Like "The Apprentice," but with matching laptops

August 14, 2009

The entire class of 2011 just finished the Audubon Street Project and if everyone’s like me, we need a nap. Imagine “The Apprentice” (Season 1, when it was still good and Donald Trump hadn’t completely morphed into a caricature of himself) meets “Location, Location, Location” with a cast of eager type-A first-year MBA students. The assignment was pretty simple: come up with a business concept for an actual empty Yale-owned storefront on Audubon Street, a downtown New Haven shopping district currently populated with a music school, a music supply store, a jewelers, a gourmet grocery, and a scattershot of other businesses. We were given the dimensions of the space, the fixed costs, and the brief that our concept should strike the same balance perpetuated by SOM itself: doing good for business and society. Randomly placed into teams of seven or eight, all bearing identical laptops but a varied interpretation of “business casual,” we were unleashed on the school and the town. We had a day and a half to complete a presentation that would be judged by faculty. It was a fascinating 36 hours. Though I was focused on getting the work done, I tried to step back to observe the group dynamics at work too. It was so interesting to see how people fell into familiar roles from their prior work experience (myself included—this was a classic ad agency new business pitch and I found myself treating it as such) and how our exceeding politeness and relative unfamiliarity with each other played out in completing the task at hand. I spoke to several classmates on breaks and last night at our clambake, and everyone had similar sentiments. The general consensus was that it’s tough to work in a group without hierarchy; I don’t think most of us have worked in exclusively peer groups and many of us never have. When you don’t know who the “boss” or leader is, making decisions can be a challenge. In my advertising career we always said a new business pitch should be a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy. At the end of the day, someone has to make the tough calls. As well, everyone took extra care to include all opinions (a good thing) but also to come to agreements that made everyone happy (maybe not as productive). It will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes once classes begin, group assignments are graded, and people get to know each other better. I find myself wondering if the school has guidelines for group work or if each team each time develops rules of engagement. And as I said before, the assignment was also an interesting way for me to see what role I would play. I certainly stuck to the safe tasks that were familiar. Given the time constraint, it didn’t seem like the right forum to ask to get tutored on building our statement of cash flows…though I WANT to learn how to do this (to the finance people in my cohort: you've been warned). At the same time, it was amazing seeing how the diversity of our team led to a great work product. We had three finance people (all from different sectors, which resulted in three different approaches to the same task); two consultants, one also a tech guy and entrepreneur; an MD/MBA joint degree student; and yours truly. I was so impressed at the skills everyone brought to the table; it was clear how talented everyone is and how much value they’d added to their past employers. And we really needed each other’s skill sets and backgrounds to get the work done. Truly, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. It was clear from watching our classmates present that they had a similar melting pot of backgrounds and were able to use each person at their best. I’m sure in future group assignments, the point will be to learn new skills and move out of your comfort zone—something else to look forward to. Well if you’re wondering how we did, I don’t know yet…we’re still waiting to learn who the finalist team is from our section. The five or six finalists will present to the entire school on Monday morning so the weekend hangs on this news … On an unrelated topic before I nap, a quick word of assurance to my classmates, some of whom were joking with me last night that their bar antics might appear in this blog. Fear not, this isn’t going to be Yale’s version of TMZ. Plus, if that was you cutting up the dance floor last night, everyone already knows!

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Jason Hill