A couple months ago I was sitting at Harvard Business School describing Daily Grommet to an investor. When she learned I was an alum of the school, she asked me about my MBA experience. I casually answered, “It was really good for me, but being an industrial design student was way harder.” She was a bit stunned, and asked why. I said,
Well, as a design student you don’t just reflect back what you learned. You have to dig deep and come up with original ideas that respond to real market opportunities. You have to develop and defend those ideas in front of tough critics. You have to be ‘right’ in your recommendations, as though you were already a practicing professional because a company or client is soon going to trust you to be expert, with a relatively thin safety net. And you have to do it over and over again–successfully face that blank piece of paper–to excel among your peers.
Business, on the other hand, is not rocket science. In practice it can be creative enough, but it’s not so at the MBA-school level. It’s not really even very intellectual. At HBS, succeeding in class discussions sometimes depended more on ‘sounding good’ than any kind of original thinking. In truth, at least in the classroom, the professors probably work harder than the students. And the reality is, in business there are often multiple ways to go with a decision, and the person who can defend an idea best often wins, right or wrong.
The investor said,
Therein lies the problem with business ‘as usual.’ You should write about this.
So here, I did. I found my MBA studies to be really valuable. (Truthfully, learning how to “do” small talk at the stream of MBA student social events was my best takeaway, but there were many other skills I also carried forward.) However, learning how to think as a designer was much more difficult.
Today I welcome the huge business press focus on “design thinking.” I respect the popularity of IDEO and my first startup employer, the design innovation consultancy, Continuum. I endorse the fact that designers are increasingly reporting to CEOs and deeply influence business.
But for me, if I really wanted to learn how to think originally and coincidentally advance the cause of an organization, I would pick design school over getting an MBA, any day of the week.