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

Team Two’s winning 27-inch tall spaghetti tower

Beckman teaches four 30-student sections of the course, while a colleague teaches another four sections. The Problem Finding course is a prerequisite to Haas’ required experiential learning module. MBAs can choose one or more of these experiential courses from among ten programs, including Haas@Work, which assigns student teams to innovation challenges at a select group of companies that have included Cisco, Walt Disney, Visa, Virgin America, and Yahoo! Beckman is coaching Haas@Work this semester, which allows her to bring ideas back and forth across the two classes.

Haas Dean Richard Lyons had been instrumental in getting the course to be a required part of the MBA curriculum. “It is really not very helpful to tell people to think outside the box,” he says. “People don’t know where the box is. An important element of this course is developing a capacity in our students to be explicit about the typically implicit assumptions that frame opportunities and problems. That shows you where the box is, and allows you to move one side or the other to see solutions you wouldn’t have seen. We believe society needs more people with this skill.”

In Problem Finding, the students seem gung-ho if not sometimes mystified by a few of the concepts and exercises. “Business problems aren’t just financial or accounting or marketing problems,” says Vivek Murali, a first-year MBA student who had worked in investment banking at J.P. Morgan and the Royal Bank of Scotland. “This class teaches you to look at problems more holistically. It’s rare that you have a class that reflects creative thinking in the core.”

Murali notes that earlier this year Haas students were on MBA teams that swept a case competition, finishing first, second and third, by using the concepts from the class. The B-school challenge, sponsored by Sony, focused on the company’s competitive positioning and product and marketing strategies. The Haas students were able to get more ideas on the table and sift through them faster than their peer and attributed their success to the techniques learned in the Problem Finding course.

 FOR SOME MBAS, THE VALUE OF THE COURSE BECOMES MORE APPARENT AT THE END

Though it is exercises such as the Marshmallow Challenge that may seen odd at first to some. “This is a class where you let the process unfold and the value of what you’re learning becomes clear at the end,” says Alex Justice, a first-year MBA who had worked in commercial real estate in Vietnam. “We’re told things really crystallize in the last two weeks of the course.”

So when students are asked to construct their spaghetti towers there is little skepticism on their faces. They’re divided up into teams of five students each and asked to go to work. Team Two, with both Murali and Justice aboard, settle on a teepee-like design with a spiral that rises some 27 inches off the table. Once they stab the marshmallow with a couple of spaghetti sticks, the whole structure starts to lean over like the Tower of Pisa. The group uses the string and some tape to pull it back up, averting a crisis.

Beckman moves from one table to the next with a measuring tape, and Team Two emerges as the winner, beating Team One by a mere inch. During the discussion of the exercise, four of the six towers have already fallen. Only the structures taped together by Team One and Team Two manage to stay up.