Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman talks about her course, “Problem Finding, Problem Solving”

How does this class help build innovative leaders and thinkers?

SB: Most classes are content-oriented, but we don’t ask how did you figure out how to solve the case study? This class is less about models and more about taking the students through a process. It’s straightforward logic. How do you go about understanding what the problem is in the first place, framing the problems, and generating alternative solutions? Students need to learn how they can think it through by understanding the situation, identifying problems, and coming up with alternative solutions.

This class is about the fundamentals of identifying and then finding solutions for problems. While most business school classes ask students to do problem finding and problem solving, few make the process of ‘doing’ so explicit. They are more focused on having the students learn the class content—e.g., marketing, organizational behavior—than they are on the process by which the students grapple with and digest that content. This class aims to provide students with the tools and a process for learning about a situation or context, identifying the problems or challenges present in that context, and then generating and evaluating a set of potential solutions.

The current term for creative problem solving is “design thinking” so why another name for this class?

SB: I think the term, “design thinking,” is getting a lot of attention right now, but lacks clarity and definition. I named the class, “Problem Finding, Problem Solving,“ for two reasons: First, the class integrates tools and techniques not only from design thinking but from systems thinking, critical thinking and creative problem solving as well; and second, I thought the name more simply represents what we plan to teach in the class. I’ve learned over the years that many MBA students have little if any formal exposure to problem finding and solving processes, and that they often are more focused on solutions than they are on making sure they are clear about what the problem is in the first place. This class aims to make sure that they balance the effort they put into framing and reframing the problem with the effort put into solving it.

How do you teach problem finding, problem solving and how do the students learn to apply it?

SB: In my class, we will study the business models of real start-up companies and generate alternative business models for them by applying the five steps of problem finding/problem solving: understand, observe, synthesize, realize, and experiment. The students will collect data on the context in which the company operates, testing the assumptions that lead to the company’s current choice of business model. They will observe users of the company’s solutions to gain insight into how well they meet those users’ needs. They will synthesize the data gathered to identify patterns and insights, and will then generate alternative business models that the company might consider. They will take prototypes of those models back to the market to test them with users and other stakeholders, and will then present their results to representatives of the companies they studied.

How do you expect students will use what you have taught them?

SB: While their time in this class is short, and they will only get to apply the process in a cursory fashion, our hope is that in the BILD program they will get to use the process many more times. All of our BILD experiential learning classes, for example, will ultimately encourage students to apply the process and tools they’ve learned in the problem finding, problem solving class. Whether the course is International Business Development (IBD), Cleantech to Market (C2M), or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), our hope is that the students will be prepared with a common language, common process and problem finding & solving toolkit that will allow them to more critically and creatively approach the opportunities they have to discern the right problems and think broadly about possible solutions.

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Sara Beckman

Sara Beckman on "Problem Finding, Problem Solving":

“This class is less about models and more about taking the students through a process: How do you go about understanding what the problem is in the first place, framing the problems, and generating alternative solutions? Students need to learn how they can think it through by understanding the situation, identifying problems, and coming up with alternative solutions.”

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