Harvard gives its best-kept secret away

In one of his recent blog posts, Patrick Mullane (MBA 1999), the Executive Director of HBX, Harvard Business School’s digital learning initiative, allows an intimate insight into the inner workings of the renowned business school.  

Picture: HBS

According to Mullane, Harvard’s recipe for success, the secret of its students’ abilities are the discussion groups happening around the myriad of case studies that the business school students have to study on a daily basis.

“It’s 7:45 in the morning on a Friday and I am sitting in Spangler Hall, the center of student activity at Harvard Business School,” he describes a recurring situation at the school. “Every seat is taken at the tables in the eating area and it is noisy.”

Whilst hundreds of HBS students are having breakfast, they also use this moment to catch up with their discussion groups at the same time. They discuss, review and argue over the case studies they had to read overnight. Those case studies are little booklets that tell stories from the business world – challenges, problems, cases where important decisions needed to be made. They are usually 8 to 15 pages long and students have to read two to three every night before professors facilitate a discussion and solution to them. To prepare for these class discussions and make them more productive, students meet upfront to prepare as well as possible.

Insight into someone else’s thought process

This insight into each’s individual thinking does not only help further your own thought process and working, it also forges deep bonds within the group of classmates.

“In the end we reviewed and debated hundreds of issues together, preparing ourselves to be ‘cold called’ by our professors when the class began or hoping to raise our hand and be called upon,” reminisces Mullane about his own experience at Harvard. And as fifty per cent of a class grade depended on the quality of a student’s participation, students were generally very keen to prepare themselves as well as possible before class started, he comments.

Team work

The process also fosters team work and the necessity to rely on others and trust their knowledge. “While most others and I would read every case (okay, maybe I scanned a few in my two years!), I wouldn’t necessarily do all of the deep analysis that preparation for class required. Instead, I relied on others to help me understand concepts and calculations every morning in the hour or so before taking my seat in the class”, writes Mullane. By doing that he learned that nothing is truer in real business as well, as a senior general manager can never know everything. He relies on others’ work and analysis and has to understand these to be able to step in front of board members, investors or stakeholders to talk about all areas of business with confidence and in detail.

Effective preparation for business life

For Mullane these discussion groups ended to be the biggest learning curve for his later business life. “Leadership isn’t just about taking people somewhere; it’s also about knowing what you don’t know. Rather than becoming an expert in every discipline, become an expert in hiring others who know a discipline and in learning how to assimilate information they share with you so that you, in turn, can share it with others in a compelling way. That is the secret to leveraging a team. And it’s one of the top things I learned at Harvard Business School.”

Read more at HBS