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Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman's unique MBA core course gives students the toolkit to conquer our most vexing business and societal problems.
By Ronna Kelly
Earlier this year, three Berkeley MBA students had less than 24 hours to address a major challenge for Sony: How to develop a competitive product and marketing strategy for the consumer electronics giant best known for the Walkman.
Working with peers from other schools on three separate teams, Raj Brahmbhatt, Benny Du, and Krishna Shah, all MBA 13, suggested using strategies from their Problem Finding Problem Solving (PFPS) course, taught by Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman. Among the strategies: come up with as many ideas as possible in 15 minutes without any judging; organize the ideas by theme; and then narrow them down to the most promising solutions.
While those steps may seem simple, they were unfamiliar to team members from other business schools. Yet they were very successful, as the three teams that included Haas students swept the competition, taking first, second, and third places.
“PFPS is truly unique among business school courses. The skills and way of thinking help set Berkeley MBA students apart in case competitions,” says Du. “PFPS helps to resolve deadlocks and ambiguity to get to the root of an issue.”
But PFPS, the flagship course of the school’s Innovative Leader curriculum, is doing more than helping Haas win competitions. Students also are quickly putting their PFPS skills to work in their Haas experiential learning courses and even their workplaces. The class provides skills for students to Question the Status Quo, one of the school’s four Defining Principles. It was created in response to Haas codifying its culture and sharpening its mission to develop leaders who redefine how we do business. As PFPS breaks new ground in business school education, it has been attracting the attention of other deans around the country.
“Our experience was that MBA students were not exposed to a formal representation of how to think about complex, wicked problems that don’t have an easy answer,” says Beckman, explaining the genesis of PFPS three years ago. “The goal is to teach students the process of creative problem framing and solving - first identifying and framing the problem and then coming up with alternative solutions.”
More than Design Thinking
Beckman is a pioneer in design thinking, which she has been teaching Haas students in her Managing New Product Development course since 1993. In 2010, she won an Academy of Management award for a symposium on integrating design thinking in business school curricula.
However, in developing PFPS, Beckman expanded the class beyond designing thinking to also include creative problem-solving, systems thinking, and critical thinking. “By integrating these three areas, we force students to in effect think about how they think,” Beckman says.
The course aims to help students learn how to solve business problems with more discipline “upstream” at the problem-finding and problem-framing stages. Students learn five primary skills: observing; generating insights; diverging and converging; storytelling; and iterating/ experimenting, or rapid prototyping.
Beckman teaches students which learning styles are most useful at different points in the problem-framing and problem-solving process. (See the adjacent graphic to identify your style.) Students learn about diverging - a learning style that views the world from multiple perspectives - to understand the context for their innovation work. And they learn about converging - a learning style that is ideal for finding practical uses for ideas and theories - to zero in on the best solutions.
The hands-on class requires students to apply their skills in all sorts of unusual exercises, from devising ways to increase fruit consumption in the U.S. to evaluating the U.S. education system and its leverage points for change. Full-time and evening and weekend MBA students take PFPS just before their required experiential learning class so that they can immediately apply their new skills.
PFPS Around the World
Teams in the school’s International Business Development Program did just that as they worked for clients around the world earlier this year. In Tanzania, a team working for Kilimanjaro International, a consulting and training firm, found one PFPS tool, the business model canvas, especially valuable. The canvas captures a business visually and systemically on one sheet of paper, including everything from customer segments to resources that serve those segments.
“Our charge was to develop a comprehensive business plan,” says John Schoenleber, MBA 13, a member of the Tanzania team. “We could have gone in any direction: Should Kilimanjaro expand to Rwanda and Ethiopia? Should they diversify? Should they do just consulting? The business canvas really helped us get our arms around what they do well, what their core competencies are.”
Kilimanjaro CEO and founder Greyson Kiondo also found the canvas valuable. “Seeing the firm visually on one single poster enabled me to better understand how the pieces of our firm fit together and where our strengths and weaknesses are,” he says.
One key insight that came from the canvas: The firm needed to more clearly convey its value proposition. “Moving forward, especially with bigger contracts, Kilimanjaro needed to better recognize what its skill sets are and articulate what it was good at,” Schoenleber explains. “We spent a lot of time on what is your brand and your mission, and how to communicate what Kilimanjaro does for clients.”
PFPS skills have proved valuable in other experiential courses as well. For her Board Fellows project, Amy Josephson, MBA 12, dived into “ethnographic/ day-in-the-life” research interviewing mentors about the nonprofit Berkeley Community Fund to evaluate its student mentoring program for Berkeley High students and recent graduates. The Board Fellows program places students as non-voting nonprofit board members for nine months.
“From all my ethnographic research, I was able to generate a whole host of areas for the organization to improve its program,” says Josephson. “PFPS really helped me tackle a pretty nebulous topic by having some clear steps for approaching it.”
Josephson’s research uncovered one interesting problem: a generational communications gap, with mentors confused about how to reach students. Students relied on Facebook and texting, while mentors were using email and telephone. Her recommendations included developing clearer communications guidelines.
PFPS in the Workplace
Evening and weekend MBA students, meanwhile, are taking PFPS skills back to the office. Kailash Hiremath, MBA 13, tapped PFPS when he led a brainstorming session with designers, sales managers, and the product team at Eton, which creates green energy consumer products, including iPod and iPhone accessories. “We used the Post-it note method to come up with ideas and concepts on where Eton can go next in terms of products and categories,” Hiremath says. “It worked out very well and was extremely engaging for everyone, including our CEO.”
Even Beckman and Lecturer Clark Kellogg, who also teaches the course, are employing PFPS concepts as they constantly experiment and update the class in response to student needs and responses. Beckman also has held PFPS workshops for Haas staff and recruiters who recently visited the school, and PFPS will be a core component of the Haas School’s new MBA for Executives Program.
Dean Rich Lyons has asked architects to design a special more flexible, open classroom for PFPS in the school’s proposed new building, but Beckman has an even more ambitious goal: create a Haas Innovation Lab in which Haas students could collaboratively engage in design and innovation projects with students from around the Berkeley campus.
“Engaging deeply in the innovation process requires a lively and energetic space populated by a variety of coaches and mentors and considerable cross-pollination across the disciplines,” says Beckman. “It would be great to see such a space on the Berkeley campus.”
Students learn about four learning styles in the Problem Finding Problem Solving class. This simple example of a creating a pie shop illustrates how a style works at each stage of the problem finding problem solving process.
ASSIMILATING: Good at understanding a wide range of information and putting it in a concise, logical form. Doodles graphics and loves math. Ideal for the Frameworks Stage.
CONVERGING: Good at solving problems and finding practical uses for ideas and theories. Good at helping steer a team through conflict and discern the best path. Ideal for the Imperative Stage.
DIVERGING: Good at seeing conrete situations from multiple view points. Interested in culture andhistory. Finds links with people. Ideal for Observations Stage of problem finding and problem solving.
ACCOMMODATING: Good at learning from hands-on experience and leading teams through brainstorming and testing concepts until a final solution is achieved. Ideal for the Solutions Stage.