From Orientation to Graduation, a New Way to Teach Teamwork

(Photo: The reMaterials team collaborates in the Cleantech to Market course)

It's a typical day in the Berkeley-Haas Innovation Lab, and teams of students are busy with Post-its and whiteboards, developing a “collaborative map” of their groups' strengths and challenges. At one table, however, there's frustration. The students, tasked with developing a market entry plan for an ultra-efficient flywheel battery developed by Berkeley scientists, have had trouble agreeing on roles and even finding times when they can all meet.

It's already two months into the course, and a team process diagnostic—part of the new Teams@Haas curriculum—has confirmed these collaboration challenges have stymied their progress on the project.

"We haven't even had a chance to all meet face-to-face," says one student in the cross-disciplinary team, which includes three evening and weekend MBA students, one full-time MBA student, and two public policy students—all with conflicting schedules.

"I had assumed that summarizing our meetings was something you'd take on," says one student to another.

"We all come from such different backgrounds, and every one of us thinks differently, so it's making our negotiations challenging," observes another.

Flash forward two months, and the Flywheel Battery team has just nailed its final presentation at the Cleantech to Market Symposium—the grand finale of the course. The audience gave it the "Rocked It" award for most engaging presentation, and the overall "People's Choice" award. 

"I think the 'collaborative mapping' session was a turning point for us," says team member Nilesh Murthy, EWMBA 15. "A lot of us had been thinking about these problems but not talking about them. That day we got it all out in the open."

Defining the Skillset

There's no doubt that majority of work in most organizations today is done by teams, and collaboration skills are highly prized by employers. Yet how many teams fail for reasons that have little to do with lack of expertise or ideas, and lots to do with competing priorities, different expectations, unclear decision-making—and even festering resentments? For most of us, collaborating and leading teams takes practice.

That's the idea behind Teams@Haas, a new curriculum rooted in scientific research that shows shared goals, effective coordination, and a climate that supports interpersonal risk-taking enhances team performance. “Collaboration is more than a buzzword—it involves a specific skillset that can be learned and developed,” says Lecturer Brandi Pearce, who holds a Ph.D. in. Organizational Behavior.

"In teams, we often think about the task, and forget about the process of how we are going to get there," says Pearce, who spearheaded the curriculum, now in its second full year in the core Full-time Berkeley MBA program. "We don't take time to reflect: how can we give and receive feedback? Are our goals aligned? How are we going to make decisions? Have we created a team climate in which members feel safe?"

A Mobile Curriculum

Teams@Haas is unusual in that it's not a stand-alone course, but rather a modular curriculum woven throughout the MBA program. "At each step, students get to build on their skills," Pearce says. "They’re continually re-exposed to the concepts and have multiple opportunities to practice on different projects and in different contexts. Over time, they become independent in using the tools and leading teams."

The curriculum also reinforces the behaviors associated with the school's Defining Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself—which have become deeply ingrained in Haas culture since their launch five years ago. Pearce recently offered staff a Collaborating in Teams workshop, based on the same curriculum.

In the MBA program, students are encouraged at the beginning of every team project to develop a structured Collaborative Plan that outlines their goals, how they want to coordinate work, and how they will create a climate that supports learning and innovation.

Building trust and aligning goals can be especially tricky, says Dan Wong, MBA 15—part of the first cohort of students to go through the full Teams@Haas curriculum.  

"In our planning session, we pulled apart everyone's goals and motivations. For example, maybe the project at hand is my #1 priority, but you have a different priority. Who am I to say what that is?" he says. "Being brutally honest about your goals, and accepting other people's, takes maturity. But it's a much better scenario to know up front than to find out along the way."

Week Zero Launch

As soon as the students arrive at Haas for orientation week ("Week Zero"), new MBAs are assigned to study teams that they'll work with over the next four months. During the fall, they learn about scaffolds that can support their team dynamics, particularly in fluid, interdisciplinary and intercultural team contexts. Students also begin developing a mindset, capabilities, and interpersonal leadership skills needed to foster effective collaboration—including how to constructively give and receive feedback. Professional development coaches work with them throughout the two-year MBA program.

The next skillset is to practice collaboration in an innovation context. Debra Underwood, MBA 02, an executive coach who worked with six teams in the core Problem Finding, Problem Solving course last fall, said she saw her teams put the skills to good use.

"Halfway through the semester, they revisited their original plan, using the Collaborative Mapping technique to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t," Underwood says. "What was amazing is that based on what they learned, my teams that weren’t doing well pivoted. It changed their trajectory, and they got to a much better place."

Taking it Outside

The Teams@Haas curriculum culminates in the applied innovation courses, where students work with outside clients. In addition to Cleantech to Market, these courses include International Business Development, Lean Launchpad, Social Sector Solutions, Real Estate Investment Analysis, and more. Every Berkeley-Haas MBA student is required to take at least one applied innovation course.

Shaila Narang, MBA 15, served as her team's lead in the Cleantech to Market course. The group's client was an India-based startup working with the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry on a recycled roofing product for slum housing. The team was cross-disciplinary and international—with students from India, London, and Canada who were studying chemistry, public policy, and business. Though the group got along well from the start, they weren't operating efficiently—until the coaching sessions turned things around, she says.

"(Pearce) really brought out the subtle differences in our communication styles, across countries and disciplines," says Narang. "It gave me a good understanding that we may speak different languages, but when we pay attention to our differences, they make our team stronger."