Creative and Critical Thinking at B-Schools

January 13, 2010

Here’s an interesting piece from the NYT’s regarding some innovations in b-school curriculum. (Thanks to Kyle for the link). 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/business/10mba.html

I’m encouraged by what many schools (particularly Rotman and Stanford) are doing to encourage both divergent and integrative thinking. I often feel our curriculum gets very functionally anchored and students struggle to pull broader concepts together as they move through school when most subject matter has been relatively functionally specific.

I feel that there aren’t “marketing” problems or “finance” problems. There are business problems that require diverse expertise and perspectives to arrive at the best solutions. Our CSOM Enterprise programs help us deliver situations that force students to do this. It’s interesting to see how some other schools are adressing the same issues.

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Dealing With Ambiguity and Murky Questions

January 2, 2010

One of the biggest differentiators I see among people is their ability to deal with ambiguity. We coach people to work with clients or bosses to understand what expectations are, but I worry that we go too far or the message is taken too literally. A professional that wants a dynamic career has to be able to balance understanding expectations with an ability to create a path on their own.

I really struggle to articulate what I mean because there certainly is an “it depends” quality to this discussion. What I’m talking about here is the ability to face a murky situation and make headway. I am NOT suggesting people ignore or not seek feedback on direction. But often you are being asked to figure it out because people don’t know the answer. If they did, they wouldn’t be asking you.

I want to talk about several different ways this struggle can play out.

Thought Process

First there is the situation where people really want to put effort into the problem, but there are cognitive reasons they are floundering. I would cluster the “flounderers” into two broad (and unscientific) categories, linear and abstract thinkers.

Linear thinkers want to know the straightest line to the answer and put together a clear Gantt chart and work plan to grind out the answer. The problem is often that the question isn’t even clear. There’s a natural iteration and struggle in projects or situations that are fuzzy. You have to be willing to work the situation, material and people through some fuzziness and not know exactly what the output will look like. You have to be willing to remain patient and positive while working through rounds of starts and stops etc.

The abstract folks are often the opposite of the linear gang. They are so focused on all the interesting combinations and permutations of the problem space or the situation that nothing ever gets committed to print and lots and lots of interesting conversations result in little if any progress. There’s often a reluctance here to “commit” to any specific path because we might not know and there could be a “better” or more ideal answer etc.

So what’s the solution? Recognize your own style and that of the group/team you’re working with. Commit to putting your ideas in print, but recognize that it will iterate A LOT the more ambiguous the question. I’ll talk more about iteration below. My generic answer to most of these situations is to put a timeline on it and start committing ideas to print and circulating them to others for iteration.

The iteration cycle is critical and often where people fall down. They mistake being asked a question with needing to answer it by themselves. Getting good thoughts in front of people early leads to more cycles of improvement and depth in the final product.

Lack of “Appropriate” Effort

The second scenario is when people either aren’t really trying or don’t know what “trying” looks like.

A common situation that I see is a basic lack of understanding of how hard it is to get things done and the level of effort (my “appropriate” above) truly required. People often want to know the straightest path to “the answer”, not understanding there are no straight paths. You will burn up a lot of time on some paths that don’t play out, but that is unavoidable. We can use tools to limit it and improve productivity, but the iteration I talk about is staying on the problem and continuing to push even as some solution paths don’t pan out.

Generation and iteration are the keys here, along with having a personal sense of stick-to-itiveness. You need to be unwilling to settle for weak answers. I see people stop at the first obstacle or early on when there are ways over, under or around the obstacles. Merely finding some web content and pasting it into PowerPoint isn’t what I’m talking about. You have to challenge yourself to keep asking why does this matter?, what are the implications? etc. You’ll often have to go create data and analysis.

I’ll conclude with those who don’t really try and dismiss them summarily. If you aren’t committed to a problem or situation, you won’t solve it, the end. So you need to decide are you in or out and owe teammates or colleagues clarity if you’re not in.

So, how this can play out in career path?

Most people I work with say they want to be challenged and have lots of responsibility, but often want to be told what/how to do it. In my experience it rarely works that way. You need to be comfortable with charting a course if you want success in organizations. There is rarely an algorithm to spit out answers to difficult situations. People who succeed regularly solve these problems by sticking to them in creative ways. Get to the point where you are open to feedback, but in lieu of it are able to proceed confidently on a course of your own devising and sticking with it until the problem is solved.


The Importance of Wonder

November 6, 2009

One of my key criteria when evaluating a potential hire is “how curious are they?” Particularly in consulting, you have to want to solve problems. In my mind, you need to be curious and driven to get to answers to be a effective problem solver.

I think this column by Olivia Judson in the New York Times does a nice job of hitting on a piece of this: http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/license-to-wonder/ 

Her comments about wonder and imagination are worth considering. She lays out the case for imagination as critical to scientific inquiry. Progress isn’t a linear slog through gradual increase in the body of knowledge (“facts upon facts”). It’s lumpier progress, sometimes gradual and predictable at other times led by leaps of intuition that overturn the common understanding.

In my program, I often get feedback that I’m “too structured” or that I demand a lot from my students. Often, my point to students is about what Judson discusses. You need to have enough structure to get to good questions, but then be willing to let your mind wander and imagine possibilities. The challenge is often knowing when to turn the wandering back into concrete action steps and specific analysis and recommendations.  This takes time, thought and a lot of work. You don’t get anything right on the first try. It takes lots of iteration and feedback.

In her example, Rosalind Franklin didn’t make the critical connections about DNA’s structure because she was too rigid and linear in her thinking. Watson and Crick were more open to “playing” with ideas. Having said that, they were also driven problem solvers. Had they kept playing they wouldn’t have solved anything. Their play led to useful and increasingly accurate representations of the mystery they were trying to solve (the structure of DNA).

Business problems are often the same. There’s a time for wonder and imagination, but for it to turn out a useful product there also needs to be a time for tangible, concrete work product.

I guess experience is knowing when the balance is “just right”.


Orbiting the Giant Hairball

March 4, 2009

 

Ever wonder how you survive to innovate in a larger company? Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball; A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace is a fun and useful read. MacKenzie worked for Hallmark for 30 years and has compiled a sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound summary of his experience a learnings.

 

The “Hairball” is any organization that has put in place departments, rules, processes and standard operating procedures to systematize its existence. “Orbiting” is the art of staying relevant and attached to said hairball without flying off into space (or irrelevance). He calls it “responsible creativity”. Orbiting creates all sorts of desirable outcomes because it allows an individual to use the resources of the hairball while not being completely tied to the routinized and standardized processes inherent in it.

 

The book is produced creatively, with drawings, poems and art used throughout. It’s also a quick read.

 

A few of his key points that lined up with my way of thinking:

1.      If you truly can’t stand the hairball, leave it. Note he remained at Hallmark 30 years despite fighting aspects of the company’s culture for years.

2.      Be proactive. I call it “don’t be a victim”. If things aren’t working, what are you doing to try and change them?

3.      Responsible creativity means risking being wrong, but ultimately being aligned with the organizations broader goals. For him, you had to working towards making money selling greeting cards. The battles were around HOW, not WHETHER to do this.

4.      He had great metaphors and stories about corporate life that offer wit and wisdom on coping and overcoming absurdity.

5.      Figure out what matters to you. It won’t be clear at the beginning, but keep asking and challenging yourself.

 

“If you go to your grave

without painting

your masterpiece,

it will not

get painted.

No one else

Can paint it.

 

Only you.”


Edward Tufte and the Visual Display of Information

February 19, 2009

For those of you interested in deeper exploration of how to more effectively display ideas, particularly relating to data, I highly recommend the work of Edward Tufte. Tufte is an award winning author and emeritus professor at Yale where he taught courses on data analysis and display. His books and teaching are challenging and force you to move beyond powerpoint and overly simplified forms of information display.

I often teach principles of simplicity in message and communication. Tufte is very effective at pointing out and teaching how to make “simple” powerful without being “simplistic”. There are very data rich and complex ways to show information that are also intuitive and easy to understand. His writings are rich with examples and are beautifully built. The books themselves are works of art.

His site has multiple commentary threads that are worth reading. In addition, I recommend checking out his essay on the tyranny of powerpoint.


Structure is Important (Duh!)

February 14, 2009

One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.

 

I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.

 

The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.

 

Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.

 

So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.

 

First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.

 

1.      Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.

2.      Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.

3.      Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.

4.      Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.

5.      Then of course, you have to actually do the research.

6.      Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.

·        A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.

·        Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.

·        Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.

 

Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.

 

Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.


Presentation Advice from Chip & Dan Heath

December 18, 2008

Made to Stick is a great guide to building and communicating your ideas more effectively. I thought this link to the Heath brothers’ Fast Company column on delivering presentations was interesting.

It reinforces (and better states) my point about creating questions in your audiences’ minds and then answering them.

Whenever you are presenting, think of each slide or major point as begging a question you then need to answer. The gradual reveal pulls your audience or reader along. To do this you have to have layed out a logical storyline, thus imposing orgaizational discipline.