How a University used treehouses to foster collaboration

The founders of Shoolini University at picturesque Solan in Northern India, were trying to solve a problem which is often overlooked by academic institutes.

The rigorous academic schedule made the students spend most of their time either in the class-rooms or in the library. The group interactions were confined to classrooms, laboratories, hostels, social events, dramatics and sports activities.

Co-founder Atul Khosla (ex Mckinsey partner & Oliver Wyman India CEO) and his leadership team were bothered by the following question:

How to make students collaborate beyond the classroom?

What they knew that just telling the students to collaborate will not change behaviours. They needed to come up with something so compelling that it would nudge the students to come together.

After lot many debates, they decided on the unique concept of creating tree-houses across length and breadth of the campus. The decision to go for these common spaces (treehouses) were based on solid reasons some of which I discuss later in this article. These treehouses were designed in such a way that they could seat small set of people who can meet and have meaningful conversations.

Surrounded by lovely pine trees and majestic Shimla hills, the treehouses are not only Wifi enabled but also have power sockets for Laptops & Tablets.

Since they were set-up, the treehouses have become a meeting point for students. Very often one can see students of various discipline coming together and discussing topics of mutual interest. These spaces have also become an ideation hub for potential startups.

When I was at the university last week, I was amazed to see each of these treehouses brimming with animated conversations.

The Shoolini treehouses provide some great insights on common-spaces in academic institutions:

1) Informal environments provide a great context to build on things learnt in the class and also debate / discuss topics of mutual interest

2) Most innovative ideas emanate at the convergence arts and science — Not surprisingly these treehouses are a meeting point of inter-disciplinary teams

3) The common workspaces which are connected to nature have higher creative and collaborative output — Wonder how many new universities in India are even looking at this dimension.

Common workspaces which are connectedd to nature have higher creative & collaborative output

4) Team size for creative collaboration needs to be small. Most of the treehouses at Shoolini University have been designed to hold only a small set of people. This is because best collaborations happen when teams are small. Don’t we know Ringlemann effect or Jeff Bezos two pizza rule .

5) Being in the lap of nature, such spaces help to reduce stress which is a boon for researchers and students who would like to unwind after a hard days work

6) When you want to change behaviour, don’t forget the power of context. Atul Khoslaand his wife Avnee Gupta used the concept of fundamental attribution error in social psychology to initiate change.

When you want to change behaviour, don’t forget the power of context

Next time, an academic institution thinks about increasing student collaboration, they could take a few lessons from the Shoolini example

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