Imagine you’re making your way slowly through a dense, overgrown forest. You might step carefully over fallen trees as you pass, stop to make notes on the resident flora and fauna, or pause suddenly when you hear a birdcall, lifting up your binoculars to get a better look.
No binoculars or hiking boots are required for Evan Polman’s undergraduate Marketing Strategy class (MKT 460), but the “marketing ecologist” assignment he takes students through is virtually the same. “I call it the marketing ecologist assignment because I compare it with an ecologist who’s walking through the woods, only instead of the woods, it’s the marketplace and its particular details that students are observing and noting,” says Polman, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.
With an innovative approach to teaching and learning, Polman was named the 2017-2018 Cynthia and Jay Ihlenfeld Professor for Inspired Learning in Business. The endowment helps support outstanding WSB faculty to implement and pilot educational innovations in their classroom and teaching methods. In Polman’s case, he’s using the grant to rework his capstone undergraduate marketing strategy class to spur students’ natural creativity and inherent curiosity, showing students how to integrate those attributes with marketing knowledge.
Exploring an ecology of marketing
Polman’s marketing ecologist assignment is a cornerstone of his innovative approach. He says the idea was a natural extension of his research on creativity, which finds that individuals become more creative problem solvers when they are looking for a solution to someone else’s problem or dilemma rather than to their own, accessing their own curiosity and creativity in the process. Reversing the natural order—by having students create the questions instead of waiting passively for the instructor to ask them—triggers an “exploratory mindset” that stimulates their creativity and curiosity, Polman says.
Like an ecologist examining the relationship between organisms and their ecosystems, Polman challenges students to use their skills to go beyond the surface of what they’re seeing. “Thinking deeply and curiously about the marketplace and business environment can enable students to discover the interlaced fabric in even the most ordinary details by wondering, ‘why is that?’” he explains.
Students are asked to select a fundamental or principle discussed in class, then create and answer a question based on an observed pattern of behavior or events. The purpose, Polman says, is about “fostering skills as an innovator—whether the answer is correct or not is less important than the fact that the question itself is interesting, and the answer is persuasive.” It’s also about competence: being able to question an idea, he believes, is the best way to master it.
Some examples of questions from Polman’s students include: Why do we put round pizzas into square boxes? Why do consumers feel paranoid after leaving a store without buying anything? And his personal favorite: Why are people afraid of automatic, self-driving cars?
Students then do a short presentation to the class, posing their question and explaining the answer, which can be based on concepts from the course or a viable answer they created. Creating innovative questions is also a key competency, he believes, and the exercise inspires students to find the “rich texture” in the way they think about the marketplace, finding questions in places that have been overlooked, and thus shed light on potential marketplace opportunities.
Polman also has his students develop their own questions for tests. Though he ultimately selects just a handful of students’ generated questions to appear on the actual test, he makes all of them available for the entire class to see in advance. Knowing the questions ahead of time helps students focus more on the why and how of the subject—to be more open to multiple solutions, possibilities, avenues—than to zero in on a single answer.
Preparing WSB students for the future
Polman’s forward-thinking vision helps WSB students prepare for a future where creative thinking and problem-solving will be in-demand skills. His capstone course is also the last marketing class students take before they head out into the field, and he wants to make it as impactful as possible, preparing them for careers that are often nonlinear in nature.
Polman says “Because it is the last course they take, I teach it in a reflective way by emphasizing critical and creative thinking. I believe an approach of curiosity helps students negotiate the ambiguity of business in the marketplace. There is always more than one solution to a marketing problem, and the ability to recognize unique opportunities and creatively solve problems is critical.”
And his approach has been successful. As one student put it when describing Polman, “His ability to see the world objectively and question everything inspired me and my classmates. He taught us, by example, to never accept anything blindly and to continuously evaluate and deliberate.”