Leading Through Innovation

Problem Finding, Problem Solving Course Accelerates Innovation

Problem Finding, Problem Solving Course Accelerates Innovation

When a team of Berkeley MBA students claimed the title "America's Most Innovative MBA Team" (Pictured above) in fall 2010, they credited their victory, in part, to the new Problem Finding, Problem Solving course launched this year as part of Berkeley Haas' innovative leader curriculum.

Operating as "Haastile Takeover," Rahul Bijor, Blake Holland, Brandon Piper, Nancy Unsworth, and Scott Van Brunt, all MBA 12, emerged victorious in the 8th Innovation Challenge from an original field of more than 100 teams. Competing in the Business Model Innovation track, they proposed an online vehicle maintenance management portal as a way of attracting Generation Y consumers to Jiffy Lube.

Holland said the team of first-year students was amazed by how much they learned in just one semester that helped them in the December competition. "Our group naturally engaged in the innovation process we learned from our Problem Finding, Problem Solving core course," blogged Holland in a Haas post about the competition. "We started with a brainstorming session focused on divergence – a free-for-all where no idea is too farfetched – and then focused on convergence and gradually focused our ideas to create a comprehensive solution that captured the common values in each of our individual ideas."

New Processes, New Tools

The ability to rethink business models is just one of a broad set of skills that Problem Finding, Problem Solving aims to provide. "From managing climate change to alleviating global poverty to simply determining how and when Apple competes with Google, many of our current challenges are characterized by considerable volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity," says Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, who co-created the class with Lecturer Clark Kellogg.

Pullquote "These challenges defy simple explanation and resolution," says Beckman, adding that dealing with such challenges requires completely new ways of thinking. Beckman and Kellogg are experts in design thinking and draw from the fields of critical thinking, design thinking, systems thinking, and creative problem solving to give students tools for grappling with these complex problems.

"I've learned over the years that many MBA students have little if any formal exposure to problem finding and solving processes. They often focus more on solutions than on making sure they are clear about what the problem is in the first place," says Beckman. "This class makes sure that they balance the effort."

In the course, students examine the business models of real startup companies and generate alternative business models for them by applying the five steps of problem finding and problem solving: understand, observe, synthesize, realize, and experiment. The observation phase, in particular, requires slowing down–often an adjustment for students eager to jump into solutions.

Fruit and the Art of Observation

Charlie Black, MBA 12, wrote in the Winter 2011 issue of CalBusiness magazine about how one assignment required deep contemplation of a piece of fruit: "I found myself sitting on my bed, notebook in hand, gazing at a large chunk of watermelon," Black wrote. "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."

Black registered the exercise as the lesson in observation it was meant to be. "Gathering data–whether in the form of pictures, numbers, or even stories–is a fundamental part of solving business problems," he wrote. "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."

Students also collect data on the context in which a company operates, test assumptions that have led to a current business model, and synthesize data to identify patterns and insights and then generate alternative business models for the company. Since students take Problem Finding, Problem Solving ahead of the experiential learning course that is now a required element of Berkeley Innovative Leader Development (BILD), they can apply such skills to their experiential learning coursework.

"The concepts in PFPS are simple, but the impact is enormous," blogged Tim Lee, a recent graduate of the Evening & Weekend MBA Program. "We all agree that there are problems in our workplaces and the world that need to be addressed. Learning how to explore the issues through ethnographic interviews, gathering information from multiple viewpoints (mind maps, journey maps, etc.) and synthesizing it into relevancy are a part of the syllabus. These are truly skills that any Product Manager can use, but will also be important for any organizational leader."

Holland, of "America's Most Innovative MBA Team," concurs: "We truly felt that, at each turn and with each choice we made as a team, we were applying the skills we were developing in the classroom. To see such immediate value from our investment in the MBA program was incredibly rewarding."

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