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Turning the Traditional Classroom on its Head

11/6/2013 --

Professor Ray Reilly is reshaping executive development for today's environment.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Business theories, frameworks, and models are standard offerings in the business school classroom, and they work well when the audience is relatively inexperienced in business. But U-M Ross Professor Ray Reilly thought there was a better way to teach executive education, where students have both knowledge and experience.

His solution is an approach that turns the traditional classroom experience around and results in something spectacular: executives and faculty members venturing out of their comfort zones and discovering new ways of dealing with today's complex business problems.

The newly designed Michigan Ross Executive Program, for example, reflects his current thinking.

"Increasingly, many of our participants have advanced business degrees and are already familiar with many of the traditional frameworks used both in the classroom and in business situation analysis," says Reilly. "So we're stretching everybody, participants and faculty members alike. We are turning our process around by first identifying the business issues of the day, the same challenges the participants are dealing with back at the firm."

Reilly questioned both the course structure and the classroom experience. The former structure started with a focus on functional roles within the firm and gradually integrated the separate parts into a complete picture of the company and the general manager's responsibilities. Now, "big picture" issues come first, followed by issues of the industry and the firm, and then exploration of the organization and the individual.

The old classroom approach presented theory and frameworks, either preceded by a case study that set up the discussion of the model, or followed by a case study that was "solved" using the model. Now it begins with a dive into the critical business issues and how they're relevant to the participants. Then they learn about frameworks that can shape thinking about an issue and help develop solutions.

And where do the issues come from? Reilly challenges faculty to think of the top pressing issues in the areas they teach and research. He also presses participants to think of the most challenging problems they face.

To keep things up to date, they also mine the news for topical issues to discuss and apply to their business life. For example, they might discuss a Wall Street Journal article on the next possible Federal Reserve chair. They'll talk about that person, what policy agenda they might bring, and how that will directly affect someone's business.

"We're taking these stories and connecting them to the organizations of the executives in the classroom," Reilly says. "And we're exploring just what those headlines mean for each person's business. Anticipating how the world around us will influence our business takes a certain type of critical thinking and knowledge. In any industry, what happens in the outside world can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. What I want to do is help executives develop the thinking practices to stay ahead of the curve and reap a bottom-line benefit from doing so."

As a result, Reilly has seen executives begin to systematically think about the knowledge needed to solve a problem, how variables may change, and how to respond to things that don't pan out as anticipated.

"We have to get people to think about how they are thinking, so they are always ready to adjust to new realities and are continuously improving their thinking skills," Reilly says. "Executives need to embrace a more collaborative and collegial environment in which different perspectives are encouraged and critiqued. The result is likely to be both better decision making and a more capable and connected executive team."

Reilly says the new approach used in the Executive Program is more dynamic and more attuned to the needs of high-level business leaders and those with high potential. It rekindles the education and training participants have received with a new way of thinking about problem solving.

"It takes practice to think differently," he says. "It's not so much about getting the right answer as it is about getting to your answer the right way."

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,