DU retools MBA to produce workforce armed with creative problem solving and strategic thinking skills

July 05, 2016

Denver Post

Business schools should produce graduates with the skills and abilities that companies need most. But according to Bloomberg Businessweek surveys, corporate recruiters have found many newly-minted MBAs wanting for creative problem-solving, strategic thinking and communication.

The classroom isn’t the best setting for developing these skills — and that’s why we’re taking Denver MBA students out of the classroom and into the business world.

When our MBA students start this fall at the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business, they’ll take part in a first-of-its kind experiential curriculum, designed to provide them the skills – and the opportunity to practice those skills – that employers want most.

Instead of completing a series of traditional courses to complete a degree, Denver MBA students will compete in four challenges, including building a start-up, supporting an organization  working for the social good, solving a corporate problem and traveling outside the U.S. to work across cultures.

Each challenge is in a real-world environment. In the program’s first enterprise challenge, students will learn to create from scratch, repeatedly refining a business pitch, and how to act on ideas with limited structure.

In the social good challenge, students will face constrained resources and make a positive impact in a high need area. This will be through solving a tricky issue for a nonprofit, NGO, or government body.

The third challenge, the corporate challenge, centers on solving a problem or developing a value-creation opportunity for a corporate partner. It will test students’ ability to work in complex organizations, and see if they have what it takes to use their academic training to produce real-world outcomes.

The final challenge is global. Students will work cross-culturally on a major business issue outside of the U.S., dealing with a diverse set of ideas, points of view, customer types and more. These are critical skills for effectiveness in any kind of business regardless of size or scope.

The challenges are taken on in six to seven-member teams, with five active students plus a faculty member and, as needed, a business professional acting as a mentor. The teams are competitive, because research shows teams function best when they’re doing their work in a “tournament” environment. Just like in the real world, there will be winners and losers. Each challenge offers a chance to work with a new team.

Challenges and classes happen simultaneously. What students learn in the morning, they’ll try out in the afternoon and then come back to class again with a better idea of what they understand, what they don’t, and what’s needed to get the job done. With the support of faculty advisors, mentors, and personal coaches, students use each challenge to hone strengths and overcome weaknesses.

Our model is powered by a personal growth agenda combining career services, academic advising and executive coaching. A key component is one-on-one professional development and leadership coaching by licensed, practicing executive coaches. Going into each challenge, students have integrated personal growth and career pathway plans – developed with a coach and career advisor – to develop the skills and competencies their resume needs.

At the end of each challenge, students’ progress is assessed by a personal coach, peers and others – a 360 review – which informs a new plan for the next challenge.

Our faculty worked hard to develop this new curriculum and together we’ve innovated in a difficult landscape. In the history of management education, just three major innovations have occurred: the case study method developed more than 100 years ago at Harvard, the action-learning revolution led by the University of Michigan 20 years ago, and the new Daniels Method created here. The Daniels College of Business has a history of innovation since its founding in 1908, and I’m proud to be a part of this latest invention.

Though employers demand it and students thrive in it, no other school is doing this kind of challenge-driven management education. It brings it all together: academic training, the pressures of a real-world business environment, assessment and self-improvement.

For students interested in more than just “business as usual,” now there’s a change to prove your work passes the market test.