Ideation Day in Problem Finding, Problem Solving Class

This article is part of a series called Classified, in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms. If you have a suggestion for a class to feature, please email Haas Newsroom editor [email protected].

On a Monday afternoon in the new Berkeley-Haas Innovation Lab, a team of six students shared ideas in rapid-fire succession for alleviating San Francisco’s parking woes: an aggregator app that shows the availability of valet spots at restaurants and hotels, Airbnb for parking where people rent out their personal spaces online, a floating car that hovers above the street when not in use. No idea is too crazy at this stage, and students hold up sketches of their ideas. Soon dozens of solutions are clustered on large poster board panels.

It's ideation day in the MBA Problem Finding, Problem Solving (PFPS) class, taught by Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman and Lecturer Brandi Pearce. The class teaches students how to collaborate effectively, open up problems, and find more innovative solutions. During the semester, the twelve teams learn the four-stage PFPS method—observing; generating insights; diverging and converging (today's lesson); and iterating/experimenting, or rapid prototyping—by focusing on one of several problems.  Today’s goal: to use exercises involving metaphors and the business model canvas to generate even more ideas, then combine and refine potential solutions to arrive at a handful of solutions to take forward into the testing phase.

“The class teaches us to think of ideation and problems differently,” says Yaya Zhang, MBA 15. PFPS teaches you not to be opposed to something seemingly unrealistic, she says. The solution she'll focus on going forward is rent-a-lift: earning money by letting others use your car instead of parking it.

Unlike other courses that might be 90 percent lecture, in this flipped class, 90 percent of students' classroom time is spent engaging with teammates. Exercises push them out of their comfort zones and force them to embrace ambiguity. Students tend to want to know the end, but you can’t get it until you complete the entire process, Beckman says. “A big part of the class is being OK with not knowing what’s coming next.” To help them along, alumni, staff, a Haas executive-in-residence, and external professionals each coach two teams through various exercises.

 “I'm used to having a fixed set of options," says Oseyi Ikuenobe, MBA 15, who describes himself as goal- and solution-oriented. Before PFPS, he says, he would have stuck with the original parking problem and tweaked a solution, instead of reconceptualizing the issue to focus on helping people find the right type of parking for them. "Now, I'm working on dynamic pricing," he says of the solution he will pursue throughout the rest of the semester.

Students admit the PFPs process and learning how to work together can be disorienting, but Pearce, an organizational behaviorist who leads the MBA Team Performance and Research Program , guides them. Her lessons focus on the drivers of effective innovative teams, including balanced patterns of communication; thorough exploration of differing ideas; active reflection and feedback; and team norms in which risk-taking and failure are supported, accepted, and encouraged.  “Teams aren’t just about a collection of people. They are the engine around which companies are run,” Pearce tells students at the beginning of the class. “Innovation outcomes are highly dependent on the nature of your collaboration.”

Pearce runs each cohort through exercises that help them examine their team dynamic,  generating ideas about what’s working and what needs to be adapted. For one exercise, each team member selects from an assortment of pictures that reminds them how they feel about the group project: a cellist, deep space, a cowboy on a bucking bronco, a preening dancer, a bowl of Froot Loops. The methods speak to cultivating tolerance for ambiguity.  The visual format of a picture provides a platform for quickly communicating complex ideas and creating opportunities for developing shared understandings.  Pictures also aid visual learning and help bridge language differences.  Solo brainstorming time allows those who prefer to think before speaking gather their ideas.

At times, the atmosphere of PFPS smacks of rehearsals for an improv troupe as warm-up exercises have students blurting out random sounds (a monkey screech, a boing), making up names for imaginary products (flugleflam and jam-bams), and creating a story with each teammate offering one word at a time.

The point, says Beckman, is to jar them into a different creative space. The room itself, a new space at Cal Memorial Stadium, helps inspire creativity. One team dips into a bucket of suckers before beginning their brainstorm. Other teams select toys from the center table:  Play-Doh; Slinkys; monkeys with long bendable arms; soft, spikey rubber balls resembling sea urchins. Post-It Notes, markers, and large whiteboards are readily available; each team also has poster board panels that are folded up and stored for the next class so they can retain their visual information and have it readily at hand in each session.

“Using these tools really makes solving and thinking about problems easier,” says Michael Lindh, MBA 15, who says he'd learned in PFPS not to squelch creativity during idea-generation time. "Delaying judgment adds a lot of value," he says.

Organizational behaviorist Brandi Pearce (standing) coaches a team of MBA students working on innovative solutions to San Francisco’s parking woes.