In a wide-ranging interview, Alan MacCormack, the MBA Class of 1949 Adjunct Professor of Business Administration and the person in charge of HBS’s Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) curriculum, met with The Harbus to discuss changes to the FIELD program the faculty has implemented for the second year of the initiative.
Last week, The Harbus described MacCormack’s takeaways from the first year of the program and the primary motivators for the changes to come in year two. This week’s concluding piece in this two-part series will detail those changes in greater depth.
In designing FIELD 2.0, one thing was immediately clear to Alan MacCormack and the rest of the FIELD faculty. They needed a theme.
“Last year, FIELD seemed to students more like three distinct courses with their own objectives,” MacCormack said. “I think we didn’t do as good a job at communicating the connecting tissue as we are doing this year.”
The connecting tissue they developed was, in MacCormack’s words, “very simple and to the point”: “FIELD provides students with the opportunity to put theory into practice, working in small teams on intensive projects to solve real world problems and create new business opportunities.”
The process of constructing that connecting tissue begins with FIELD 1, renamed this year as “FIELD Foundations.”
Foundations for what, though? For MacCormack and the FIELD team, the goal of the first module was to equip students with the skills and tools they would need to work successfully on the team-based projects that would follow in FIELD 2, FIELD 3 and ultimately, in the real world.
“FIELD is really all about leading and working in teams,” he said. “The aim of FIELD Foundations is to build skills and tools that will be useful and can be practiced in the other modules.”
This year’s FIELD 1 retains many of the exercises from last year’s program – communication, giving and receiving feedback, and building self-awareness for example – but with some key differences. At just four weeks, the program is shorter and more focused than last year’s seven-week module.
In response to community values issues that arose at the end of last year, the faculty has also added sessions that more deeply address issues of diversity, community and culture, and section norms.
From a content perspective, in keeping with the more clearly articulated goals of the FIELD curriculum, greater emphasis is placed on team dynamics than last year.
For example, MacCormack cited the negotiation exercise ECs participated in on the last day of last year’s FIELD 1. The negotiation, one of several activities that day, is now a day-long exercise featuring morning and afternoon sessions.
The morning runs as it did last year – teams arrive, read a short case, and negotiate. The afternoon session is entirely new, however, and to MacCormack, it serves as an important bridge to the content of FIELD 2 and FIELD 3.
“In the afternoon session we told teams to be sure to select a leader, with the idea being that we would get teams to think about different kinds of leadership models,” he explained. “The first thing in FIELD 2 and FIELD 3 that you’ll have to decide is, are you going to have a leader or not, and if you are, what process will you use to select one, will you rotate a leader, etc.?
“It turns out the most important thing a lot of the teams didn’t do last year was just to have that discussion.”
In structuring FIELD Foundations, MacCormack said the curriculum is now designed to generate lessons at three different levels.
“We’re operating at the level of the individual where we want to build your skills and tools,” he said. “We’re operating at the level of the team, to understand effective team dynamics. And we’re operating at the level of the section which is where we develop insights about section norms and culture.”
The changes to FIELD 2 were perhaps less dramatic than those to other parts of FIELD, simply because the hallmark feature of FIELD 2, the global immersion, was viewed as a resounding success.
“Ultimately, both the student and partner feedback on the immersion was tremendously positive – a tribute to the amazing job the GEO office did in setting up and managing the program,” MacCormack said.
There are changes to the second module, however. From a sequencing perspective, a conscious decision was made to assign teams at the FIELD 2 kickoff, but to avoid giving out the project assignments on day one.
“What we learned last year was the minute that we revealed the project, teams naturally just wanted to get working on the project,” MacCormack said.
Before learning their project details, students now have case studies about their destination countries that incorporate on-the-ground knowledge of alumni who live and work in those environments. The discussions of those case studies ended with a country expert sharing their perspective on doing business there.
Despite the success of the immersion experience, some adjustments have been made to that portion of the curriculum as well.
Costa Rica and Poland were removed as immersion destinations; MacCormack explained the changes were the result of student feedback combined with the university’s ability to source compelling projects in different countries. In their place, students will now go to two additional cities in China, Guangdong and Beijing, as well as to Malaysia and Chile.
Elements of the immersion schedule have changed as well. The immersion experience is longer, now lasting nine days up from last year’s seven-day program, not including travel days.
The midweek cultural experience that ECs will remember has been moved to Saturday. Sunday morning, students will present to and receive feedback from their peers which they can incorporate into their presentations before delivering them to their global partners the following day.
The final important change to FIELD 2 related to a side of the program students never see but which impacts them very directly: the selection process for global partners.
MacCormack said that all but one of last year’s 141 partners indicated interest in working with HBS students again. He estimated that a third of last year’s global partners had returned for year two. In addition, HBS faculty worked much more closely with all the partners to refine each project’s scope in advance of its unveiling.
“That’s not to say there won’t be scope changes – we’ve already had a few teams where the projects have changed,” he said. “But we expect less of it simply because this year there was a much longer dialogue where we could say ‘That’s not going to work for us,’ or in some cases say, ‘It looks like our needs and yours aren’t going to meet.’”
For FIELD 3, perhaps the most dramatic change in year two is the option for students to self-select their teams. Last year, many students whose teams were unsuccessful rued the fact that they had been unable to design their own groups.
MacCormack conceded that the question of whether teams should be assigned or voluntary had been a topic of much discussion among faculty members before year one, and that he was as interested as anyone to see how much of a difference the change would make.
“It’s going to be really interesting,” he said. “There’s a lot of research in the literature suggesting that the whole founding process is really critical to the success of these ventures, so having students go through that will be really valuable. In FIELD 2, teams are assigned, so in FIELD 3, students can choose to experience a different dynamic.
“That said, I don’t think self-selecting teams will automatically solve all the problems that students thought the assigned teams created last year.”
Students will self-select their teams the first week of December; students who would rather be assigned a team still have that option. “Many students told us they really liked getting to know members of the section they may not have chosen to work with,” MacCormack said.
All teams must have six members, as the infrastructure simply does not exist to accommodate many multiples of two or three-person teams.
MacCormack said it would be critical for self-selecting teams to consider not only each potential member’s shared passion for a given idea, but also the cross-functional diversity they might bring to the table. “Designing a team is much more than finding the perceived A-players. You need to balance different types of skills and different perspectives to achieve a high-performing team.”
Once students are in their teams, they will have longer to arrive at their projects than the two weeks ECs had in year one.
“You can only compress the ideation process so much,” MacCormack said. “A consistent piece of feedback from students was they just needed longer to kick around ideas, so we’re extending that period.”
MacCormack suggested that these discussions would naturally begin earlier this year given that students will know their team members in early December.
“There’s no formal requirement to do anything in FIELD 3 until the winter semester,” he said. “Over the break, presumably, they’ll be kicking things around, even if they’re not together physically, they will be thinking about ideas.”
Other changes to the content for FIELD 3 are works in progress. MacCormack recalled how last year, students engaged in a sales pitch exercise shortly after delivering presentations to student investors in another section. The hope this year is to develop a session on sales that is more differentiated from the investor presentations, and will add real value to a team’s ability to go to market.
Another change to FIELD 3 will be a new source of help and advice for teams – the school is working on alumni advisory boards that will work with each team on a periodic basis throughout FIELD 3.
“Building greater engagement with our alumni network in the real world is the aim,” MacCormack said. “We’re working hard to design a process that will make it valuable for everyone, teams and alums alike.”
Ultimately, FIELD remains a hugely ambitious undertaking, one that will continue to change and adapt in the years ahead.
“In every iteration we get feedback from students, we learn something new, and we understand how to do it a little better,” MacCormack said. “It’s exciting to be a part of something so new. Of course, we couldn’t do this without an amazing supporting cast – so I tip my hat to the faculty, the staff and the entire student population.”