PRIME debuts new integrated course offering:
Critical Thinking and Strategic Decision Making


Prime"The three terms — strategic decision making, critical thinking and ICO," explained Vikas Mittal, J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing and head of the Energy Initiative at the Jones School, "have very specific meanings."

Clarifying those specific meanings is vital. "Strategic decision making is the process where people, instead of getting bogged down with the problem-solving aspects of a decision, actually pay attention to the strategic process," Professor Mittal continued. "They ask questions about engaging the right people, developing the right relationships, keeping personal bias out of the decision process, and managing cognitive and emotional conflict. Critical thinking is the art of being able to evaluate an issue non-judgmentally — thinking about an issue from all perspectives, evaluating different alternatives without getting wedded to any particular alternative."

So, why is an ICO — integrated course offering — needed for enabling students to become strategic decision makers and critical thinkers? Don't these skills automatically come through the basic MBA curriculum?

"As easy as it seems, both skills are difficult, subtle, and involve rigorous thinking and adaptability in perspectives and behaviors," Professor Mittal said. To inculcate these skills, he developed the concept of an ICO. The ICO is taught by four professors whose research and expertise bring a multi-disciplinary approach to the topic: Alex Butler, finance and econometrics; Vikas Mittal, decision making and psychology; Amit Pazgal, game theory and operations management; and Brent Smith, psychology and social psychology.

Leading scholars in their area, professors Pazgal (2008), Butler (2011 and 2012) and Mittal (2009 and 2015) each won the prestigious Jones School Award for Excellence in Research. Professor Mittal won the 2012 and 2015 MBA for Professionals Weekend Award for Teaching Excellence. Similarly, professors Mittal, Pazgal and Smith have taught extensively in Rice's executive education program for companies such as: National Oilwell Varco, Shell, BP, Chicago Bridge & Iron and Cameron.

These professors brought a wealth of research, academic and executive experience to the classroom. Bryant Fulk, a professional MBA student and vice president at Wells Fargo Securities Acquisition and Divestiture Advisory Group, said, "All four of these professors are quite different and yet very complementary of each other in terms of approach and world views. This was by far the most useful course for me in the program. Its utility was evident, and yet its whole impact is years away from revealing itself, as I am early in my career and still naïve in the world of executive decision making."

ICOs for Energy: A PRIME Directive

The energy industry is facing a looming shortage of executive talent as growing numbers of CEOs and other C-suite executives retire, forcing companies to confront the lack of experience in their ranks. If you're a junior analyst or engineer, you might be in a really good position to take advantage of that … except that your promotions are based on core skills, and you've never actually managed a team through conflict or organizational change. What's a reliable way to build a more substantial knowledge base? What's the next step?

Thirty participants — made up of second-year professional and full-time students and one alumnus — figured out their next step with the Jones School's first ICO, Critical Thinking and Strategic Decision Making. The course, along with others launching during the summer and fall of 2015, was offered on a competitive basis. "It's a chance for students in the MBA program to discover themselves," said Ankur Dayal, director of the Energy Initiative at the Jones School.

And it's a chance for the energy industry to fill its pipeline of potential CEOs with the next generation prepared to lead. The Partnership for Research Insight and Management Excellence (PRIME) at the Jones School has a particular interest in and focus on the energy and oil and gas industry. PRIME increases the potential of insightful executives with technical ability by enhancing their commercial acumen and leadership ability.

Lynn Elsenhans, former chairman and CEO of Sunoco, member of the Board of Trustees of Rice University, and a strong supporter of the Energy Initiative explains its value: "PRIME leverages the technical skills and knowledge of industry professionals by developing their leadership potential and preparing them for executive leadership positions."

Self-awareness, relationships and reflection

"I recently became a manager," said Jeanie Oudin, a professional student in the course who works for Wood Mackenzie. "So I've had to think bigger picture. One of the interesting things that the first two modules stressed had to do with internal biases that a lot of people carry. It helped me be more aware that I'm thinking a certain way or reacting too quickly. Now I'm taking a step back, pausing and trying to understand how other people might interpret something."

The first two modules Oudin referred to are decision making and social psychology, taught by professors Mittal and Smith, senior associate dean of Executive Education and associate professor of management and psychology. For emerging leaders, a theoretical understanding of psychological biases, personality, group processes, provides the mechanism for effective and critical self-analysis, which is a pathway for continuous self-improvement and the crux of the opening modules.

Professor Mittal's module starts off by asking students to take a self-assessment, then evaluating their milieu based on a reading of Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow. By reflecting on themselves and their surroundings, students start to understand their personal biases, their relationships and the shortcomings of the intense technical focus they espouse. Professor Smith's social psychology module flows into the science of group dynamics. He focuses on relating to others, laterally and vertically, and how crucial that is to becoming a successful leader of decision-making teams — both the quality of the decisions and the level of engagement and commitment to team decisions. He focuses on helping students to better understand issues related to change management. Using a simulation, students put into practice their learning and reflect on their experiences as human beings, managers and leaders.

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A long-term perspective

The third and fourth modules of the course cover econometric regression modelling and game theory, taught by Professor of Finance Alex Butler and Professor of Marketing Amit Pazgal. Professor Butler taught students how to think rigorously when making causal judgments. Using an econometrics-based approach, students learned how to conduct analysis that credibly establishes causal effects in terms of social and corporate policy — based on observational data. The techniques they covered empowered students to make better decisions with data.

Professor Pazgal's final module used both game theory and decision models to help students understand the structure of decisions. Using decision trees and equilibrium analysis how can you work backward to figure out what you should or should not do? They discussed a myriad of topics including the use of credible threats and promises, strategic use of information through signaling and screening, and bidding in auctions. The ultimate goal of his section was to enhance the students' ability to understand decision making — from an economic and psychological perspective — in complex, interactive business situations.

Ali Alqahtani, a full-time student who will be taking on a new role of business development specialist at Saudi Aramco, felt the course provided him with a general framework for the decision-making process. "It made me realize how hard it is to make appropriate decisions especially in a fast-changing environment." Integrating the ideas from all the modules inspired students to adopt a long-term perspective and to develop a more thoughtful position on complex judgments and strategies.

Executive Interaction

Students had the opportunity to extensively interact with industry leaders who participated in the class for extended periods of time. Lynn Elsenhans; Steve Geiger Ph.D., vice president and chief administrative officer at Cameron International, contributed as executives in residence. Mark Shuster, executive vice president exploration, Upstream Americas, Shell Oil Company; and Aya Kameda Ph.D., business advisor to Mark Shuster, provided perspective to students about decision processes in Shell.

These executives not only read and studied the course material but also sat through parts of the course to provide insights, perspectives and thoughts to the students. Steve Geiger, very graciously shared a presentation usually reserved only for his senior leadership to illustrate a crucial point: how we can lose sight of the bigger picture when we get wedded to a particular point of view? "Are we missing any F's?" he reminded his students to always ask during any decision when they are really sure of themselves.  They related their many experiences from careers that illustrated the concepts discussed in class, both agreeing and disagreeing with students and faculty members.

"The enormity of this benefit — real time commentary and perspective from industry veterans — is incalculable," Professor Mittal said. "In most instances, even when I teach such a course to executives, they do not have the benefit of this collective insight and wisdom."

How will the ICO help the Energy Industry?

The next step for companies invested in reinforcing their pipeline is first to identify leaders with the highest potential to be successful executives. Then provide those high potentials with strategically focused coaching, an expanded knowledge base and deeper skills to prepare them for the kinds of things they would encounter — from human capital, new technologies and evolving business models to intense public scrutiny, geopolitical complexities and broad involvement in corporate governance. The ICOs identify the high potentials and prepare them for leadership responsibilities.

Upon reflection, Fulk said, "Framing the problems I am facing currently through the architecture outlined in the course was extremely germane. They presented all four modules as vaguely interdependent … both insightful and elegant. It's difficult to explain in the real world how discretely these things interact but rather all of the competencies show up to differing degrees all the time. Framing it loosely and indiscreetly was helpful in how I graft these tools into my own world view."  

Perspective, Insight and Thoughtfulness

A typical course within the MBA curriculum may be focused on helping students develop applied skills or helping them find answers. "This is not that course," explained Professor Mittal. "Rather than give answers, or applied tips — each professor focused on helping students develop the art of asking the right questions, understanding different perspectives and ways of approaching the questions, and thoughtfully examining the pros and cons of each option or answer. These pros and cons are not just financial — they are reputational, relational, and emotional. They accrue in the long, medium and short run. They are relevant at an individual, group and organizational level."

Fulk found the course has made him more thoughtful about his job and his personal life, even the process of buying a house helped him frame how he approached the contract. "The lens through which I view these personal circumstances and the depth that I dive into the problem have been improved by the ICO."