Personal View

By Charlie Black, MBA 12

On a Sunday evening last September, I found myself sitting on my bed, notebook in hand, gazing at a large chunk of watermelon.

I had been studying this bedroom still-life for half an hour. To my surprise, I kept noticing new things: graceful green patterns in the rind, icy crystals in the pink core, the earthy smell of a fruit grown on the ground. As I observed the watermelon, I observed myself observing, and paused occasionally to capture my reflections on paper.

It was Sunday night homework as usual in Problem Finding, Problem Solving (PFPS), Haas' new class on problem solving innovation. After the first five minutes, I confess I wasn't sure how to avoid being totally stupefied by this assignment. But after 30 minutes, I could scarcely keep up with the thoughts and memories that this watermelon- watching evoked.

The exercise was a lesson in observation. Gathering data—whether in the form of pictures, numbers, or even stories—is a fundamental part of solving business problems. The point I took from the assignment was that in order to gather the most meaningful data and to inspire truly innovative ideas, we have to immerse ourselves in observation and slow it down.

From Literature to Left Brain

This process of observation and idea generation that is at the heart of PFPS was not entirely novel to me. I came to business school with a highly un-quantitative degree in comparative literature. I had arrived hungry to get my first real exposure to subjects like finance, statistics, and accounting, and to spend a couple of years honing my analytical "left" brain to razor-like sharpness (let's hope).

Yet in PFPS, as my study group learned to visualize our ideas on 30 or so post-it notes organized across a table-sized paper canvas, I was reminded of an undergraduate fictionworkshop I had taken. To better understand Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and narrative in general, our class had painstakingly diagrammed the story across an entire blackboard. It was a way of thinking visually, of looking at complexity from a fresh angle.

I was intrigued to see how the creative aspects
of PFPS—the mind-mapping and group brainstorming,
the visual ideation on post-it notes—resonated with the art of fiction. The gears of my "right" brain were beginning to turn again. Still, I never imagined that learning about innovation at Haas would involve staring at fruit! Judging by some of my classmates' reactions, I don't think they did either. "My old company would never use this stuff," chuckled a classmate one morning. As business students, we're trained to seek out quantifiable data and arrive quickly at analytical insight. We do not like to slow things down!

Lessons on the Playground

After exercises in observation and ideation, each team in our class tested its new skills on the real-world challenges of a local nonprofit organization. My team set to work studying Playworks, a company that places on-site coaches in struggling schools to facilitate healthy, structured play during recess.

After several brainstorming sessions, my study group visited Rosa Parks Elementary in West Berkeley. It was a crisp Friday morning and we were on a mission to do some primary anthropological research: How did Playworks coaches work with kids? What did the teachers, kids, coaches, and administrators really think about the program?

Carrying our notepads and camera rather sheepishly, we found an inconspicuous spot on the playground steps to watch Playworks in action. First we just looked at each other uncomfortably. But in time we were engrossed in observation. The kids chanted call-and-response rhymes, hopped a jump rope spun like a clock hand by the peppy young coach, and bounced around happily between the walls of the school yard. Despite all this excitement, the Playworks coach never lost her kids' attention. She was a drill sergeant of fun.

Next a teammate and I spent half an hour in the principal's office, where I was struck by his thoughtful, humane view of public education. Public schools, he said, are about educating all classes of society together. Rosa Parks has students whose parents are Berkeley professors and children whose parents are homeless. Playworks facilitates this mission by ensuring that kids from diverse backgrounds learn to socialize constructively and have fun together.

The final class project involved developing recommendations on how Playworks could innovate its current business model to expand its program. As my team developed this capstone, I realized that this class had helped demystify a question I have wrestled with at numerous stages of life, from my literary days to my work in Google's online ads business to my class projects at Haas: "Where do good ideas come from?"

I have learned from Problem Finding, Problem Solving that good ideas can come from committing to a process of observation and ideation, and training my right and left brain to work together. I'm eager to put this process to the test in my next three semesters at Haas.