A new look at capacity building for teams


By Matthew Manos, founder of verynice, and director of Challenge-Based Learning at the USC Iovine and Young Academy

Imagine: you’re back in the fourth grade.

You pull out a freshly sharpened number two pencil as your teacher hands you a math exam.

You look down the page and see a question:

The average hamster weighs 4 ounces. A 747 can hold 248,000 pounds. How many hamsters can you bring to Maui?

If you’re one of those kids who doesn’t excel at math like me, you’re going crazy taking countless notes and deciding how to respond.

You think to yourself, “How many ounces are in a pound? Am I supposed to assume that each of these hamsters is an average weight?”

Self-doubt continues until you finally write down your best answer to the question and hand in the exam.

The next day you get the test back, only to be told the correct answer is 0, because it is illegal to own or transport hamsters in the state of Hawaii.

This learning model is called problem-based learning. It’s the standard approach that many of us will remember from our days at school.

There is a time and place for problem-based learning. It can empower employees to think critically and develop communication skills. In some cases, it can also improve an employee’s ability to work in groups, synthesize complex information, and be well prepared to plan the next corporate escape room outing.

But what a problem-based approach like this lacks is the ability to provide employees with a platform to define their own problem. Instead, learning experiences like this pose a problem, however difficult they may be. until the employee. Further, more often than not, the problem presented is presented as a kind of riddle that has one, and only one, correct answer or interpretation.

This conflicts with the mindset of an entrepreneur or innovator and with the needs of organizations that push the needle by first identifying the underlying issues that have yet to be clearly defined. Furthermore, this approach can be limiting in the inability to connect clearly and directly with the nuances of an employee’s day-to-day role, their interests and the challenges that excite them.

Despite this, traditional corporate training courses, seminars, and webinars far too often present themselves this way.

Whether tackling major societal problems or navigating new and emerging technologies, an innovator’s work is rarely predictable. But one thing every day has in common for innovators like these is the need to start with the challenge and work outwards. Some of these challenges are small, some are big. None of these challenges are presented to us neatly, and the world’s greatest challenges rarely have a predefined scope.

Introduce challenge-based learning.

Challenge-based learning is defined by: challengebasedlearning.org as “an efficient and effective framework for deep and meaningful learning while solving real-world challenges.”

Unlike more traditional models of teaching and learning, a challenge-based approach asks the learner to define the problem themselves before attempting to solve something.

At USC Iovine and Young Academy, we’ve seen first-hand the unique potential this model has to better prepare students and working professionals for the fast-paced worlds of entrepreneurship, technology, and design-driven innovation.

By participating in challenge-based learning, we can develop creative responses to complex problems faced by individuals, communities, organizations and society as a whole. These projects involve real interests – real problems – that need to be defined and contain many possible avenues and outcomes.

We’ve seen students use different skills and knowledge to build ideas and prototypes in response to problems they come up with. In the process, students develop a powerful framework to analyze challenges and synthesize information in a collaborative manner.

Take a challenge-based approach to your next business training by:

1. Presenting a major challenge the organization is currently facing.

2. Bring your employees into teams that break with their day-to-day departments and silos.

3. Share new methods and strategic frameworks that can be applied in real time to meet the same challenge.

Real-time, hands-on and challenge-based experiences like these are not only more directly applicable and related to your team’s day-to-day work; they align with the hard skills needed for the creative industry of the 21st century:

• Knowledge transfer: Bringing together insights from different disciplines

• Collaboration: understanding different processes and perspectives

• Interdisciplinary problem solving: applying a wide range of competences

• Communication: the ability to bring clarity to a problem

• Iteration: continuous learning through constant reflection, trial and error

• Creative facilitation: Coordination and management of complex projects, systems and teams

• Design strategy: innovation that balances the needs of business with the needs of people

Educational experiences can have a lasting impact when the learner can make a connection between the content and their real interests and aspirations. By moving from a “one correct answer” model to a learning experience based on challenges and rooted in real-world problems and opportunities, you can give your team the tools and confidence they need to drive meaningful change bring.


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