Darden's New "IDEA" Course

Aug 11, 2016

Earning an MBA may give you the credentials you need to run a business, but does it really prepare you for the uncertainty you’ll face in that role?  Professors at UVa’s Darden School of Business thought they could do more to help students prepare for a life of executive decision making.  WMRA's Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.


“We’re happy, we’re jolly, we’re clueless, by golly!”

That’s not a bunch of rowdy soccer fans. That’s a classroom full of first year MBA students.


They’re here at Darden celebrating the start of a brand new experiential course. The “IDEA” course.

Professor: “Good afternoon!”

Students: “Good afternoon!”

“IDEA” stands for “Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship in Action.” The course is meant to give these future business leaders a head start in solving the kind of amorphous problems they’ll have to deal with as executives, when the buck starts stopping with them.

WES HARRIS: I'm really excited about it. Just an opportunity to kind of step out of our normal case method where we're in the classroom discussing cases that have happened in the past.

That’s Wes Harris. He’s one of the 350 students participating in this grand experiment. He and his peers will be split into small teams, which will each be paired with a real company. Capital One, Land O’Lakes, PBS, LinkedIn — fourteen organizations in all, each with its own real-world challenge to tackle. Five of the teams, including Wes’s, will be working with the American Society of Clinical Oncology or ASCO, figuring out how to increase the use of palliative care in cancer treatment.

WALTER BIRCH: We wanted to see what the students had to say.

Walter Birch is an executive at ASCO and was eager for his organization to participate in the IDEA course.

BIRCH: Health care is rapidly changing and having bright people looking at, you know, different issues with a new set of eyes is always really enlightening for those of us who've worked in that area.

Voice on Speaker Phone: Palliative care is not cancer specific. It really cuts across all specialties and all conditions …

After an introductory conference call, the sponsors leave the students to work largely on their own, for better or worse. Wes and his team dove right in.

Students in Team Meeting: Right. Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s just reading stuff that’s already been published

They read lots and lots — and lots — of research on palliative care, interviewed healthcare workers, even visited a local cancer center.

Students in Team Meeting: Sounds good? Yeah.

The sheer scope of the challenge became obvious to them pretty quickly.

WES HARRIS: There was just this overwhelming information that was kind of dumped on us and we almost felt like how are we at all qualified to create any kind of solution for this?

It’s a common sentiment. Midway through the course, many of Wes’s peers are struggling as well. But Professor Mike Lenox, one of the five professors teaching this course, says that’s not surprising.

PROFESSOR MIKE LENOX: I would be surprised if they weren't a little frustrated. Everything is wide open, there's a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty which they typically don't like. That’s part of the learning experience.

And it mirrors the real world, where few corporate challenges ever unfold in textbook fashion.

Student in Workshop: Now this makes more sense …

One of the biggest challenges for these super-motivated MBA students is a little counterintuitive. They want to solve the problem they’ve been given, quickly. And that, in and of itself, is kind of a problem.

LENOX: There's a tendency I think we all have that when given a problem, we immediately start thinking about what the solution is.

Over the first few weeks of the IDEA course, Professor Lenox and his colleagues have had to remind their students to slow down, do the research, talk to people, before designing a solution.

LENOX: It takes actually discipline to do that and so the processes we run them through in the workshops are different kind of tried and true mechanisms for getting there. 

Professor in Workshop: Okay, four minutes now and share your ideas going around the circle.

Student in Workshop: Let’s go fast …

Weekly workshops like this one are helping the students apply some of the academic concepts they’ve learned in their first year — agile project management, design thinking, effectuation. Today, the teams are working against the clock, furiously scribbling ideas on yellow sticky notes, reading them aloud and tossing them on the floor.

Student in Workshop: Partnering with, like, life insurance agencies …

LENOX: I think at first they can't believe how many rounds of different brainstorming we're going to do.

That’s Professor Lenox again.

LENOX: But that's part of the process is forcing them to really push their thinking to come up with new ideas.

Wes Harris in Pitch Session: “And that idea is a new position within the healthcare community called a palliative care coordinator …”

By the final week of the IDEA course, all of the work and workshopping seems to have paid off, with all 70 teams pitching their big ideas to the sponsoring companies. ASCO Executive Walter Birch is here with several colleagues. 

WALTER BIRCH: The five teams did 5 fantastic presentations, all completely different approaches to the problem. We could take pieces of all 5 presentations and put them together into one great program.

That’s high praise coming from a sponsor. But how do the students feel? Was the seven week course a success in the eyes of Wes Harris and his fellow future executives?


They’re actually already downstairs celebrating the end of the session.

WES HARRIS: There were times where I really had my doubts about how this is going to work out and I thought this might not have been a great idea. But I think it was well designed and it led us to a point where we felt pretty good about the solution.

In the end, feeling “pretty good” about a solution may actually be pretty great for an executive. After all, once they’re out in the real world, these business leaders will be expected to make lots of decisions that you and I would shy away from — think: layoffs, for instance. Thanks to this course, they now know they have the tools to tackle those challenges. But perhaps as importantly, they also recognize that good executive decision-making takes real effort and doesn’t just “come naturally.” And that, perhaps, is one of the biggest ideas to emerge from this IDEA course.