That is the final exam question that I've been using for about a decade in my graduate class "Organizational Behavior:An Evidence-Based Approach" in our Department of Management Science & Engineering at Stanford. Students get 3000 words to answer the question. I put in on the course outline so they can see it the first day of class. I do so because I want propsective students to decide if they can deal with a class with so much ambiguity and pressure to write well and because I want students to start thinking about their paper from the first day of class. I encourage and reward them for being as creative as possible, while at the same time, weaving together concepts related to major themes in the class such as leadership, employee selection and socialization, motivation and rewards, interpersonal influence, group dynamics, organizational change, innovation, and organizational culture.
As I tell the students, this is a really hard question. In fact, so hard, it is difficult for me to answer even after studying the topic for over 30 years. I guess I did answer it in at least one of my books, The No Asshole Rule, although that was a lot longer than 3000 words. After a decade or so, I have read about 1000 answers to this question. Every year, I go through the same process with it. About a week before the papers are due, I start having second thoughts about it as I talk to the students about their struggles with answering such an open-ended question. After all, this is the Stanford Engineering School, and while some our students write beautifully, for many others, this is the first time they have faced such an open-ended writing assignment. Then, the same thing happens every year. The pile of papers come in, I start reading them, and I am delighted with the overall quality and dazzled by the best papers -- and pleased by the creativity and even joy the students so many students convey.
The range and quality of the papers was especially striking this year. I believe it was largely because my two course assistants, Belinda Chiang and Isaac Waisberg , did such a great job of giving students feedback during the five writing assignments that led up to the final. I won't list all the titles and themes of the 84 papers we received. Quite a few were variations of web-based start-ups, as there is a lot of that at Stanford, especially in the School of Engineering.
But here are some of the most intriguing ones:
A nationwide professional wrestling company that "empowers its wrestlers to create quality shows and programming."
"The Ministry of Love," a government agency on the imaginary planet of "Natan" that has a population of 3 million people and a declining fertility rate. The mission of the ministry to increase the birth rate via love. The key roles are "Venuses" who develop ideas and "Cupids" who implement those ideas.
An ideal organization for a high school "Queen Bee" who "rules the hallways with a fist full of Prada and enough hairspray to glue flies to the walls."
A non-profit hospice, that nurtures employees "while they deal with the emotions of death on a daily basis."
Heaven. Yes, that heaven -- where management has two goals 1. provide people with an afterlife fair to their conduct before death and 2. Encourage people to do good on earth.
"The Ideal NBA Franchise: Transforming the Golden State Warriors into Champions." This is a tough job as our local basketball team is a perennial loser.
Revamping the The National Kidney Foundation of Singapore
"Mystical Weddings," a wedding planning agency located in India.
The ideal organization for a family. This was written by a student who had been a dad for just two weeks. He was suffering sleep deprivation and other stresses and decided to imagine a better solution. It was touching and made lovely use of course concepts -- incentives, influence, and group norms, for example.
Finally, the most outrageous and one of the best papers in terms of writing and application of course concepts (written by a female student) was: "Living the dream -- would you like to to be the third wife of Tom Brady? A blueprint for the polygynous family." I never heard of the word "polygynous." It means polygamous -- one husband, multiple wives, the Big Love thing.
As I said, although I was tempted to abandon this assignment yet again this year, when I read the papers, I was -- as usual -- struck by how well the best students apply the theory, evidence, and cases from the course in brilliant ways that I could never possibly imagine. Also, the assignment reveals students who can define but not really apply concepts, as well as those rare students who haven't learned much course content.
I am wondering however, if I should open it up next year so that students can produce something other than a paper that uses course concepts to design the ideal organization. Perhaps they could do a film, a presentation, or design a game that answers the question in some compelling way. For the most ambitious students, given the entrepreneurial frenzy at Stanford, perhaps taking steps to start your own ideal organization (and telling me what you've learned) might satisfy the requirement as well. I am not sure if this is a good idea as it is hard to beat good old fashioned writing. But I am toying with it.