Using Big Ideas to Solve Big Problems

Submitted by: James Falbe (US), International Service Partners

Summary: Most business problems have elegant and simple solutions. However these problems do not all have economic or even business-related causes. Therefore the best solutions might not come from traditional business disciplines (accounting, management, etc.), but rather from the problem-solving methods of other academic fields (psychology, history, math). Only by training today's managers in the "Big Ideas" will they be able to treat both the symptoms and causes of tomorrow's big problems.

Full Description: Educate managers about problem-solving models from non-business disciplines. Teach them the big ideas of Psychology and how psychologists solve problems, the big ideas of history and how historians solve problems, etc. through every major discipline. We need to do this because every business problem is not an economic one. Illnesses like business problems have diverse symptoms, causes and cures. The excellent manager needs to be able to identify a cause, whether it be sociological, physical, or even managerial, and then have the tools to know where to turn to address the problem.

It is unwise to continue digging for golden problem-solving pebbles buried in the fields of "business canon", when large nuggets of problem-solving gold lie on the ground just on the other side of the academic fence. Why use complicated economic models when a simple psychological one will do? The most heralded pricing theory of our time, the Black-Scholes model, is nothing but a heat transfer theorem from applied mathematics. Real innovation doesn't come from thinking outside the box, but rather from scouring the boxes we already possess and finding new applications for time-tested ideas.

The executive best able to do this will be the one given an introduction to the models available in other disciplines and the problem-solving power that they possess. 

It will have a global impact. Educational models are easy to disseminate. As most management education takes place on University campuses, the necessary tools are already available to implement this idea immediately.

Buy-in is needed from the following:
a. Organizations which set the standards for management education.
b. Institutions which set degree plans to meet these standards.
c. Teachers who would plan and execute the courses.
d. Students who would benefit only if they see the value.

I see two ways to achieve such buy-in, though there are likely many others.
a. Find one top-five business school which is willing to implement this program. The results will drive others to follow.
b. Slowly build a coalition of major business and educational leaders who believe in the idea and are willing to promote such an agenda. Eventually a tipping-point will be reached and programs will come in line with what the market desires.

I see Business and Management schools creating either a semester or year-long course to present the major problem-solving models from other disciplines (Physics, Psychology, Math, etc.). Each lecture would be led by a guest professor of one of these disciplines, likely from the same university (not difficult to arrange). The lecture would consist of two parts. First, it would include an introduction to the Big Ideas in that discipline (pre-assigned readings could help with comprehension) and the problem solving models used to move the discipline forward. Second, each lecture would use a business case study to explain how a certain problem either was or could have been solved using this unique problem-solving method.

Overall the course could be combined with an outside consulting problem. Ideally, a real business would face a problem that isn't clear cut, and several student teams would offer a solution to the issue using the different problem-solving methods that they learned. The business schools would follow-up with these companies and record the success rate of these consulting projects as well as the success rate of projects conducted in other classes. No matter what metric is used, the success rate of the projects using a multi-disciplinary approach should be better than those that don't. 3 years should be sufficient time to collect data for a statistically significant result.