Individual Problem Framing
October 26, 2006
On Monday, October 30, 2006, the Class of 2008 begins their Organizational Perspectives classes, the innovative courses at the heart of the new Yale SOM curriculum. They’re used to innovation, as they’ve already completed another all-new class: Individual Problem Framing.
As its name implies, Individual Problem Framing focuses on the first phase of problem solving – figuring out how to approach a problem. Edward H. Kaplan, the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Management Sciences, who took the lead in the development of the course says, “It’s clear that if our students can gain this kind of a skill that they will have an edge, because so much of what managers do is size things up, figure out what the problems are, get started on them.” Kaplan argues that solving a problem is often relatively easy, once it’s properly framed. “Once it’s more structured they know how to attack it,” he says.
Paola Allais ‘08, one of the first-year students who recently completed the course, agrees with this premise. “The metaphor which comes to mind is that of learning how to read. Of course, I learn from the content of the books I read. But if I don’t know how to read, I can never get to the content part of the exercise,” she says.
Individual Problem Framing began with a few sessions taught by Kaplan devoted to some of the most basic rules of problem framing, such as “Make sure you understand the problem before you do anything.” Kaplan led the students through brainteasers and showed them how to break a problem down into a simpler question. He also drew on his own research to show how he attacked the problem of how to prevent suicide bombings. (Kaplan’s work on this issue recently received the Koopman Prize for the outstanding publication in military operations research of the previous year. Read more about Kaplan’s research.)
“I would say what the students have the hardest time with is trying to stay simple, and not take everything into account,” says Kaplan. “People try to boil the ocean. You can’t boil the ocean. You can boil a small pot of water.”
Later sessions were taught by other faculty members. Barry Nalebuff, the Milton Steinbach Professor of Management, taught two classes drawing on his expertise in consulting and “Why Not?” problem solving. William Barnett, a retired director of McKinsey & Company and an adjunct professor of general management, turned one class into a mock consulting session. “He gave them a very unstructured business case where the students had to have their very first meeting on the spot.”
Jonathan Feinstein, professor of economics, lectured on the techniques experts in a subject use to frame a problem. For instance, how do master chess players look at a chess board? Cade Massey, assistant professor of organizational behavior, taught students about psychological pitfalls and biases that can interfere with effective problem framing. Overconfidence is one example. Studies have shown that when people are asked to guess an answer to a question on an unfamiliar subject (such as the number of Starbucks stores in the U.S.) and told to guess a range that they think is 90% likely to be correct, they succeed less than 50% of the time. Says Kaplan, “There’s a rule of thumb which is when someone says they’re 90% confident about something they basically have a 50/50 chance of being right.”
The final sessions, which focused on game theory and how to frame strategic problems, were taught by Benjamin Polak, professor of economics and management. Kaplan says that the number of different instructors coming in and out of the classroom made him sometimes “feel like Cecil B. DeMille,” but Karen Quinn ’08 appreciated the effort. She says, “It is a real treat to be exposed to some of the premier faculty at an early point in the program – rather than waiting for the elective choices. I've had some second years express envy that we have had this experience so soon in our career here.”
One overarching goal of the course was to prepare students for the kinds of problems they are likely to face throughout their careers. Says Kaplan, “Problems in the real world don’t come framed like homework assignments.” This meant bringing a little of the messiness of the real world into the classroom and asking questions that don’t have obvious answers. Allais says this aspect of the class was both challenging and rewarding. “It has forced us to put ourselves in a variety of uncomfortable situations, from which I believe we’ve learned quite a bit. We’ve had to shift our result-driven minds away from results. We’ve had to be wrong more often than right – and sometimes really wrong. We’ve had to accept the fact that there is not always a single right answer but many right answers.”