Why Your MBA Needs to Incorporate Problem-Solving Skills

Why Your MBA Needs to Incorporate Problem-Solving Skills main image

Sponsored by HEC Paris


No matter which route you take in your future career, problem-solving skills are going to be indispensable. Yet, surprisingly, these skills are often not formally taught in most universities — and are rarely taught in the corporate world.

A survey of organizations recruiting MBA grads, conducted by Bloomberg Businessweek, found that the second-biggest skills gap recruiters faced was the lack of problem-solving skills among candidates. Also, recruiters polled by the Financial Times consistently rank “the ability to solve complex problems” among the top five skills that matter most in MBA graduates. 

Fortunately, institutions are starting to take note and beginning to offer their students the opportunity to develop their problem-solving abilities. The HEC Paris MBA, for example, has incorporated a problem-solving and communication course as part of its MBA core curriculum.

It’s hard to think of a team better suited to teach the course than those behind it— they’re about to publish a book called Cracked It!, which is based on their personal experiences and research of the need for problem-solving skills in the workplace. 

Bernard Garrette, Professor of Strategy and Business Policy at HEC Paris, says: “Most MBA students perceive courses in the different areas such as finance, marketing and operations as somewhat disconnected, and they have a hard time bridging the gap between the different areas.

“Students understand that the complex problems and decisions they’ll face when they’re back at work won’t come neatly packaged as ‘finance’ or ‘marketing’ problems but will require the integration of different domains of business knowledge.

“To integrate and apply this diverse knowledge, students need a problem-solving methodology.”

Why did Garrette and co start the course at HEC Paris? Well, because students asked for it. Garrette explains: “They realize they learn relevant frameworks in different courses, but they feel the need for an overarching approach to help them pull everything together when they face a complex business problem.

“Graduates who start a business need integrative thinking from day one and most large organizations now favor agility, cross-functional initiatives and innovation, which lead to project-based and networked organizations.”

Currently, one in three recruiters say they struggle to find students who can solve complex problems, according to the Financial Times. “This is a major and surprising disconnect,” says Garrette. “Most business schools aren’t equipping their students with the competencies employers want.”

Technology is also having a big impact. Analysts including the World Economic Forum are pointing out that the rise of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will put an even bigger premium on human problem-solving going forward.

AI and human judgment are complements, not substitutes, as argued in a new book called Prediction Machines that Garrette points to. “As AI drives the cost of analysis down, the value of human judgment – the part that the machine cannot do – will naturally go up. The need for complex problem-solving skills is only going to increase,” says Garrette.

Methods on courses differ. HEC Paris’s problem-solving course is based around an intensive workshop in which students get together in teams to solve complex business problems. It focuses on getting students to develop their skills in practice through real-life problems faced by organizations. The course’s methodology is based around four S’s – State, Structure, Solve and Sell.

The ability to sell a solution, as the professors point out, is essential. Olivier Sibony, Affiliate Professor at HEC Paris, says: “We find it amusing that students often believe they know how to do it. The typical approach involves a PowerPoint deck with lots of slides with students droning over them, so we focus on helping them learn how to create a convincing storyline, to design clear and compelling charts, to use examples skillfully and to create a dialog with the audience.”

Unsurprisingly, students as well as recruiters are responding well to the problem-solving courses being offered as part of MBAs. At HEC Paris, the course has had “rave reviews”, according to Sibony. “Some students claim it’s the most important course in the MBA program because it provides an overarching frame to the knowledge they get from other courses. They view it as a guiding method to address business problems in a practical way.”

Students taking the HEC Paris course have said that just getting to grips with something as seemingly simple as ‘stating’ the problem was extremely useful. One student mentioned how his team had spent an hour failing to agree on a problem statement, adding “it’s amazing that five people locked in a room for one hour were not able to write a sentence in plain English to describe what the problem was!”

Perhaps the fact that this student had teammates from four other countries added to the challenge. But then, this is the reality of modern organizations. “We’re working in a Babel Tower and we sometimes forget it because we wrongly believe we speak the same language and receive the same education,” says Corey Phelps, Associate Professor from McGill University, and who produced Cracked It! alongside Garrette and Sibony.


“Agreeing on a common approach and sharing the same problem-solving ‘grammar’ helps a lot. It can be a life-saver in complex multinational organizations,” Phelps adds.

Written by Staff W.

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