Reinventing the MBA: 4 Reasons to Mix Business With Design Thinking

We've all heard the news that the traditional MBA framework is broken, but adding courses on business ethics and financial crises won't solve the problem. And although Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, and the rest are all considering bringing new ways of thinking into their hallowed halls, a relatively small school in Canada is actually transforming the meaning of an MBA right before our eyes. The Rotman School of Management, helmed by Roger Martin, proposes a radical idea: to develop business leaders who are well-grounded in multiple disciplines. The Rotman faculty aim to mold managers who are equally comfortable and adept at using tools and frameworks from business, popular culture, and design to solve the most urgent challenges of the day—what Rotman calls integrative thinkers and what I call hybrid thinkers. He's a bit of a kindred spirit.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to sit down for a public lecture with Roger to discuss his new book The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, which focuses on the part of the Rotman approach most absent from traditionally analytical MBA programs: design thinking. Roger cares most about bringing together both the art and the science of management to create better leaders. His work is a correction to the data-driven revolution that has made business more reliable but which has also driven courage and intuition out of management. But he's no fan of simply giving designers the keys to the kingdom, either. An over-reliance on intuition is every bit as limited as management by the numbers.

You can view the entire interview in the video above or get a sense for what we talked about in the beautiful mindmap created by my colleague Jon Gabrio.


Until you have time to get in deep (you can see this image larger here), here are the four biggest takeaways from the conversation:

Strategy is an act of design.
Roger's interest in design thinking stretches back two decades to his time working closely with the senior vice president of design at Herman Miller. What changed the way Roger saw the world was that this highly skilled designer tended to view all of his challenges the same way. Whether overseeing the design and introduction of the Aeron chair or working out new directions for the organization, he focused on new possibilities rather than the application of existing ideas. You can't analyze your way to real strategy. You have to create it from data, guts, empathy, creativity, and a little thin air.

Balancing the analytical and the intuitive is key to great leadership.
At the beginning of this decade, countless companies could have created the iPod but didn't because their analysis told them it was too risky. Analytical thinking prevented them from seeing a promising new opportunity and driver of growth. Apple, led by the famously intuitive Steve Jobs, was able to seize that opportunity and run with it to market leadership. That said, the gut of Steve Jobs is far from infallible. The AppleTV, Power Mac G4 Cube, and his company NeXT were all flops because they didn't make sense from an analytical standpoint. Great leadership involves bringing both lenses to bear to find better possibilities.

Roger's take on design thinking isn't rooted in design.
One of the more surprising comments Roger made during our conversation was that designers aren't necessarily good at what he calls design thinking. Having a tremendous sense of aesthetics, prototyping, form, and ergonomics doesn't inherently reflect the ability to imagine previously unseen possibilities. To my mind, this calls into question the entire term. If design thinking isn't based in design and the abilities of designers, then the term may need to change. Without any question, increasing any organization's design capability will increase its ability to differentiate from its competitors, to build a more consistent brand, and to create more appealing products. But it's something else entirely to create a culture of innovation. We would do well to make this clear in the terminology we use.

Templates, not management theory, are the enemies of innovation.
A few years ago, Roger said, quite provocatively, that managers need to become designers to succeed in the next era of business. This was a comment that was met with great fanfare and not a little controversy. But when discussing the topic now, Roger has a slightly different outlook. It's not that either businesspeople or designers have a monopoly on good ideas. It's that there is a vanishingly small number of people who are actually interested in solving mysteries: as few as 10 to 15 percent at traditional strategy firms, a similar number in design firms, and even fewer among most corporations. Most people, whatever their background, are more comfortable reapplying a formula that has worked in the past than at generating new possibilities. They just try to use a template from an existing success, which is the chief reason we see so many copycat products and copycat strategies. We don't necessarily need more design-minded businesspeople or more business-minded design people. We just need more people ready to take on mysteries.

I've got just one more thing to share from the evening. It's small, but essential to call out. Roger is an incredibly gracious and humble guy, always ready to praise his colleagues and friends. That's rare for people at his level and with his accomplishments. After all, it's his humility and team-building that has allowed him to attract the kind of amazing faculty and executive staff who are the on-the-ground heroes of Rotman's good-to-great transformation.

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Dev Patnaik is the CEO and founder of Jump Associates, a firm that helps companies create new businesses and reinvent existing ones. He advises senior executives at some of America's most admired companies, including GE, Nike, Target, and Hewlett-Packard, and is also an adjunct professor at Stanford University, teaching design-research methods. His 2009 book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, makes the audacious argument that the human power of empathy is the source of all innovation. Dev was recently featured as a guest on "The Business of Innovation," a series on CNBC. His articles on innovation and strategy have appeared in BusinessWeek, Brandweek and the Design Management Review.

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  • John Caswell

    This is so important and apposite I want to know when and how we think we can see policy makers, advisors and the decision makers taking up the cudgel. I am looking for the catalysts, the fault lines and the subtle opportunities to make the difference that will mainstream this. I am privileged to witness the machinations of large enterprise and government and am doing my bit where I can and want to know when we will all join to push this fully into the mainstream as the default way to think. I remain impatient and optimistic... I think Roger Martins work is critical and world changing. http://www.grouppartnerswiki.n...

  • Rasul Sha'ir

    When a discussion of design (thinking) is on the table, what doesn’t happen is a conversation about the differences between graphic, fashion, industrial, and architectural design (and other design categories) and the relevance of this. It’s imperative because each field requires different sensibilities and the understanding of this is significant. When we throw the phase design thinking out there what are we talking about exactly?
    Because often, when design thinking is addressed, the conversation revolves around product design, and design more than just that.

    If we are talking about MBA’s the conversation needs to focus on design thinking from an architectural perspective – which at the core, is systems design and integration. If you look at any house or building that’s exactly what it is. The plumbing system, the air conditioning system, the electrical system and the structural system are all integrated to form a home, an office, or a place. How one entity integrates with another is at the core here. Take a look at the marketplace. The private sector is integrating with the non-profit world (CSR - corporate social responsibility). Entrepreneurship is integrating with altruism (social entrepreneurs). T-shirt design is integrating with crowdsourcing (Threadless t-shirt company) Businesses are trying to integrate marketing and social media (and doing a poor job at that). I could go on and on.

    Design thinking is important and valuable, but what’s more crucial is having the correct disposition when looking to leverage these ideas for competitive advantage in the 21st century marketplace.

  • Jason Lombard

    Thanks for the article Dev. While I'm still not sure that your "hybrid thinking" terminology is the ideal term, you're beginning to sway me that our existing terminology, design thinking, may not be adequate either.

    @Chris Reich:
    I think the fundamental point to take away from the Steve Jobs anecdote above is not to focus on the risk in putting "music on a stick" from a product standpoint, but rather that Jobs took the risk to start a cultural change in the way that media is used, purchased, shared, etc. The iPod was merely a tactical execution of that overarching strategy, and starting that revolution was definitely a risk.

    Jason Lombard
    Ideavise, Inc.

  • Chris Reich

    I agree with much of this but I also see where Martin creates yet another sand trap. Countless companies did not fail to come up with the I-Pod because of risk, they simply weren't thinking about it. "It" being the potential demand for music on a stick. So I disagree with the premise. Then we see that mess of a mind map. Adding some off the wall symbols doesn't change the way CEOs will think. It looks a mess.

    What is needed, getting back to the MBA problem, is more hands on, simulation work. Most MBAs have dealt only in theory when they assume their first 6 figure position. They proceed to implement the theory they've been taught, etc etc etc I work with different companies who have MBAs who think they know more than everyone else at the business---they express frustration at managers who won't listen to their superior thinking---while at those same MBAs are often the constraints to greater productivity!

    I believe we need to set up real time projects and grade our potential MBAs on their success or failure. Businesses could use MBA candidates too. Here's your budget, make me money and I'll recommend you for your MBA. The more you make me, the better your grade. It might take a year and it might take 10 years to get an MBA but the candidate would have done something beside write a paper.

    But why wait for the schools to catch up? Businesses can start now and within a short time have lots of true Masters of Business and turn a nice profit in the process. I repeat, start now. Auto makers???? What are YOU waiting for? Start a 1 year MBA program at your business. You can do it. Any business can start now.

    Chris Reich