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Petrodollar Recycling and the art of Mark Lombardi

(Mark Lombardi: chicago outfit and satellite regimes, c.1981-83, 1998)

Amazingly, we’ve made it through a full week of classes. Somehow. There are a number of things that stand out in my mind as exceptional. However, there is one particular event that has been on my mind quite a bit in the last few days: the petrodollar recycling exercise in Professor Bracken’s Problem Framing class.

To clarify, Problem Framing is one of our initial core classes. In my mind, it sits oddly in between the hard classes (stats, accounting, micro) and the soft classes (interpersonal dynamics, the leadership development program, and in a way the work with the career development office). But even though it can’t be so easily categorized, it also seems to be a great place to synthesize the skills from these two different areas into a single exciting course.

The petrodollar recycling exercise asked students to break into small groups in order to answer four general questions: What are the critical variables in petrodollar recycling? What are the major government policy decisions that bear on petrodollar recycling? Draw a diagram that details what is happening in petrodollar recycling. And finally, what are a few potential business opportunities that emerge from exploring the details of petrodollar recycling? And, on top of it all, we had to accomplish this task in about half an hour.

Working through this problem was insightful for me on a number of levels. But two specific things come to mind when I think back on it. First of all, this simple group exercise was a great illustration of the different types of group dynamics and leadership styles that emerge at a school like SOM; sitting down with a group of people that I barely knew and trying to formulate not simply an answer, but also a way of understanding the question so that we could begin to establish an answer, was basically revelatory. And, beyond that, I found it deeply inspiring to realize that I could be thrown into a random group of people who would be able to bring so many different perspectives to bear on the problem: again, not simply in the act of answering the question, but also in determining a successful method for approaching such a broad topic in such a short period of time.

But beyond the typical business school excitement of this type of exercise, the petrodollar recycling question served as a great reminder to me that everyone brings something unique to SOM as a result of their background. With a background in the arts, this is something that I feel that I have a tendency to lose sight of. But after working through this exercise in class, I was reminded of the work of artist Mark Lombardi. Lombardi’s artwork is strikingly similar to the diagramming process that we all took part in during Problem Framing: his art is comprised of generating large scale diagrams that illustrate the connections between different powerful people or organizations, often centering around the money that flows into or out of major oil companies (as in his piece George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (5th Version), 1999) or on the shifting, far-reaching and hidden nature of global political influence (exemplified by the piece Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Bush, Thatcher, and the Arming of Iraq, 1979-90 (4th Version) 1998).

I will leave it to the reader to determine the value of Mark Lombardi’s work in relation to the question of framing unsolvable problems; this is not the place for me to make that type of judgment call. However, I will go as far as to say that this type of far-reaching connection that I have made is not unique. In fact, I have found that one of the most exciting things about the first week of school at SOM is listening to this same story in so many different versions; everyone here is bringing a wealth of previous knowledge that comes to bear in the classroom in so many different and illuminating ways. So while I am absolutely enjoying my three day weekend, there is a part of me that can’t wait to see what types of connections my classmates are making come Tuesday morning.

For more information on Mark Lombardi, I recommend the following few links: