Fridays from the Frontline: Oxford Saïd GOTO – A Lesson in Sitting in the Discomfort
Oxford Saïd Business School’s Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (GOTO) program brings together small teams of MBA students to develop solutions to large-scale sustainable development problems.
Current Oxford MBA student Saskia Rotshuizen took to the Oxford Saïd blog to share insights from this year’s GOTO program, which targeted the climate crisis.
Oxford Saïd Global Opportunities and Threats: A Lesson in Sitting in the Discomfort
What happens when you place a group of solution-oriented MBAs in front of a seemingly insurmountable challenge? Welcome to the GOTO experience.
The first day back at school after the MBA winter break feels exactly like you might imagine: smiles, excited waves and ‘how was your break?’ fill the corridors of Saïd Business School. It is with this energy that we enter the launch week of the Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (GOTO) program. This unique component of the MBA curriculum asks for students to work in assigned teams of five to six to address a global societal challenge. Every year, GOTO selects a topic along the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals. This year, quite pertinently, the theme is Climate Action.
We all sit down on this first Monday of Hilary term in the Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre, the air still buzzing with conversations. The first guest expert of the day, Professor of Environmental Economics Cameron Hepburn, then comes up on the podium and starts speaking. Silence fills the room. The morning advances and the alarming statistics keep coming. The atmosphere in the room slowly shifts towards a subdued tone as the class faces the reality of the climate change situation. As the first break rolls around, then later followed by lunch, the conversation changes. ‘What can we do about this?’
Now, for anyone who has ever met an MBA student, one commonality quickly emerges: we are all solution-oriented individuals. From problem-solving frameworks to validated actions steps, MBAs are equipped with a bottomless toolkit for finding solutions and for jumping into problem-solving mode.
This is where GOTO becomes very interesting. As the week progresses, I witness how my classmates and I become increasingly uncomfortable, on two related levels. First, there is no denying that we are all partially responsible for the climate crisis that we face. Whether through flying, consuming meat or simply taking part in the ‘fast fashion’ industry, we all had a part to play. Individual consumers are of course not solely responsible for the crisis, as evidently the current situation is also the result of a policy failure as well as unsustainable business practices – yet, faced with increasingly compelling evidence, there is a clear individual realization within the cohort of our role in pumping carbon in the atmosphere.
Second, GOTO teaches a ‘systems-thinking’ approach, in which students are encouraged to spend a lot more time understanding the problem than exploring possible solutions. As Einstein once said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. We need to move away from linear thinking. For students who are hard-wired to find solutions, this is also an uncomfortable process.
In the first couple of weeks we spend time drawing initial system maps, questioning the parameters of our chosen challenge and reframing our problem statement. Within my track, focused on agriculture and food, we get to meet with four experts who gave us additional insights on how this sector contributes to global warming. A lot of energy is spent on expanding our knowledge of our topic, most of the time not really being sure if that will be useful in the end. The GOTO project team introduces us to various system maps, such as the Iceberg Model, which encourages us to think about the underlying forces, mindsets and patterns that drive a problem. We learn to recognize the dominant paradigms in our respective food systems and are pushed to extend our thinking on imagining how the system could be different. What would the map look like if we could only eat locally? Or if meat became ten times more expensive? With each question we ask, three more seem to emerge. As we quickly learn though, this is all part of the process.
At the time of writing all the teams have submitted an initial concept note. It is time for us to start expanding our network of experts, conduct interviews and hit the library. For my part, I am very excited to be diving deeper into systems thinking, as I believe it has tremendous potential, even if it means staying uncomfortable in the process.