Forty Principals and a Marshmallow: My Week at Rotman School of Management

Recently, I was afforded a rather awesome opportunity – to attend an executive leadership program at the Rotman School of Management at the University of TorontoThe Rotman School is considered one of the top business schools in the world, and has been ranked the number one business school in Canada many times. 

I flew into Toronto on a Saturday, knowing that my program was to begin the very next day.  Forty principals from across Canada, representing every province and territory, were invited to participate. We were shuttled from our hotel on the waterfront to the Rotman School. The facility itself was very impressive, with large open spaces, lots of natural light, and modern classrooms and learning spaces.  The architecture married an old traditional brick building (which may have been a church at one time) with a modern structure to a brilliant effect.  While the school was stunning, replete with a very cool “creative destruction lab,” it was the quality of the learning experience itself which impressed me most. 

Our primary instructor was Dr. Joseph D’Cruz, Professor Emeritus of Strategic Management, a Harvard educated scholar. “Joe” was an inspiring man who challenged us to do something significant with the gift we had been afforded.  By gift, it was clear he meant both the honour of being named one of Canada’s Outstanding PrincipalsTM and the chance to learn from some of the best leaders and thinkers in the country. He assured us that the week were about to embark on was going to be transformational.  I admit – I was excited.

Enter Gerry McCaughey, CIBC’s 10 million dollar man (Gerry is the CEO and his earnings last year were indeed $10,000,000).  Mr. McCaughey spoke passionately about the importance of a quality public school education, and shared many witty and sometimes meandering anecdotes to emphasize his points.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear him quote Charles Dickens, and found myself rather taken with him.  He showed a very human side to corporate Canada, and was able to articulate the need for Canada to remain competitive in a global economy.  He also spoke about human passions and interests, and the importance of pursuing career paths that are genuinely engaging. 

We heard from McDonald’s Canada’s Chief People Officer, Len Jillard; Chief Innovation Officer at Deloitte, Terry Stuart; Scotiabank Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Communications, Sue Graham Parker; Samsung Electronics Canada President James Politeski - who in an Oprah like moment at our Gala dinner donated One Million Dollars in Samsung products and tech support to the schools of the forty principals -  and several other distinguished and accomplished leaders in their field, including the not for profit sector. 

One of the resounding messages was that Canada’s place in the global economy cannot be taken for granted. Our relative financial comfort and quality of lifestyle are not a given. As a country, we cannot become complacent.  Hence the interest in a quality public education.  We need our students today to develop the kinds of skills that will allow us as a country to remain competitive in a global economy. 

Specifically, we heard a call for individuals who can work collaboratively, and who can think not just critically, but creatively.  It is no coincidence that central to The Rotman School approach is something called “integrative thinking.”  Integrative Thinking is a way to approach problems that lack clear solutions; indeed it is a way to face problems that we may even have trouble defining (see Wicked Problems). Integrative thinking embraces what you might call a non-linear approach.  It is different from, say, the Scientific method, in that it requires at the outset a broader consideration of variables.  It does not narrow the field so much as bring other fields or perspectives into the equation first. It requires a sort of emotional investment, an empathy with the problem or circumstance if you will.   It requires both imagination and intuition to play a part. The journey does not follow an obvious or straight path, and manages tensions without necessarily sacrificing one for the other.  Causal relationships need not be reduced to simple, linear paths.  Complexity is tolerated, even embraced.  The results of such an approach often lead to richer insights and more profound results. 

Take a group of kindergarten students and ask them to build a tower with nothing but spaghetti noodles, string and tape.  Ask that the structure hold a marshmallow as high in the air as possible.  And give them 18 minutes. 

At the same time, take a group of bright MBA students, and require them to complete the same task. Same exact rules and instructions. 

Who performs better?

The kindergarten kids!  This experiment has been replicated time and time again, all over the world, with the same results.

How can this be?  Well, it has been suggested that The MBA students all want to be the boss, they are competitive, they focus on winning, and may not work so well together to see what they can come up with.  

The kids are willing to experiment.  They know little about structure or engineering or design in a technical sense, and this is perhaps their advantage.  They are open.  The are willing to “integrate” possibilities that more learned folks do not see or entertain. They rely on imagination and intuition.  And they can work together.

This marshmallow exercise was our first task at Rotman.  We were thrown into groups before we’d even had a chance to say hello to each other, and with four other strangers and the clock ticking, we went about the project.  In the end, I am pleased to say that our marshmallow was the second highest (although I still contend it had more staying power than the first place tower, which I am sure I saw tumble after holding the marshmallow just long enough to the get the height measurement). 

Then again, maybe I am just being competitive.

Special Thanks to The Learning Partnership and Akela Peoples for a wonderful opportunity.  Thanks also to my wonderful Principal colleagues across Canada – you are truly “outstanding.” And of course thanks to Jon Powell.

Hope to see you next October in Vancouver at DisruptED Vancouver 2014: It’s Time to Shake Up Education


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