The Problem with "Problem-Solving"

Meeting old students is a delight as a teacher as they come to reminisce warm memories and share their experiences of "real" corporate jobs. Yesterday, an old student walked into my cabin - a brilliant young girl, clear and vocal in her choices. I have vivid memories of her participating in discussions. We had a wonderful conversation about life and life choices, but she left me thinking with one of her remarks - "Mam, why doesn't anyone tell the students that the real world is so, very different? Arsh se farsh par! (translated as from heaven to ground)."

The Classic B-School Dream

Honestly, we try to be relevant, helpful and valuable to the students in our endeavours. But the problem is the classic business school value proposition marketed for decades, i.e. all business school students become "future business leaders." At the cost of being namak haram (or a whistle-blower), I feel this is a scam. India is a land of diversity. This diversity traverses everything - societies, sectors, sections, seasons and schools. The business school spectrum in India is broad, ranging from world-renowned institutions with access to funds, infrastructure and mentorship by the world's best universities to small, independent ones operating at a bare minimum of exposure and resources in remote locations. But intents and attempts are for a standardised approach across the spectrum, thereby selling the peculiar dream of "becoming a global business leader."

Imitation without Context

The structures, curricula and content in business schools in India were majorly adopted from the West without little attention to the context. We still teach Western philosophers and management thinkers predominantly. One primary pedagogy is using case studies to teach business concepts and dilemmas. Again, most of these cases are written in a Western context. This is sometimes celebrated as an achievement. Adapting structure and content developed in one context to a very different context is the fundamental problem, especially when the adaptation is a lousy imitation. I observed some books referred to by business management students in a tier II city in north India penned by Indian authors. On critical observation, these books seemed to be mere concoctions of translations of texts by foreign authors. One salient feature of these books includes providing solutions and pointers for all business problems. One example could be the decision-making chapter in the introductory business management course books. This chapter explains the process and steps of decision-making - problem identification, ideation, selecting the best solution per available resources, and implementing it. Few include a post-implementation evaluation.

The Taste of Reality

To put things in perspective, a student with a vision of a future leadership position in her mind is taught that her job role would be to apply these steps in the office sequentially. As she moves from this structured and over-simplified world into the uncertain, unstructured, and unequal "real" world, reality hits, and traditional problem-solving tricks like breaking a big problem into parts, listing steps, moving sequentially in the steps, and finding the best alternative sitting in the office room do not work out. Then, she starts feeling a strong sense of disconnect and a problem with the traditional problem-solving approach.

On Being Creative and Innovative

I taught a course on Innovation and Design Thinking last semester. A new course is challenging but a learning experience too. I hate to admit it, but the first batch is almost comparable to guinea pigs, as it's only by the third year that one starts exploring the finer details in a course. As I prepared for this course, I found the discourse on creativity and innovation very appealing. One primary learning was that creativity and innovation are difficult to attain from traditional problem-solving. Instead, these emerge from embracing a lack of structure, diversity, uncertainty, free play, and iteration. Creative individuals and organisations cannot and must not follow a set process because there isn't a specific way or a list of golden rules.

Finding the Creativity Formula

In a rare interview recording of Punjab's beloved poet, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, the interviewer insists on him answering how he writes so beautifully. He tries to confirm if betrayal in love or a similar pain is the reason behind the melancholy in his poems. Shiv humbly denies it. He answers, "No, no, no. What kind of pain? I have been loved like no other poet from Punjab ever. Thousands of women came into my life, but I could not accept them. I loved someone's hair, someone's hands...but I could never paint a complete picture." In Shiv's creations, beauty and excellence are equally intact. But probably, as he said, there isn't a specific person, incident or reason driving the creative outcome; there is no formula. Many of us keep trying to find out the formula behind genius outcomes to reach the same level of creativity. We want to feed the same formula into our AI chatbots and systems. Fortunately or unfortunately, the reality is much more unpredictable and boundless.

On Embracing Chaos

So, should we give up all structures and steps? To begin with, it may be a good idea to abandon imitation without context, breaking problems into parts, solving problems in similar sequences, or rejecting iterations and uncertainty. It may be better to accept that creativity emerges from depth and rigour, from connecting to oneself and others, and it may thrive more in an unstructured environment. The chaos that makes one uncomfortable may lead to far more creative outcomes as one finds beauty in the chaos. On similar lines, avoiding standardisation across business schools may prepare students better to meet the whims, fancies, and desires of real corporate jobs.

If we all keep colouring apples of the same sizes on white sheets with red colour, ensuring that the colour does not flow outside the boundary, what shall we do with all the identical apples, abilities and outlooks in the world?

Write a comment ...

Write a comment ...


Assistant Professor, Malaviya National Institute of Technology Jaipur. PhD, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.