Classified: Berkeley MBAs Tackle The "Wicked Problem" Of The California Drought

By Morgan Bernstein


Outside it was a cold, hazy morning, but inside the Haas Innovation lab the room was warm and full of laughter. A group of full-time MBA students held center stage as they mimed taking a shower. Before that, two others had played the role of a couple talking to a therapist; another student had carried a mock baby and pretended to go shopping.

But this wasn't an improv class, and the students weren’t just there to have fun. Rather, they were focused on a very serious problem—fixing the California drought. It was the task they were given as part of their first-semester Problem Finding Problem Solving class—a requirement for all Berkeley MBA students, and an important introduction to tackling the kind of complex situations they'll have to deal with throughout their careers.

“No one’s going to say to them, ‘Here’s a problem, go solve it.' That would be within their comfort zone as business-minded people,” said Haas Executive-in-Residence David Riemer, one of the judges for the students' final presentations. "But innovation doesn't happen that way—it happens when people have the tools and inclination to look for a problem to solve and then go solve it. That's what makes this program special."  

The class was broken into four sections, each with 12 teams that went head-to-head in front of a panel of judges that also included Elizabeth Glenewinkel of gravitytank, Ennis Olson of the Berkeley Innovation Group, Haas Lecturer Clark Kellogg, and Lisa Baird, previously of IDEO and now a master of interaction design student at California College of the Arts.

The judges were looking not only at the quality, novelty, and impact of each presentation, but also at the level of storytelling involved. Each group was also competing for their section's top honors: a custom “Golden Sharpie” award from Lecturer Jennifer Caleshu, the instructor for the course.

Each year, the class is deliberately structured around a "wicked problem" that has no easy answers. The drought provided ample fodder: Caleshu asked her students to do user research on any dimension of the drought that intrigued them, and to come up with a solution to that particular customer's problems—whether it be restaurant owners, 20-something renters, or organic wineries.

“There are going to be many, many solutions, all of which need to be tried,” explained Caleshu. “This is the kind of problem that requires a design thinking approach."

The design thinking process gives students a toolkit of approaches that stimulate innovative thinking around serious and complex challenges. It involves collecting information from outside the world of the classroom—or office, extracting insights from that research, coming up with a wide range of possible solutions, and getting feedback to refine those solutions further.

“It forces them to really talk to people,” Riemer said.

That means the students need to take an innovative and flexible approach, and that can be challenging. “It’s giving them an entirely new way of thinking,” said Viral Shah, MBA 16, a graduate student instructor who went through the class himself last year and who was on the judging panel this year.

First-year student Jenny Grzegorczyk, MBA 17, agreed. “It’s something I’ve never been exposed to,” she said.

And that’s just the point. As hard as the idea of fixing the drought was, the students threw themselves into their presentations with enthusiasm and creativity. During just one section, there were several strong presentations that found favor with the judges, ranging from a valve that reduced water supply to the most unusual idea: a program to convert dry fountains into public art.

“I like how provocative your idea was,” Glenwinkel told the students. “I like that it had nothing to do with apps.”

But the final winner for that round was the “FHaaset,” a simple shower device that used audio and visual cues to warn people when they were using too much water. “I think we had a very succinct story,” said Howard O, MBA 17, a member of the winning team, and the student who had acted out the shower scene. 

The winner for another round was Root Lending (pictured above, from left to right: Nathan Feltz, Gregg Miller, Shipra Agarwal, Debora Basso, and Laura Stewart, all MBA 17). The question they decided to pursue, "How might we make saving water financially attractive?", yielded an idea for a small business loan with rate reductions tied to water savings.

Each of the teams received feedback from the panel, but in the end it wasn't really about the presentations or even the solutions themselves. Instead, it was about introducing students to modes of thinking that they can use beyond Haas—where the problems they'll encounter don't always have simple answers.

Maya Mirsky 

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Topics: Academics  |   Full-time  |   News
Morgan Bernstein
Morgan was the Executive Director of Full-time MBA Admissions at Haas from 2016-2019 as well as a graduate of the program. She enjoys making personal connections with prospective students and guiding them through the MBA admission process.