Manchester Memoirs: Case Notes on The Manchester Method

July 5, 2007

mbs-web.jpgHow effective is project-based learning within business education? A tutor reviews a seven-week project for MBA project teams assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach

It is early evening, Friday June 6th 2007. I stagger into the courtyard after two days of Project 2 presentations from the class of 2008. The Class of 2008 is a recently introduced label for what used to be called ‘the first year MBAs ’. The new name reminds us that the class graduates in 2008. Similarly, the class of 2007 is the distinguishing label for ‘the second year MBAs’, now close to graduating. Next week, examiners’ meetings will settle the fate of members of the class of 2007, and confirm which members of the class of 2008 will or will progress towards graduation.

Project 2

Project 2 occupies a pivotal space in the MBA timetable. It’s where teams of MBAs take on projects on behalf of business clients. The projects have been selected as requiring the team to work from a starting brief towards something with more clearly specified and feasible objectives. Most team members have quite a few years experience in business roles. But Project 2 still presents some tough new challenges.

An end-of-semester barbeque is underway in the courtyard. I can’t smell the coffee, but I can smell the hamburgers. The event has been organized in support of a local charity by an indefatigable student from the class of 2008. All seats in the courtyard have been claimed, with the unoccupied ones being guarded for hunter- gatherers in the Barbie line. I try unsuccessfully to see if the sustainability team members were opting for non-veg hamburgers.

Could that be the team that had pulled no punches about their lawyer clients now supping enthusiastically with junior council? It was. I wondered if the barristers had liked my ice-breaking joke a few hours earlier to welcome them? The one about there being no space in front of the School for their chauffeur in the corporate roller? I decide they didn’t.

Flashback

A couple of months ago, the teams from the class of 2008 had bid for the Project 2 assignments they would like. Before that, there has been a lot of work by the project support staff, canvassing for projects. After the student bidding, there are some disappointed students and some would-be sponsors. There will be further bidding. It’s a neat process, with good learning challenges. One down-side is that faculty have trouble in advance predicting will be favorites. This year I tried to hard to ‘sell’ a project only for the offer to be totally spurned. Another great project (so thought the tutors) was likewise turned down. Teams have offered assorted explanations for their preferred choices, but there’s no obvious pattern revealed, and maybe undisclosed reasons.

The projects

A strong tradition has emerged that the specific details of projects remain confidential. The senior administrator of the project has a shredding machine in her office, and she ensures there are no documents that might lead any information to be revealed to anyone outside the restricted circulation list. Which is one of the reasons I won’t be saying much about the projects.

Team dynamics: Not an Apprentice in sight

Project 2 took place over roughly the time period of the BBC TV show The Apprentice. I am immune to the charms of Alan Sugar’s program. I am spending quite enough of my waking and working days with teams of people working on business tasks.

One more time: what is The Manchester Method?

At The Manchester Business School, our short-hand for the learning provided within projects is The Manchester Method. This defies conclusive definition for the same reason that social constructs such as leadership and creativity have defied definition. The concepts take on new meanings as they are tested in use. This explains why, over the years, The Manchester Method has been described in various ways. When students ask about definitions I offer the one most reflecting my understanding at that particulat time. Recently I have been saying that

The Manchester Method is a learning process of a kind which permits participants to engage directly with experience, and which facilitates links between the experience, and relevant theoretical concepts.

But I still show overhead visuals with an earlier definition which actually is a well-known description of organizational culture: The way we do things around here.

Learning Gains

The MBAs learn about leadership, co-dependence among team members, dealing with multiple ‘stakeholders’, tackling the ambiguities of business projects, and much more beside, A minority will go more deeply into the pedagogy, in personal logs and follow-up studies.

Each project is unique. But every project has been selected so that it permits learning rather general behavioural principles. One set of these were imported from the pioneering work of The Tavistock Institute. These suggest that any social group will be prone to defense mechanisms against uncertainties, and perceived threats and fears. The symptoms are easier to detect from the outside. They are broadly actions which can be interpreted as scapegoating, finding in a person the symbolic object on which to project blame.

This is where it gets interesting. A team may have someone who is not working very hard. In some cases the rest of the team acts to get rid of the free-rider. In another team, the team is unable to make contact with the sponsor, and is at risk of not completing the assignment. Sometimes the final report then puts too much emphasis on the weaknesses troubles of the sponsor. Yet another team finds an explanation of their difficulties as unprofessional behaviors of a tutor, or course director, or maybe collective incompetence of those connected with the project.

These are the dynamics which are swirling around. They reflect what happens when teams tackle tough problems. They have not been deliberately inserted into the project as a social experiment. And, the faculty does not deliberately act in what are described as unprofessional ways. As painful as the process is, the mini-crises do turn out to have scope for constructive learning.

A Painful Experience

I reflect on some project highlights and lowlights. Not for the first One team, frustrated by actions (or inactions) of its tutor decides they have been badly treated. Why not send the tutors a memo? How about sending a copy to the project coordinator? In which case, it may be better to send a copy to the overall course director as well. In which case, maybe a copy to the Head of the School seems an even better idea.

Could have been worse. One year, a particularly outraged team sent copies to The University’s Vice Chancellor. Perhaps we should give more specifical illustrations of wicked problem solving

What Didn’t we get a better Grade?

Today I had another familiar requests on behalf of a team. Why didn’t we do better? One student has arranged to meet with me to discuss this. How honest will I be? Will I find time to turn the discussion [later today, July 4th 2007] into a further little opportunity for personal development? Not just for the students, but for myself and maybe others involved in the project. Will I be able to recheck with the second reviewer before the meeting? Will I find my notes out of which we agreed the particular grades two months ago, for the seven presentations we sat in on ? Will the notes still be somewhere in the middle of the pile of documents in my office, ‘tidied’ into archeological layers in a ‘pending’ pile?

The tutors on the project are still trying to arrange time to get together for a debrief sometime during the following few months. Immediately after the project there was a general exodus to catch up after seven weeks more closely confined to barracks. Holidays, conferences, last-minute contingencies, and (honestly) out-of-town responsibilities mean we are still trying for a date that works for a full complement of the dozen or so support staff directly involved in the project.

Incremental innovations

Each year there are various suggestions to fix what went wrong. Some ideas make it into next year’s project planning. At first, tutors may have to introduce changes as experiments, aware that any change which impacts on assessment is not ‘authorized’ until accepted after scrutiny on various committees. Also, the experiments make documentation a little-less reliable.

Is it worth it?

Projects are particularly challenging as a mode of business education. We tend to keep faith in the benefits of this kind of experiential learning. A surprising proportion of colleagues hang in there, rather than seek alternative ways of justifying their careers.

That’s not to say we do not also experience some of the doubts and darker moments of the MBA teams. As one management scholar liked to say ‘every project appears to be a failure in the middle’.


It’s a fire. No it’s not, it’s you who are fired!

May 5, 2007

20075315910089.jpgsurvivors.jpgNearly two hundred years of tradition ended as receivers found an efficient way to tell staff that their company was folding. The receivers at Robbs department store, of Hexham, Northumbria, rang the fire alarm. As employees gathered in the car park they were told the news. Creative leadership? Or what?

The story got under my skin. I imagined how the idea might have come out of a brainstorming session. How the preferred solution had been found to meet the criteria of clever, unexpected, appropriate, cost-effective…

On second thoughts, the freedom to freewheel for creative and ingenious ideas has to be coupled with the discipline of principled evaluation of consequences.

The BBC reported the story as follows

Bosses at the almost 189-year-old Robbs store deliberately set off the fire bell to clear the building of customers and get staff together in one place. At the designated fire point, the 140 members of staff were told the landmark store would be shutting in two weeks.

The store’s administrators [Kroll] called the decision “efficient and practical …the closure of Robbs department store was due to become public knowledge before the end of the trading day and [management wanted] to notify their colleagues of the situation before they found out through other means”.

As a result, they determined that “the most efficient and practical method of informing their colleagues of this business development was by using the fire alarm”.

What do you think?

Was this an example of the creative dynamism needed to sweep away the obsolete and force in the new? Or was it something else.

Next week…

Dynamic young executive from Kroll auditions for a place on The Apprentice. Says his work experience makes him an ideal candidate to work for Sir Alan Sugar.

As the company website puts it

Kroll’s Corporate Advisory & Restructuring group is the world’s leading specialist in corporate turnaround, restructuring and recovery. Our focus is providing clients with objective, independent advice and delivering creative solutions to complex problems.


All in the same boat (2): The challenge for the exchange student

April 9, 2007

dg_065374.jpgsplash.jpgYou have won an exchange visit to a School in a foreign country. That’s the good news. But how will you break into the culture in teams that have already formed among your new classmates? How can you fit in? You have to work out quickly what works for you. Here’s a learning aid which helps.

On boat race weekend in England, I looked at how Cambridge might have applied business school theory to help win the boat race. Well, they won the boat race. That doesn’t ‘prove’ anything about leadership theory. But it did encourage me to think about applying a little more practical advice to students on exchange. This is one of the times of year when students arrive ‘on exchange’. For many, a big issue will be how to fit in with their new classmates.

I want to concentrate on exchange students who find themselves working with other students on a common task, such as a business school project. The British saying applies to each one: ‘you are all in the same boat’.

The tyranny of the task

First, a general observation. I have been able to help quite a few exchange students over the years. The ones who really struggle have a few things in common. The first is that they fall under the influence of a dictator. The dictator is the workload they find themselves dealing with. Like other dictators, the power is partly exercised by compliance of the people. We conspire to create the dictators we deserve. This is mostly an unconscious process. As someone becomes more under pressure, the tyranny appears more intolerable.

The process is made tougher because the new arrival faces a lot of disorientation, and has to deal with being different. Maybe this will involve working in a different language. It will probably mean working in a different culture. That’s the personal conditions. There may be the requirements of the home institution, and the ‘carry-over’ grades towards the wider qualification. It’s tough if you have no family issues to deal with. It’s tough if you have family back home, or if you brought them with you…

Make it easier: confronting your gremlins

There are ways you can make it easier on yourself. First, let’s cut that tyrant down to size. Remember those childhood monsters? What helped you grow out of their tyrannical power? There’s a Government campaign in the UK. Ordinary people have a tyrannical demon, a gremlin which holds them back. The gremlin in the campaign is the fear that a weakness is holding you back. In that case, it is fear of failure. The objective weakness is being unable to read. Behind that, the weakness is having to cover it up. The objective ‘solution’ in the campaign is for the poor reader to take an evening course. The psychological message is to confront your gremlin. Are you making it worse by not admitting what your problems are – to yourself and to other people? In other words, it is you who are making the task tougher by supporting the tyrant. You can do something about it.

Learn from others

There will almost certainly be someone you can learn from. ‘I’m not like her. I’m different’. For sure. And there are ways when there are enough similarities for you to learn from other people. Otherwise you have learned from yourself, but you’ve learned mostly that there’s nothing you can learn to change things. That’s called learned helplessness. Take a look at a few other students who seem to have good ways of beating your particular gremlins. You are in the same boat.

Thinking yourself out of trouble: remapping your journey

Here’s a technique that works for a lot of people. It requires you to find a metaphor or different map for your journey. It has been used for thousands of years in various ways in various cultures. One leadership development textbook is based on the steps of such map reading, map testing and map making. But reading a whole book might be too much of a concession to your gremlins at present. So I’ve come up with a speed-dating version. All you need is five minutes to put your thoughts to the little mental exercise I’m about to describe. Just promise yourself you may find something worthwhile in the process.

Imagine your favorite team sport. Imagine you have moved into a new town in a new country. You contact the town’s club in that sport. When you visit the club, you really like it, and want to join. Joining is mainly getting signed up. But now you want to become a member of the first team there. You are invited to a trial with that team. But everyone else has already played on the team. You have trouble even communicating in their language. (Did I mention that?). So what do you do?

Now imagine you succeed, and become a much-admired member of the team. What steps did you take to do that?

Now how about that exchange team you are joining?

What lessons can you import from your metaphorical journey to help you join a project team during your exchange? It worked in your imagination. See how to make it work in practice.

Please suggest ideas for others

Please suggest any ideas you think would help others. From you own experience, or just because you want to take part in a discussion. What sport did you chose? What surprising insights did you gain from the map-making?

This post, in particular, will benefit from a community exchanging ideas.


PC Whispering: Astonishing new claims for leadership training

April 1, 2007

rws-00-fool.jpgman-listens.jpgSunday April 1st 2007: A leadership study suggests that Neurolinguistic Programming can assist computer users to improve their relationships with their machines. A modified version of Horse Whispering was also found to have a positive effect, while a ‘cocktail’ combining both treatments was found to be even more effective.

An international study, Project Koestler, will be reported to a conference of human/computer interface scientists starting today at the University of Greater Manchester, England. The research was carried out by a team of researchers from Duke University (North Carolina), and academic colleagues from Greater Manchester (England), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Cork, Ireland.

The conference will learn of evidence from carefully controlled trials in all four regions. The study indentified computer-users as belonging to high CE and low CE (computer empathic) sub-groups. Essentially, the high CE groups were assembled from individuals who had reported unusual skills at getting computers to do what they wanted them to. The low CE groups were reported as very poor at getting computers to do what they wanted them to. The groups represent relatively high and low ‘leadership’ skills over computers.

In the primary study, participants received either training in Neurolinguistic Programming, or in developing greater sensitivity to the computer as a valued friend and work colleague. This treatment was quickly labeled as PC Whispering, after the controversial work pioneered by the original Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts. A follow-up study, still on-going, is examining the effects of combining both kinds of training.

The approach

Participants were recruited from respondents to advertisements in local newspapers asking for volunteers for open-access evening classes in improving computer skills. The researchers followed the obligations of explaining the rationale of the experiment, and any possible adverse consequences for volunteers.

Each course of treatment involved explanations to the volunteers of how human behaviors can help or hinder computer relationships. The explanations were followed with practice of the behavior-modifications proposed within the treatment. The volunteers then carried out procedures with their own PCs and when hooked up to a special machine developed for the program by researchers at Duke University. The apparatus monitored physiological states of the volunteers.

The Results

The training seemed to have little impact on the high CE group. One respondent appeared to perform at a lower level after treatment with NLP, but had returned to his pre-test performance levels within a few days. There were no significant effects.

However, within the low CE group, results were spectacular. After the NLP training the average CE measures for this sub-group rose to nearly the levels of the high CE group at all four training sites. After the PC Whispering, the results were similar. All four sites reported substantial improvements. However, the improvements were marginally less than those of the group receiving the NLP training.

A smaller more complex study is underway. The researchers are more cautious in making claims for this study, which suggests that a combination of NLP and PC whispering will enhance performance of both high and low CE groups.

What does all this mean?

Project Koestler is named after the Hungarian-born intellectual Arthur Koestler, who wrote extensively on human creativity, including a book on The Ghost in the Machine. He also funded research into the paranormal at the University of Edinburgh.

Until the actual results are examined, we must remain cautious of the claims being made. One expert in research methods told me that researchers who announce their work in this way may be publicity seekers if they do not already have a track record of publishing in scientific journals. Maybe it is all a hoax.

Nevertheless, many new ideas sound crazy, before they become the new orthodoxy. One AI expert who helped in the programming of Deep Blue to beat Garry Kasparov, is working on the next generation of computers. He has revealed that he expects these computers to make ‘better leaders than humans, and perhaps better team colleagues, and even life partners’.

Neurolinguistic Programming remains a contested model of behavior modification. At present, Wikipedia offers a caution on the contents of its article. Horse-whispering is an equally controversial technique. The original Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts, insists the term is misleading, and prefers to emphasize skills that derive from listening not whispering to horses. The concept is being ‘tamed’ through different terminology such as intelligent horsemanship, or trust-based leadership.

As for PC whispering – perhaps we should just postpone judgment and ‘watch this space’.


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