It’s easy to get seduced by data. You can collect it quickly, slice it endlessly, and tailor it effortlessly. Logical, flexible, and authoritative, data offers the illusion of control, precision, and even foresight. In truth, data is messy and mercurial. Imperfect people forge imperfect models, rife with contorted hypotheses, slipshod samples, and cherry-picked takeaways. It never tells the full story. Too often, digital behavior reveals the path – but not the reason – for the journey.
That’s one reason why leaders are encouraged to step away from the clusters and cohorts and talk to real people. That was the message behind Mahum Yunus’ favorite course at New York University’s Stern School of Business: Tech and the City. Co-taught by a Stern Professor Arun Sundararajan and Albert Wenger, a managing partner at Union Square Ventures, the course place Yunus and her peers with Series B startups. Their job? Hit the pavement to talk to potential customers – and observe how they interact with their product – so they can sharpen the startup’s value proposition.
CONSUMER BEHAVIOR 101: ‘PEOPLE ARE CRAZY’
Sure enough, this ‘old school’ exercise taught Yunus about the salesmanship – and the value of surveilling, probing, listening, and building relationships in the development phase. “We were amazed at all the insights that we pulled out from the interviews,” she admits. “They were often a point of view we had not considered. This highlighted how crucial (and often overlooked) it is to talk to customers about their needs and just observe how they interact with the product. By teaching us to avoid leading questions, learn to observe, and listen to customers, it highlighted the importance of bringing in a true customer perspective when making product and business decisions.”
Stern’s Tech in the City fulfilled the mission of any great MBA course: it changed how students viewed the world. At Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, Declan Nishiyama received his wake up call in his Consumer Behavior course. His big takeaway? Sometimes, decision-makers forget how vices like pride and sloth impact beliefs and choices as much as logic and self-interest.
“So many decisions are based on the theory that people act rationally, but that is absolutely not the case,” he argues. “People do crazy things all the time, like anchoring our price estimates to the first values we hear or overvaluing things we own. This class was a great way to understand those foibles of human psychology and to leverage that knowledge into better business decisions.”
THE HIDDEN HAND…OR KUNG FU WIRES?
It wasn’t just consumer behavior that defied norms. In David Bach’s Nonmarket Strategy course, capitalism itself is placed under the microscope – where variables like security, infrastructure, and cultural values often play an unsung role in the success of the markets.
“We like to believe that business functions best when the invisible hand is free to do its magic, without interference from outside forces,” explains Hosanna Odhner, a Yale SOM MBA who took the course. “But free markets are like kung fu artists in movies; they seemingly fly through the air performing feats, incredibly powerful!—until you realize all that magic is made possible by invisible strings that are holding the actors in mid-air. Free markets may fight like kung fu masters, but they are all enabled by the invisible strings of society that make their accomplishments possible.”
These are just three of the courses cited by the Class of 2018 for teaching them unforgettable lessons that will resonate through their careers. Sure enough, the choices were as diverse and refreshing as the students themselves. From pricing to operations to microeconomics, graduates found their inspiration in the most unexpected of subjects with the most profound of takeaways. As part of the process for selecting the 2018 Best & Brightest MBAs, Poets&Quants asked nominees to list their favorite MBA classes – and the biggest lessons they gained from it.
NO BETTER TEACHER THAN FAILURE
Not only did these courses change how the Best & Brightest thought, but they also achieved something even more fundamental: They changed how they acted. That was the case for Boston University’s Matthew Warshaw at the Questrom School of Business. Here, he took Design Thinking, a problem-solving mindset devoted to immersing one’s self in a prospect’s day-to-day. As part of the design process, design thinkers are constantly churning out ideas and experimenting with variables to identify enhancements that prospects may not be aware they need.
In this course, Warshaw experienced design thinking through creating a new device for carrying money – a process that required students to focus on the person over the market or result. “We worked in pairs to design a device for a specific person,” he recalls. “The goal was to identify your partner’s needs even if he or she could not articulate them directly. This type of empathetic thinking is key to understanding customers and fellow employees. Design Thinking has taught me how to be a more empathetic thinker and leader.”
One of the best ways to correct behavior is through failure. In Professor James Schrager’s New Venture Strategy course, students get a healthy dose of failure. They delve into the delusions and missteps that haunt failed startups from day one. For Jonathan Osser, it was an unforgettable reminder of the consequences inherent to ill-defined strategies and imprecise execution.
“Many entrepreneurial classes focus on past successful investments or ventures,” observes the University of Chicago Booth School of Business grad. “This class, in many instances, focuses on failed ventures, why they failed, and how they could have been potentially successful had they followed specific frameworks. As a student, and as I think about potential entrepreneurial and “intrapreneural” business ventures I am interested in pursuing, it was more impactful to identify moments of failure and what strategic takeaways can be adopted from these failures than taking conclusions away from successful past business decisions.”
STUDYING THE POLITIC DIVIDE IN THE HEARTLAND
Learning by doing is another way to reinforce key lessons. This experiential underpinning was another ingredient in an enduring education – and a key facet of the Commercialization and Innovation course offered at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. Here, says Michael Provenzano, students pitch startup ideas to classmates, who then vote on which ventures to join. For the remaining two quarters, the teams continue to fine-tune their pitches, along with engaging in “customer discovery” and “financial forecasting” as they prep their venture for launch.
While the hands-on structure provided a replicatable system for starting a business, it also reinforced a universal lesson: never stray too far from your customers. “The number one reason why businesses fail is because they do not listen to their customers—a realization that became glaringly obvious after our team pivoted our business model on three occasions to accommodate the feedback we received from customers,” Provenzano points out.
That takeaway applies to more than customers, adds Columbia Business School’s Ryan Ripp. He recently completed Bridging the American Divide, a course that whisked the class off to ground zero of American political division: Ohio. Co-taught by Professors Bruce Usher and Ray Horton, the course salved the rhetoric and peeled away the caricatures to reveal the humanity behind divergent political stances. “We spent five days in Youngstown, Ohio meeting with labor unions, community organizers and leaders, and business owners on both sides of the political spectrum to listen to their viewpoints and engage in dialogue,” he reminisces. “The biggest insight I gained from this class was that a person’s political and social viewpoints are often far more nuanced than the media portrays. Business leaders must encourage open dialogue and actively seek common ground with employees to foster a unified corporate culture.”