Solving big problems with bold empathetic solutions

By Kristy Bartlett, current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA program.

So often we find solutions to society’s biggest challenges, that are localised and small scale or before adequately understanding the complexities in which they exist. Through the University of Sydney Business School MBA program, I recently had the chance to consider both challenges in the context of social entrepreneurship in India.

For the MBA Social Enterprise module, I spent two weeks in Bangalore exploring some of the challenges, risks, opportunities and characteristics of social enterprises. Central to the learning experience was our partner organisation, 40K –  a pioneering Australian social enterprise, delivering English language education to children in regional villages. Without these critical English skills, students have less opportunity for further education, employment and mobility. Our core challenge during the program, was to explore how 40K could scale and further commercialise their enterprise to continue to reduce this inequality of opportunity globally.

Before leaving Australia I was curious about what I might learn in India that I could apply to the social enterprise sector on my return. The reality of being in India however, immersed in a culture and environment so different to what I had experienced before, was overwhelming. In less than two weeks, I developed an appreciation for the country I hadn’t expected (and a determination to return) and a list of insights, learnings and ideas that could be applied in so many ways to my work and life more broadly.

The two things that struck me most from this experience though, were the need for scale and the value of an empathetic learning mindset to solve complex problems.

In and around Bangalore, we saw what innovation at the base of the pyramid looked like -from a hundred-year-old open-air laundry to an enterprise making bags from recycled tetra-packs in order to create employment for women in the local slums.

Travelling around the city visiting these social enterprises, it became blatantly obvious that no government could address the breadth and depth of challenges faced in such a fast changing environment by engaging with the array of localised, small scale social enterprises, charities and organisations that existed. The most effective way for the government to make in-roads into its infinite list of priorities would be to find providers who offered significant solutions to broad problem areas, effectively taking a problem off their plate completely.

We saw this in the Karnataka governments willingness to negotiate with a provider who could deliver a service to 4,000 villages and indifference towards one currently reaching 14 villages. It wasn’t that the smaller operator didn’t have a highly impactful proposition; it was just simply more feasible and impactful to work with one supplier instead of 285 different suppliers that were all tackling the issue in a different way

Innovation in social enterprise we heard, is often about innovating within constraints. In this case, I quickly learned that scale was a critical constraint to add to our innovation framework. To create a compelling offering for the government, we needed to design a solution that would reach 5,000 villages, not 50.

During an overnight stay in one of the villages 40K operated in, we also had the chance to speak with locals about business, education and the future. I expected to feel compelled to give to the local community charity. Instead, I felt driven to find ways to create equal access to opportunities, but not charity. I expected to see opportunities for productivity, instead I saw the benefit and opportunity within dispersed networked micro-enterprises. I expected to rely on solutions from the world I knew, instead I found better solutions by observing and learning about what already existed in the villages.

After spending two and a half years doing an MBA, I was looking forward to the opportunity to apply all the knowledge I had accumulated to a real social challenge. In the end though, the most important ingredients to finding new pathways to scale for 40K lay simply in having an open mind, a desire to learn and absorb as much as we could from as many new sources of inspiration as possible, and to empathise with our stakeholders.

The social enterprise module in Bangalore exposed us to incredible diversity. From extreme wealth to extreme poverty, from the fastest to slowest pace of change I have witnessed, from empowered women start-ups taking on global giants to subsistence micro farmers, content with making just enough for their family to survive. To experience all of this, in such a short amount of time was both energising and overwhelming. I left inspired by the immense opportunity to effect change and humbled by the incredible complexity of the ecosystem I had only just scratched the surface of.

India has given me much to contemplate at the end of what was already an incredibly thought provoking MBA journey. It was a unique experience that epitomises the University of Sydney’s commitment to experiential learning. I know many of my fellow students will value the learning experience as much as I did and I thoroughly look forward to the many conversations and actions it sparks on and off campus in the future.

Posted in MBA | Leave a comment

Innovation by constraint

koureas_myrophoraBy Myrophora Koureas, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

I first heard of ‘innovation by constraint’ during a pre-departure information session for the India Pilot Program as part of my MBA. The premise sounded straightforward, doing more with less. In preparation for our project work with 40K, I began researching this very foreign concept.

Developed in India, ‘Jugaad Innovation’, also referred to as ‘Frugal Innovation’, is reminding the West that constraint leads to innovative solutions.  According to Professor Jaideep Prabhu, a frugal, inclusive and flexible approach to problem solving leads to innovative solutions. The idea of being frugal, although straightforward, was difficult for me to comprehend because typically one of my first questions when presented with a challenge or project is ‘what’s our budget?’

Arriving in Bangalore, I was quickly struck by the extremes and contrasts. The obvious being extreme poverty juxtaposed with obscene wealth. For less than a cup of coffee in Sydney, 40K is delivering technology enabled English classes to students in rural India. That’s the monthly cost per student for 75 minute classes after school. All while an ex-minister hosts his daughter’s wedding and foots the $5 billion rupee bill.

Then there is the technical versus the manual. Although Bangalore is the tech hub of India, whole businesses have remained untouched by technological advancement. One such example is the dhobi ghat in Malleswaram, otherwise known as the Washerman’s Village, where laundry has been washed by hand for the past 100 years. There is a real sophistication in the simplicity of operations management there. The system depends on the people and there are no complex processes to track inventory or deliveries. The dhobi ghat delivers a superior service similar to the Mumbai’s dabbawalas, for anyone who’s seen The Lunchbox.

Spending time in the villages, interacting with 40K PLUS teachers, students and their families helped me understand the way the program is transforming lives. The parents and grandparents were clear, that by learning English their children would be able to access a range of opportunities not otherwise available to them. Recently, 40K won the 2016 SEA Social Enterprise Innovation Award. The 40K PLUS program, having overcome challenges with internet connectivity, electricity and pricing, uses technology to achieve educational access in rural areas. The 40K PLUS innovation is frugal but the social impact it achieves is not.

My visit to India has inspired me to find ways to do more with less. Rather than complex process engineering, I am now more than ever interested in the role of people in service delivery and I’ve replaced questions about on-budget delivery with the impact to be achieved.



Posted in MBA | 1 Comment

… But Aren’t All Great Leaders Self-Aware?

By Douglas Foster – Current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and ‘Leadership Practice and Development’ unit coach.

doug-no3-1-of-1One of my favourite cartoons was in a newspaper several years ago. It’s of a CEO standing around his team of managers declaring, “What we’re lacking is street smarts. Does anyone here not have an MBA?”

The irony is not lost on me that 6 years later I am a fully-fledged MBA student at the University of Sydney Business School. How my life has changed.

What is perhaps changing less is the perception of what an MBA delivers. Last week the AFR released an article with the results of a survey on prospective MBA students around the world and what they wanted out of an MBA. From a list of 17 desired skills, students identified Leadership, Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurialism, Negotiation, and Communication as the top five they wanted to develop. Self-Awareness was 17th.

At first it’s not hard to see why. Each one of the top five above would be considered fundamental to a range of jobs and careers that an MBA graduate might aspire to. And very few organisations would have Self-Awareness as part of a PD or as a KPI. Yet ranking Self-Awareness as 17 out of 17 desired skills seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of skills and how they are developed.

In Leadership Practice and Development (LP&D), the first unit of the University of Sydney MBA, we learnt that there are two fundamentally different parts to skill development. There’s cognition and then there’s interaction. Cognition is about theory and concepts: objective truth. It’s developed through knowledge transfer: lectures, books, videos. But the moment you transition from understanding (eg. analyzing solutions to a strategy problem) to interacting (eg. attempting to persuade others to your way of seeing the world), influencing is involved and having an acute understanding of your tendencies, strengths and areas for development becomes critical to achieving the outcome you want. Self-Awareness.

Leadership, Critical Thinking, Entrepreneurialism, Negotiation and Communication all have best practice cognitive elements that are important to know. But unless you’re locked away in a reaseach lab, isolated from other people, getting stuff done requires leveraging that knowledge in an interactive setting. This depends on your ability to influence, which is massively impacted by your individual personal style.

Self-Awareness can often be overlooked in the same way building core strength is not an obvious essential to building arm muscle and leg muscle strength. Without a strong core, stability during an exercise can be poor, and muscle development is inefficient or leads to injury due to poor technique. No professional gymnast begins by jumping on rings without building their core strength.

Leadership is much the same. Like the core, self-awareness combines with your conceptual understanding of leadership theory to develop your leadership effectiveness. Just focusing on knowledge would have your leadership effectiveness remain a concept. So just as all great gymnasts develop great core strength, all great leaders develop their self-awareness.

LP&D, facilitated by Professor Mike Jenner, leads with Self-Awareness. Incoming students are exposed to a raft of personality instruments (Myers Briggs, Gallup StrengthsFinder, Belbin Team Roles) even before they start class. What really sets LP&D apart though, is that for more than half of class time, students are in action, individually and in teams, engaging in influencing behaviours with each other.

Through the coaches in the unit, students get immediate personalised feedback, not just about the individual skills being coached, but also about how they are being in the interaction: body language, tone, assertiveness, expression. The course requires students to notice what they do, how they do it, and how it lands for others. For some students the opportunity to be a more influential leader is through increased assertiveness, for others through increased connectedness. Without Self-Awareness, you don’t have a map.

Even after LP&D, every course within the University of Sydney MBA contains some element of team work. The Financial Management unit will teach you everything from accounting principles to how to analyse the financial performance of a company but you’ll still complete a team project with classmates to test your ability to influence the financial outcome. Not even a CFO can implement a financial strategy without influencing the Managing Director, CEO and senior managers.

And because the University of Sydney MBA is part time, catering to full time professionals, everything learned at night or on the weekend can be immediately taken back into the workplace to engage in real life Action Learning.

If you’re thinking about an MBA, it’s important to know what you want to get out of it. Find the right university that caters to what you want and what you don’t want, and what educational approaches are going to help you develop your career. I chose the University of Sydney because I know that as all great gymnasts develop their core strength, all great leaders develop their self-awareness. And thanks in large part to LP&D, University of Sydney MBA graduates rarely ‘lack street smarts’.

Posted in MBA, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Speak your truth

By Anmol Saini, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship recipient


Everyone’s story is unique, and your truth is different to mine. The UN Women National Committee Australia MBA Scholarship from the University of Sydney Business School will have a unique meaning for you.

I applied for this MBA because I knew it focussed on personal transformation, self-awareness and self-management, and was a qualification that would expand my horizons.

Almost two years on, the knowledge, opportunities and networks that the program has afforded me is creating the platform I always hoped for in order to achieve my goals: to work alongside organisations that mirror my values around diversity and inclusion, and have the means to impact change in corporate and social Australia, and beyond.

A year ago I found myself at a 10-day silent meditation course. People meditate for a number of reasons of course – how to be happier, or in more control of their life. Me? I was there because the Leadership Practice & Development subject encouraged me to look inwardly and reflect on who I was as a person, not just as a leader. I came to the realisation that somewhere along the way, I had become all things to all people and in turn lost myself.

I wanted the means to re-connect with the authentic me. Much like this MBA, I found myself signing up to something I knew was going to be incredibly challenging yet rewarding – and it delivered.

I now recognise the experiences that shaped me into a person who placed such high importance on “fitting in”, starting from my first experiences at school when my family moved here from India. I didn’t speak English and struggled to fit in. With my older sister’s help this eventually eased, but at the age of 5, my confidence levels had already plummeted.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and the same kid who so desperately wanted to be under the radar, was being asked by the UN Women National Committee Australia to speak on their behalf at the national HeforShe launch campaign being held by Vodafone Australia. The opportunity was amazing and terrifying at the same time.

Half an hour of drawing attention to myself, speaking alone on stage about a topic I feel so passionately about – diversity and inclusion. Pressure was on! How to connect with a room of strangers and make them care about what I care about?

It was so simple, and yet challenging. I had to quiet the concerns of that inner child so focussed on fitting in, stand up and speak my truth, not worrying about how that truth would be perceived. The results were incredible – many of the attendees told me that sharing my personal and professional experiences helped them to transform my call to action into one that genuinely resonated with them on a personal level.

In May this year, through the University’s networks, I was given the opportunity to become a Global Ambassador for Rare Birds, an organisation aiming to create 1,000,000 more women entrepreneurs by 2020. These, and the many other opportunities I have been presented with through this MBA program, combined with my personal history, continue to shape who I am and what I stand for.

The question is, how will your history shape you? How could this MBA and scholarship shape your future?

If you are looking for an MBA that challenges you, pushes you out of your comfort zone, asks you to find your truth, and provides you with opportunities to speak it by working with the UN Women National Committee Australia and so many other incredible organisations, then apply now.

Only you can make your voice heard, and only you can make your truth count.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My (surprising) MBA journey so far…

By Adele Langton, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program and UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship recipient

al_image_bwBeing awarded the UN Women Australia National Committee MBA Scholarship came as a surprise. Little did I know that this would be the first of many. My advice if you’re considering applying? Park any hesitations about your likelihood of success and have confidence in how valuable your contribution could be. To the same potential applicants, I would also say prepare yourself for some surprising experiences.

The excitement I felt when I started the program was something else that came as a surprise. To be involved in a program with an abundance of opportunities inside and outside the classroom, there’s a real buzz on campus. With this comes a genuine community around you, ready to support you throughout your journey – which I feel strongly is of great value.

You’ll be surprised at how perspective-shifting the studies can be, I really was.  Our cohort has just completed our first subject and we all agree that our eyes have already been opened towards our goals, strengths and values, much faster than we ever expected.

The biggest surprise?  The calibre of your fellow students.  You will meet industry game-changers working on projects and in roles you didn’t know existed. From CEOs to thought leaders – I may have even met Australia’s next female Prime Minister. They are insightful, impressive and fun people to work with and also learn from.

What should not surprise you? How much you will get out of studying at a university with a genuine commitment to gender diversity. You will also be in the company of women passionate about this too. They are fearless public speakers, poised negotiators, inspirational debaters – truly remarkable women.    I wanted to complete the University of Sydney MBA to round out my existing experiences with business insights: but more than that, I wanted to be able to channel the information and contacts I made toward the shared goal of female empowerment.  This is exactly what the UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship offers.  With support from the UN Women you will get the chance to craft ideas about how to promote gender equality and play a role in the important work that UN Women NC Australia does.

What are you waiting for? I look forward to seeing you on the program!

Posted in MBA | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

6 reasons why you might consider completing an MBA

guy-ford-photo_webBy Professor Guy Ford, Director of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program. 

There comes a point in many professional’s careers where a certain threshold has been reached and further career progression becomes difficult. It is at this point that people often start to contemplate whether or not a MBA is for them.

Career enhancement

Generally the most common motivation for undertaking an MBA is career enhancement. We interview candidates who have typically become subject matter experts in their field and who are accomplished at what they do, but they desire to contribute more widely to the organisation – they want to lead teams, be involved in strategy formulation, put together robust business cases, build organisational capability and penetrate new markets to name a few. They feel that an MBA will help to build the knowledge and skills to be able to rise further through the organisation.

Career change 

Another group of candidates are looking at an MBA as a vehicle for career change. They typically have an undergraduate degree in the sciences, social sciences, humanities or engineering, and would like to change their career path, discover more opportunities and potentially increase their salary.

Business establishment

Some candidates have built their own small businesses and feel they need a broader set of skills to be able to scale these businesses. Some are looking to build global capability. They have become tied down working ‘in the business’, rather than ‘on the business’. They are looking for fresh ideas and insights from other successful entrepreneurs. For this group, an MBA provides an opportunity to meet and work with a diverse cohort of people with a wide range of skills and experiences.

Develop leadership and influencing skills

Graduates of MBA programs tend to have developed sound business knowledge, but many programs fail to seriously address the development of the personal and interpersonal skills needed to effectively manage, lead and influence people. Our MBA program addresses these substantial gaps by placing an emphasis on skills development through our innovate, team-based, coaching-intensive program. We aim to build the personal resilience of our candidates so they can confront any difficult situation that may arise in their personal or professional lives.

Multiple diverse perspectives

Our program restricts each intake to 48 so we can select a cohort of students with highly diverse skills and talents. This is important as students learn to deal with real world problems containing considerable ambiguity. Diversity allows students to see problems from multiple perspectives, make sense of complex situations faster and see patterns emerge. We interview all potential candidates to ensure they have the mindset and capability to thrive in a world of endless change.

Experiential learning to find creative solutions to difficult problems

Building on the benefits of the student’s multiple diverse perspectives, our classes have been reconfigured to take the focus away from instruction in favour of facilitation. We want our students to interact and learn from each other, and our program creates a safe learning environment in which to test new ideas and try new things. Our students feel they are engaged in their learning because they are learning by doing.

Find out more about the University of Sydney Business School MBA at an upcoming Information Session. Register at

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Innovating with a Customer-Centric Focus

leo-bartch-cohort-7By Leo Bartsch, current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

In a time when new crazy ideas seem to explode each week, thinking about the customer seems to be taking a back seat behind the shiny lights of disruptive innovation. Is customer-centric design worth looking into in a business? Or is it outmoded by big data and better algorithms?

At the most recent BOSS Emerging Leaders event, Innovating with a Customer-Centric Focus, these questions and more were answered. Hosted by Professor Guy Ford, Director of the MBA Progam, the speakers were Chris Severn of The Customer Experience Company, Erietta Sapounakis of Telstra, and Monique Rappell of the Australian Broadcasting Company. I spend a lot of time analysing my customer’s experiences, so I was really excited coming into the event to see how specialists from big corporates with the resources of Telstra and the ABC, as well as an expert with a more holistic view think about their customers.

So what is customer-centric innovation?
Chris believes the heart and soul of successful innovation is the customer, and that the heart and soul of the customer hasn’t changed for thousands of years. The experience is what truly matters to the customer. For Monique, another essential ingredient is empathy, finding a way to bridge the gap and truly understand the customer’s journey in their shoes.  Erietta tied both concepts together with empowerment, giving your people the right tools, processes and autonomy to give the customer the experience they are looking for.

What are the benefits of designing this way?
The speakers had many examples of huge improvements after switching to a more customer centric approach – not only in customer satisfaction, but in revenue!

Chris shared a story at a bank, where the service team was trained in how their products could help customers, and suddenly sales skyrocketed through the service centre! Changing a culture where sales had become a dirty word was difficult, but once the bridge was crossed, revenues increased.

Small business owners were clients of Monique’s bank, and had problems understanding the products on offer because the bank had made them too granular. Customers had a massive range of products to choose from, but didn’t have the time or knowledge to know which products were relevant for them. The bank tried to consolidate their offering, but struggled to improve things for their customers. In the end, the solution came from their own team, where a banker had built his own system to support his customers. They took the solution, found ways to scale it up, and saw a 400% increase in profits in 6 months.

What barriers are there to change?
Many companies are risk averse, and the bigger they are, the harder it is to effect change. There can be a cultural disregard for customer centric thinking, even in our language about the customer. For instance, the insurance industry often refers to the customer as “risks in force” – a term which doesn’t promote empathy for the customer.

Monique was involved in fixing a banking verification system, which came about because the CFO of the bank couldn’t get past the verification process in order to solve his account becoming suspended. Only once the customer’s struggle was highlighted at the highest level, was there enough drive to push for a solution. They looked at their process, and rebuilt it with empathy for what the customer was trying to do, and then worked from there towards an effective solution.

How do we make the change?
Use applied empathy to understand the customer’s journey. Get close to customers and reflect on their problem. Make the customer heard, even if it’s in a room with the CEO. Take decision makers on an experience safari.

Changing a risk averse culture
In Monique’s experience, large transformations don’t work in a risk averse environment. Breaking it up into smaller chunks of small wins allows you to consistently and frequently demonstrate success, which is important because risk averse decision makers need evidence in order to proceed with change. To succeed, decision makers also have to be able to accept that solutions can come from customers.

Erietta stressed the absolute necessity that there is a base of evidence. If the audience is resistant to the evidence you give them, find a different medium. For example, if they don’t easily assimilate customer feedback, use a review of a competitor’s related product or service.

Chris’s advice was to avoid attempting fail fast methods in a risk averse environment. Rather aim to learn quickly, by doing things like paper prototyping to rapidly iterate through ideas.

Is data the answer?
All three speakers felt strongly that while data could provide some insights or hint at problems, it can’t impart true understanding. The need for true empathy with customers means understanding them on a personal level, and not just numbers on a screen.

Final thoughts
What’s clear from this discussion is the immense benefit to the bottom line when successfully designing from the customer’s perspective. From established banks suddenly seeing 400% increases in profit in a division, to customer satisfaction swings of 60% in a call centre, to service teams suddenly turning from a cost centre to a profit centre. Chris shared this quote by Walt Disney which I think truly sums up a customer centric focus: “do what you do so well they people come back and bring their friends.”

If you reflect on your organisation’s interaction with your customers, do you think they’ll come back with their friends?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment