to look at the videos again and again.”

    • “Thank you so much for providing this course! The videos were very well designed.”

    • “The highlights were the professor videos and guest interviews.”

    • “For an online course, the video special effects were excellent and certainly aided learning”

    • “Thank you a lot for the course and great videos!”

  • Participants appreciate instructors with personality, especially in courses where storytelling is key:

    • “I was definitely fond of our two instructors, their passion and dedication. They were central to the experience in every perspective.”

    • “Huggy and Bob are engaging presenters, very candid, insightful, engaging, etc.”

    • “Thank you so much of the chance to learn, become introduced to online learning at a high level. Prior, I was against online learning. Because of Bob, Huggy, their team at Stanford University... I have evolved on the matter 100%.”

    • “This was a great experience and woe to the next people whose MOOCs I join, as they'll be compared against this one”

  • Peer feedback can vary widely in usefulness. For our purposes, peer reviewers were given a choice of “red”, “green”, or “yellow” to rate assignments, and then a blank textbox to elaborate further. Often participants would give insightful and detailed feedback, but just as often, it was limited to a few terse words. Some participants chose to rate six or more of their fellow participants. It would seem desirable to incentivize quality feedback.

    • “Enabling the interactions between students (peer-led learning) was brilliant. Good job. I learned the most interacting with the other students, giving evaluations, etc.”

    • “For me, the most challenging part of the course was working through the various language barriers of the peer reviews (giving and receiving).”

    • “Peer evaluations were not helpful.”

    • “The method of peer review is not only an excellent way to get feedback, but it increases a feeling of accountability, and provides additional learning through reflection and exposure to completely different perspectives. I reviewed more than was required.”

  • Technical issues, even minor ones, can overshadow technical achievements. For example, a small bug in the survey submission reminder led to numerous complaints throughout the course. Additionally, a temporary glitch in team size limit led to several larger teams than we had planned on.

  • The multimedia case study was very well received, and has encouraged our group to continue building more of them:

    • The case study was amazing. It was so in depth and this is the type of detailed information about the story of launching and scaling a company that I was looking for.”

    • “Really loved the case study covered and its relevance to the different course materials being covered. I believe outside of the lectures and interviews, that was my favourite aspect of the course.”

    • “More case studies! People learn from examples and going through the case study, I felt like I was part of the company as well and got a chance to put myself in Peixe’s shoes and contemplate decisions and how I would have handled it.”

    • “The case studies chosen and displayed were phenomenal. I honestly loved the way the Case Studies were presented. More case studies would be better than worse.”

  • Forming productive teams of strangers online is difficult, especially in one week. Open enrollment means that literally anyone can join the class. Participant engagement, aptitude, and efficiency will always vary widely:

    • “Connecting with like-minded people who care about the same problems helped me a lot. The discussions we had for the exercises taught me way more than if I had done them on my own.”

    • “My team were all very busy professionals…. The problem with a MOOC and establishing teams is that one person ends up doing all the work (yours truly).”

  • Maintaining course quality and participant engagement  leads to higher completion rates. NovoEd calculates “completion rate” as a ratio of participants who completed to the course to those who completed the first assignment. This gave our course a completion rate of 60.5 %, comparable to the highest rated NovoEd MOOCS, which had a range of 33.1% to 62.4%.

About the Teaching Team:

Professor Huggy Rao

Huggy Rao (@huggyrao) is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is also the author of Market Rebels (2009), numerous research articles, and has been awarded the Sidney Levy Award for Teaching Excellence, the W. Richard Scott Award for Distinguished Scholarship, and is a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, and the Sociological Research Association. His teaching specialties include leading organizational change, building customer-focused cultures, and organization design.

Professor Bob Sutton

Bob Sutton (@work_matters) is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School, where he is co-founder of the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization, the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and the Stanford Design Institute or “d.school.” He has written numerous academic and applied articles and is author or co-author of six business books including The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, both New York Times bestsellers.

Colleen Fleming

Colleen Fleming is an Instructional Designer and Project Manager at the Graduate School of Business. She has worked in the instructional design field for the past eight years developing online, in-person, and blended learning experiences for corporate and higher education audiences.

Justin Willow

Justin Willow, MS ‘97, is a Motion Graphics Designer and Project Manager at the Graduate School of Business. He has worked in Silicon Valley for the past 15 years helping people tell their stories through animation and interaction design.