SOLVING PROBLEMS REQUIRES CONTRAST, COMMUNICATION, AND COORDINATION
Diversity is one of the greatest sources of power in any organization. At Brigham Young’s Marriott School of Management, Autumn Marie Wagner, a triple threat actress, singer, and dancer, brought a poet’s mindset to teams boasting wide-ranging backgrounds. For her, such diversity served as a “quantifiable difference maker” in her Creative Strategic Thinking course with Jeff Dyer, which “significantly and consistently yielded better ideas, products and strategies.”
Diversity may be a game-changer, but its potency hinges on the quality of communication. That doesn’t just apply where there are different cultural backgrounds. The dynamic can also be found among divergent operational functions, organizations, and industries, which are often working towards the same ends in entirely different ways.
That principle is illustrated in Leadership: Designing The Future, an experiential, interdisciplinary course that was developed in partnership between the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Mary Gamber describes it as a seminar-style course that integrates computer-based simulations to explore the tangled relationships between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. “The biggest insight I gained about business from this course is that solving the biggest social problems requires cooperation and coordination between multiple sectors and companies—each of which bring their own strengths and weaknesses,” Gamber explains. “I think business brings a lot of unique resources and problem-solving approaches, but the for-profit sector has to work with the other sectors to really make progress.”
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO SELL ME THIS PEN?
Many times, communication mistakes are the best teachers. That was a lesson taken by the University of Iowa’s Meganne Franks during a Rapid Continuous Improvement course. Here, her team partnered with Whirlpool on a Kaizen Event — and learned that manufacturing success requires more than intricate mapping. “The biggest insight that I have gained is that process improvement is not rooted within the process, but the people by which the process is executed,” Franks laments. “My team built a robust system, but it was not successful because we did not emphasize buy-in from the employees.” Still, this hard lesson came with a silver lining for Franks. “This insight led to an internship in continuous improvement and now, a full-time career in change management. This course has forever changed my life.”
The best MBA courses don’t just deliver content, either. In some cases, they boost confidence as well. That’s what the PRIME module did for Laja Obasaju at USC’s Marshall School of Business. A required first year experiential course designed to immerse MBA candidates in a country’s business culture, PRIME took Obasaju to Taiwan, a trip that culminated with her team presenting to top executives at a memory device firm on how to reach U.S. consumers through social media. For Obasaju, such events cemented that she could thrive wherever she went. “I learned that even as business students, we have the power to affect change and bring unique insights that can even benefit a brand worth over $200 million dollars,” she asserts. “I also realized that if that was what teamwork could accomplish after a year of business school, I could be truly unstoppable once I graduated, and should not limit myself to only thinking to make small changes in the industries around me.”
Confidence wasn’t the only intangible that the Best & Brightest gained from their favorite courses. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Andrew Ward, an engineer-turned-consultant, dipped his toe in the rough-and-tumble world of sales. Taking Craig Wortmann’s Entrepreneurial Selling course, Ward eschewed the safe-and-sophisticated world of business frameworks for more uncomfortable pursuits like asking people to take a leap of faith: changing what they’ve been doing — and paying money for the privilege of doing so. The upshot: Ward was able to step out of his comfort zone and take on awkward jobs without batting an eye. “During the quarter, I approached complete strangers and tried to sell them a pen, and even spent one uncomfortable afternoon cold-calling 79 plumbers asking them about their selection criteria when deciding between toilet brands,” he admits.
WITH BUSINESS, YOU CAN FIGURE ANYTHING OUT
The best MBA classes tend to push students too, forcing them to elevate their performance to meet expectations. That’s the case with Analytical Problem Solving, a core course taught at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “I can’t say that I necessarily enjoyed it,” quips Tahira Taylor, “but I did learn a lot from it.” During the course, Taylor would pore through case data, using various models to identify patterns, test hypotheses, and make recommendations. On the surface, it could be time-consuming, mind-numbing drudgery. But it had a point, adds Taylor. “Once I got to my internship, I found that I was working on similar business problems, and that the skills I gained in the class were directly related. It taught me to dig deeper, well below the surface of the obvious data, in order to find the real causes of problems and how to fix them.”
Alas, some classes are designed to lower the bar, slicing the most complex and conflicting concepts into memorable and easy-to-understand chunks. That’s a gift possessed by Gregory Bunch, who taught New Venture Strategy to Jennifer Dunn at Booth. For Dunn, starting a business seemed overwhelming, with all the intricate steps and conflicting advice involved. However, Bunch supplied a structure that enabled her to prioritize what was truly important in the process. “The class armed students with the ability to identify and answer the key questions that are critical to assess business success. Once simplified in this way, I felt empowered to quickly and effectively evaluate new business opportunities.” Although Dunn decided to join the Boston Consulting Group instead of launching a startup, she gained plenty from the course. “The principle of simplifying complex businesses into a few critical questions is a powerful tool that I will apply to understanding businesses as a whole.”
Knowing the right questions to ask is at the heart of Business On The Frontlines, the defining experience for MBA candidates at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Here, students fan out to war-torn and impoverished corners of the globe for 10 days, meeting with national and local leaders to identify ways to build economic sectors ranging from manufacturing to tourism. For Abigail Oduro, this learning opportunity was a means to apply what she learned, whether it was creative problem solving or quickly pivoting after a failure. Even more, it was a reminder of why so many professionals stream into business school in the first place. “Sometimes the answers to business questions may not be easy or clear,” she observes, “but they can be figured out.”
Here are some additional courses that this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs listed among their favorites:
“The Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) with Professor Ajay Agarwal. This course selected MBAs from the program and paired them with promising start-ups to gain first-hand experience interacting with ventures. After completing this course, I began to truly appreciate the multifaceted challenges in this space. From exploring the real driving factors in a venture capitalist’s decision making process to the intangible value of cohesive teams, I believe this course has given me the tools to succeed in my own ventures.”
– David St. Bernard, University of Toronto (Rotman)
* Go to next page to learn about popular courses at Stanford GSB, MIT Sloan, Yale SOM, and the London Business School.