How to Select a Clinic Project

E.H. Clark, Jr., Board of Trustees, Harvey Mudd College

How would you choose a project? I have a few “do’s” and ”don’ts” about choosing a project. Let’s deal with a few of the “don’ts.” Don’t give the Clinic what I call your impossible dream: that is, the holy grail kind of situation that has been around in your industry for years and nobody has been able to solve it. You might say, “Hey, that’s a good project idea.” Well, it really isn’t. It’s no fun to work on the impossible, and part of the Clinic experience should be fun. So make sure it is something that is achievable.

Don’t give anything that requires a long learning curve. In other words, if you have to have years and years of experience before you can even explain the problem to someone, for heaven’s sake, steer away from it. If you have a clearly identifiable kind of project or a large problem which can be divided up into isolated components, these are the kinds of things you should consider for projects.

One of the things I find you should not do is propose a project that is anything in your critical path. I do not believe you should put the Clinic in any position where if they don’t finish the project, or if they don’t have a perfect hit on their project, you bomb out on the introduction date of some product. Get something that is not time sensitive, not in your critical path, that if you get a good start before the semester is over you can go ahead and finish it up internally and make the meeting date on the time of your project. That’s very important.

Now let’s go over some of the “do’s.” My first and the most important “do” is to give something that is really needed, something you really want. If you are giving a handout, you are going to have a hard time hiding it, and I don’t think you want to work on a handout, a crumb that nobody really wants. It’s very difficult to get your motor running over something unless you believe that if you crack that nut, somebody really wants it. People respond to needing something.

Covering the isolatable element, make sure it is something that can be easily isolated. It can’t have too many tentacles out into other things that require the knowledge layers; so be sure you can do something that is reasonably identifiable.

Looking at the goal system, try to get something that will be incorporated in a future product if it’s a winner. There is really something nice when you go down and see a product that has the name of company X on it, you can feel as though you made a contribution to that product. Not only does it give you a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment, but it also gives a sense of being needed that is very important.

The other thing I hope you would do if you set forth a project, is not try to just push it out and forget it. Give some consulting time. Perhaps I’m putting back on my hat as part of the Academic Committee of the college, but part of the experience is working with people who have to meet deadlines, that have to meet goals, who have to meet budgets, and get things done by a certain time. I think the experience of working with a company’s engineering group and feeling as though you are taken in as a participating part of it is very important.

Last, and not least, be sure you give the big picture. What role does this project play? Why are you doing it? Why does the company need and want this?