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What do popsicle sticks, hot glue guns, and miter saws have to teach students about the intricacies of organizational behavior? Plenty, it turns out.

Students in the Questrom School of Business organizational behavior class The Dynamics of Leading Organizations & People recently learned the importance of creativity and collaboration by working in teams to build something. That something—a surprise until they walked into the College of Engineering Tinker Lab—was a tower that could support a weight of at least 50 grams (about the weight of a nine-volt battery). Other factors in the judging process included a tower’s height, cost, and innovation. The students had 30 minutes to build their towers.

The Questrom course studies what people think, feel, and do in organizational settings, focusing on individual, interpersonal, group, and organizational processes. The aim of the class is to help students understand, analyze, and navigate organizational dynamics.

“One of the elements of this class is collaboration,” said class instructor Chuck Agan, a 10-year Questrom lecturer in organizational behavior. “I want the students to realize how we build off of the ideas of others. Creativity doesn’t originate within one sole person.” Agan pointed to David Kelley, founder of the design firm IDEO, who famously said in a 60 Minutes interview that good design comes from building on the ideas of others through collaboration with a diverse group.

On a recent afternoon, six students joined Agan in the Tinker Lab, where they were introduced to what they’d need to construct their towers: the workshop’s imposing saws, drills, and sanders. This collaboration between Questrom and ENG is not a new thing; in fact, ENG encourages its students to take on partners from Questrom and help them prototype their products and enter them in business competitions.

“In organizational behavior we talk about effectiveness and efficiency,” Agan said. “You can have effectiveness if you just pour money and people into a project, but you need use of resources to be efficient so you can manage costs. Engineering students also deal with these two things. There are so many common threads between what ENG and Questrom students deal with, which is why this exercise works so well.”

A hiccup arose before the class got under way. The original plan called for two teams, one with four students, one with three, but a student had called out sick. A member of the four-person team volunteered to switch teams, replacing the missing student—so, problem solved. Agan said this posed an interesting conundrum, because up until that point, the students had stuck to their semester-long teams, and the switcheroo might introduce turbulence. But students learn that effective teams can deal with the unexpected.

Students test how much weight their tower can withstand.

Akshay Pardiwala (Questrom’20) (from left), Ally Buehler (Questrom’20), and Alice Xiao (COM’19) of Team Two test their tower with an iPhone to see how much weight it can withstand. Their team went on to win first place.

After a safety training to familiarize the students with the equipment, the clock was set for 30 minutes and building began. The materials were laid out on a back table and students scrambled to grab them. Sketches were quickly drawn up. Team One took five lengthy minutes to come up with a design, ultimately going with assembled foam triangles. Team Two was faster with a planning sketch, and chose to use sticks and plastic tubes.

The towers rose quickly. Team One measured out foam and got to work cutting down the triangles on the lab’s band saw with help from Tinker lab advisors Brian Luis (ENG’18,’19) and Haley Fawcett (ENG’20), who had designed the exercise and selected the materials to be used.

“Is everyone on board? Any concerns that we see?” Akshay Pardiwala (Questrom’20) asked his Team Two colleagues before they started applying dots of wood glue to the ends of popsicle sticks. Each material had a cost assigned to it. For instance, wood glue and popsicle sticks cost $3, while three inches of plastic tubing ran $5. Consulting costs—where Luis and Fawcett would answer questions or give advice—varied throughout the exercise, averaging around $30 for two minutes of their time.

“This reminds me of the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” remarked Team Two’s Ally Buehler (Questrom’20) as she stood back to admire her team’s work.

A Christmas tree, a bunny face

With the clock ticking down, Team One got creative, and opted to use masking tape ($4 for three inches) to bind together the foam triangles. Their tower soon resembled a Christmas tree. Glancing over and catching sight of Team Two’s tower, which appeared taller and a bit sturdier, they became more generous with the tape. In the interest of design, they hastily drew on a bunny face. “I think ours is more creative,” said Leah Fowlkes (Questrom’20).

When the timer went off, there were two towers standing. The Team Two tower stood 21 inches tall, easily passed the weight requirement, and “cost” $266. The Team One tower was about 12 inches tall, cost only $187, and was able to withstand more weight.

The four judges—Luis, Fawcett, Rich Lally, ENG associate dean of finance administration, and Joe Precopio, ENG senior program coordinator—crowned Team Two the winner, also giving it the most innovative distinction, a separate category.

Advisors judge the towers.

Xu awaits the judgment of Tinker Lab advisors Brian Luis (ENG’18,’19) and Haley Fawcett (ENG’20) about how much weight Team One’s tower can hold.

After class, Agan said the day’s exercise was a way to illustrate team theory to the students. “When we discuss teams, we make a distinction between a team and a working group,” he said. A working group has individual accountability, while a team shares leadership roles and has individual as well as mutual accountability. “A team works interdependently to complete a task, its members bring different perspectives, and it is better at solving complex problems,” he said.

While some of the overall concepts underpinning organizational behavior may seem basic (how to play nice with others, how to work in a group), according to Agan, common knowledge doesn’t always translate to common practice.

“It’s common sense, but we explain it with theories, models, and talk about what doesn’t happen in practice,” he said. “What we try to do is offer different models and perspectives to clarify the concepts, like this worked because we had a true team, or this didn’t work because we waited until the last minute. As we go through the course, we try to give them tools to use so they can replicate good dynamics.”

In fall 2018, the Questrom students will enroll in the required Cross-Functional Core (CORE), a suite of classes—financial management, marketing management, operations management, analytics, and the business plan—that are combined alongside a semester-long project. In CORE, students work in large teams. Agan is certain the concepts taught in his Questrom class will come into play.

Buehler said learning more about her personal preferences and personality type throughout the semester has been particularly valuable, as it’s allowed her to better understand herself and her behavior in a team setting. The class took a personality test earlier in the semester, Fowlkes said, and it has helped her to better understand why she reacts or handles situations the way she does.

Classmate Pardiwala said the class has helped him realize that not everyone thinks the same way, values the same things, or has the same strengths. “We’ve learned about subconscious behavior,” he said. “In the beginning of the exercise, we didn’t know how to make the base of the tower, but one of our teammates soon sketched it out and thought how to design it and to use tubes as the structure. I wanted to understand why she thought that way, and she explained she was trying to find a combination of the cheapest and strongest material. The class has helped me understand how to get unique individuals uniquely motivated and perform the task at hand.”