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How Spaghetti & Marshmallows Are Being Used To Teach Creative Problem Framing At Haas

Haas Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman

Today’s class exercise is simple, if not a little unusual for a class that is part of the core MBA curriculum.

At UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman explains to 30 MBA students the rules. Each team of five students must build the tallest free standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of blue tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. They have all of 18 minutes to get it done.

The Marshmallow Challenge is just one exercise of more than a dozen in Beckman’s novel “Problem Finding, Problem Solving” course, which was added to the core curriculum two years ago as part of a revamping to focus more on innovative leadership. In the curriculum overhaul, a pair of existing core courses, Leading People and Leadership Communications, had been restructured to offer additional leadership skills, such as the ability to influence others. And then this course was added to the core to address what Beckman calls “the underlying skill sets that are missing in a typical MBA education.”

INNOVATIVE COURSE DRAWS ON RESEARCH IN CRITICAL THINKING, SYSTEMS THINKING AND CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING

Beckman’s course, taken while students are grappling with such basics as accounting, finance and marketing, introduces MBAs to the innovation process, drawing upon academic research in critical thinking, systems thinking and creative problem solving. It’s a long way from learning discounted cash flow analysis or the ins and outs of an income statement or a balance sheet.

Instead, MBAs learn to use visualization techniques and metaphors to more effectively brainstorm ideas. They learn the value of storytelling in innovation, along with frameworks to extract insights from “messy data,” as Beckman puts it. And they learn to be open to experimentation and rapid testing.

Many schools have exposed MBA students to some of these concepts before. And Haas has taught design thinking, a key part of this new class, for nearly 20 years. But what makes this course unusual is that it brings together a lot of modern-day leadership and innovation thinking in one place and is a required part of the core curriculum. The course’s success has led Beckman to do seminar versions of it for Haas staff as well as corporate recruiters who come to campus to recruit the school’s MBAs.

“We’re not claiming that there is anything new in what we’re doing, but our experience is that MBA students are not exposed to a formal representation of how to think about problems,” says Beckman, a former manager from Hewlett Packard who began teaching at Haas in 1988.

‘IT’S MUCH MORE ABOUT PROBLEM FRAMING, THAN PROBLEM SOLVING’ 

“A lot of the education that students received prior to the MBA program is about solving problems. It’s much less about framing the problem in the first place. Part of being an innovative leader is being able to frame a problem in interesting ways and to see what that problem really is before you jump into solving it.”

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