In this innovation tournament, Wharton Leadership challenges newly formed MBA learning teams to generate impactful business ideas in just two days.

“You got to know your learning teams. Now this is the first project you’ll do together,” Manvi Goel, WG’18, a Leadership Fellow, told her Cohort L students as she introduced The Big Idea, the final event of MBA Pre-term. Fresh from their learning team retreat, the newly formed teams were tasked with ideating, researching, planning, and pitching a novel business idea in just two days.

The fellows rolled a video of Vik Malhotra, WG’86, chairman of the Americas and a senior partner at McKinsey & Associates, which has sponsored The Big Idea for the past two years. He issued the the following challenge:

“Pick an area where you think a collaborative partnership between private and public entities can provide a solution to to a problem, take advantage of an opportunity, improve an exciting partnership, or unleash untapped potential.”

At first the MBA students sat silently, appearing stunned by the breadth of the project.

“Try to come up with something you haven’t seen before,” said Manvi. After a pause individuals and learning teams scattered, huddling in every open space throughout Huntsman Hall and Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall to create broad-scale ventures from a blank page.

Forty-eight hours later, members of the finalist learning teams stood on the soaring Gothic stage of Irvine Auditorium before a panel of judges and an enthusiastic audience of 863 classmates. They pitched public/private projects that included job opportunities for ex-felons and refugees, optimization of unused government real estate, building of underground dams to control flooding and produce energy, and even a giant elevator that speeds tourists and technology into space.

Big ideas indeed.

Space Elevator team
McNulty Leadership Program Executive Director Jeff Klein (left) watches from the side of the Irvine stage as Cluster 3’s Space Elevator team presents in The Big Idea finals.

What’s The Big Idea?

“This year we wanted students to think a little bit bigger,” explained Lynn Krage, director, MBA Leadership and Talent Development, McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton, which runs The Big Idea. “Wharton students should be thinking about big topics.”

The Big Idea is an ungraded project that bridges the getting-to-know-you part of Pre-term with Management 610, Foundations of Leadership and Teamwork, the first graded MBA core class.

“It’s the transition from meeting their learning team for the first time and being responsible for deliverables in the classroom together,” Krage said. “We try to make the transition fun and bring them back into the classroom in a way that’s less jarring. They meet their teams on Monday. By Friday we expect them to be working together in Management 610.”

The Big Idea progresses in an innovation tournament model, as taught by Entrepreneurship and Innovation Vice Dean Karl Ulrich. In an innovation tournament, many ideas are generated independently, then pitched and evaluated quickly. Early filters are generous to encourage creativity. Later filters are ruthless to pare out unworkable ideas.

During Round 1, each MBA student submits three to five ideas for consideration by their team. They work within their teams of six students, honing the best idea and determining the need, the solution, and the financial, social or environmental value of that solution.

During Round 2, each team presents their idea to all members of their cohort. The winning team moves on to the final presentation in Irvine Auditorium on Wednesday before a panel of four industry judges in The Big Idea finals.

The Big Idea Judges
The Big Idea judges (left to right: Mike Parker, Stephen Kelly, Ellie Hollander, Brian Abernathy) questioned each finalist team after their presentation.

The Evolution of the Tournament

“This event is a time-honored tradition,” said Jeff Klein, executive director of the McNulty Leadership Program, who launched The Big Idea in 2012 with Krage, Graduate Division Vice Dean Howie Kaufold, and MBA Program for Executives Vice Dean Peggy Bishop Lane.

For the first few years, the program kicked off with lectures from Wharton and Penn faculty. The new McKinsey-sponsored challenge makes a better transition between the academic and student life experience.

Said Krage, “When it first started it was more academic in feeling. Now we’ve moved toward a model grounded in industry and issues that consultants and corporations are grappling with.”

McKinsey provides the question, a briefing book, a judge, and the introductory video from Malhotra, who is head of Wharton’s Graduate Advisory Board.

“It’s has helped increase the relevance of the questions we’re asking students to answer,” said Klein. “McKinsey brings real-world experience and depth of knowledge so we can brief students quickly.”

Jolene Bressler, WG’16, offers a unique perspective on The Big Idea. She participated as a first-year MBA student. In her second year, she worked with learning teams as a Leadership Fellow. After graduation, as an intern with the Leadership Program, she helped implement the new industry-focused format. Now an alumna, she’s involved with the program for the fourth year — this time as an associate with McKinsey developing the problem and briefing book with Krage and two associates.

“Vik Malhotra was a student of Vice Dean Howie Kaufold many moons ago, and the two of them were talking about how firms like McKinsey serve a number of clients with pressing real world issues,” said Bressler. “Howie asked us to find a question that businesses are truly thinking about today rather than just an interesting idea.”

The team from DocDelivered reacts to the news that they won the overall judge’s prize and fan favorite for Cluster 4.

Competition Steps Up

One motivation for the public/private topic was to introduce a social impact element and involve students from every background, including students outside of business, like Bressler herself, who was a registered nurse before Wharton. In fact 12% of the MBA Class of 2019 has a background in nonprofits/government and another 6% comes from health care.

“We’ve gotten feedback that a lot of people want business to be part of real social change so we wanted to craft a question that would put a business lens to a social issue,” Bressler said. “Part of coming to Wharton is that we value every type of experience before Wharton. It doesn’t have to be business. They have valuable inputs and creating a question that is open to all gives an introduction to the kind of environment they’ll be in.”

Last year’s question was tech-based and produced a lot of app-based ideas, but this year’s public/private partnership challenge generated a wider variety of projects.

“This year we wanted a broader topic that would be less likely to have apps as a solution,” Krage said. “We wanted ideas that are bigger. An app can’t deal with infrastructure problems. The topic is very timely and could use ideation from all sorts of people, those who are outside the field as well as those who are inside it.”

The judges themselves were drawn from different parts of the public/private equation — Brian Abernathy, deputy managing director for the City of Philadelphia; Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels; Mike Parker, head of infrastructure advising at Ernst and Young; and Stephen Kelly, director of McKinsey in Philadelphia.

The final presentations impressed them. Cluster 4’s DocDelivered took the overall judges’ prize for its innovation of placing telemedicine stations in post offices to provide medical access to underserved regions.

MBA students also voted for their favorite team in each cluster. The fan favorites included a mobile microwork platform for refugees, a GPS-based emergency dispatch system, the space elevator, and DocDelivered.

“It was a great first opportunity to generate some important ideas, with some especially interesting solutions presented for health care,” said Jeff Klein. “And of course, as a long-time science fiction fan, I was really excited about the space elevator. If they ever build it, I’ll be one of the first passengers.”

A finalist team from Cluster 2 presented a public/private partnership that would teach inmates to code and place them with sponsoring employers.

— Kelly Andrews

Posted: August 25, 2017

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