Classified: Food Bank Exercise Tests Students’ Leadership, Teamwork Skills

This is part of a series called Classified, in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms. If you have a suggestion for a class to feature, please email Haas online editor

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By Freelance Writer Leslie Mladinich

The Wells Fargo room was transformed into a food bank Monday, its tables splayed with packages of pasta, cans of beans, and Vienna sausages.

Stuffing the food into boxes in the shortest amount of time with the least mistakes amidst a frenzy of changing demands and diminishing resources forced undergraduates to adjust leadership styles, rethink roles, and put lessons from Lecturer Frank Schultz’s Leading Strategy Implementation class into action.

Unlike other classroom role-playing exercises, Schultz says, the experiential “Think Now, Bag Later” activity did not depend on students’ acting ability. “It showed them how they typically behave in organizations and allowed them to better appreciate their strengths and weaknesses in various organizational roles,” he explained.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Advisory consultants, including some Haas grads, designed and moderated the two-phase, timed exercise. Four project managers, students who had applied to PricewaterhouseCoopers for the coveted role, were assigned team members and given five minutes to strategize how to pack the boxes with a long list of rules. Among them: no running across the room with food, which was placed on two main tables. Also, students had to memorize box contents from flip charts placed by PwC “inspectors.”

Student project managers appointed box makers, food grabbers, and quality control officers. Some project managers stuck to making the original roles accountable, while others got caught up in the heat of trying to fill as many boxes as quickly as possible with roles and communication inevitably breaking down.

To make it more difficult, rules changed midstream: All of a sudden the client wanted two bags of pasta instead of one. Project managers had to communicate the need to their team–immediately.

As the teams competed, no small detail went unnoticed. Some project managers wanted boxes waiting to be filled placed on the table, not on the floor. Others placed the rules written out in longhand in the center of the table.

Jonathon Myers, BS 14, was on a team that packed an impressive 12 boxes. He had the unenviable role of getting his team’s boxes inspected by Kaitlyn Glancy, a PwC senior associate in forensics, who constantly changed her mind about what she wanted in the box. Myers then had to communicate requests back to his team.

“I was able to do it because I would focus on my team and (Glancy) separately,” he says. “I split each chaos.”

Glancy, who admitted she was intentionally being difficult, praised Myers for reiterating the contents of each box out loud so she didn’t have to physically inspect it. She said responding to changing requests on the fly was a real-life work-day demand. You may spend hours on a slide deck, she gave as an example, and clients suddenly changed their ideas.

“You have to adapt,” said Glancy. “You can’t push back on the client.”

A team managed by Nicola Roessler, BS 14, packed only seven boxes. She says her team’s downfall was a bottleneck in quality control and resources drying up. “We didn’t have enough kidney beans,” she says.

After the exercise, Schultz asked students if readings and lectures on how organizations work on projects were relevant to what the students experienced. Did the student teams share resources sequentially, as in an assembly-line style, or reciprocally, where there needs to be more communication and coordination? Students said the use of good organizational structure and communication could make the more complex, reciprocal relationships simpler and more manageable.

PricewaterhouseCoopers is using the 42 boxes of food stuffed by the students for a food drive to benefit the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which is researching ways of developing a more efficient way to pack food.

Read another “Classified” article about an undergraduate class in the Haas Now online newsroom.

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