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

by on November 27th, 2012

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, system 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.”

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.

Kindergarten kids usually beat MBAs at the marshmallow chllenge

The lesson: Most MBAs spend too much time planning and debating instead of simply doing. And generally, they leave the marshmallow as an afterthought, finding out that it’s too heavy for the spaghetti sticks at the end when they are running out of time. Instead, the lesson is that they should be testing their assumptions continuously, trying different things out right away, and checking the sturdiness of the structure by putting the marshmallow on much earlier than they do.

It’s a bit humbling when Beckman tells the class that kindergarten children are far more successful than MBA students at the exercise. “None of the kids want to be CEO,” says Beckman, “and business school students are trained to do the single best thing—rather than try many things and iterate along the way.”

Ultimately, says Beckman, MBA students find it challenging to think in different ways—which is essential to the innovation process. “When we worked on taking different points of view,” she adds, “they watched the trailer for a documentary on the American Teacher and identified the different points of view in the video. Then in class we taught them how to do ethnographic interviewing, and had them try it out on each other to capture the high school experience. They then contrasted what they had learned about high school from each other (a student view) with what they learned from the video about other views (teachers, administrators, media).”

Whether it’s a discussion on taking different points of view or building a spaghetti tower, the aim of the course is to open up MBA minds to more innovative thinking. “What we’re trying to do is say we think you have good tools for solving problems,” says Beckman. “But do you have good tools for looking at problems in the first place?”


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