The New York Times recently ran a piece on how traditional MBA programs were under growing pressure because--in addition to questions about the actual economic value of such costly offerings--their emphasis on corporate finance and strategy is increasingly seen as irrelevant to the skill sets required in today's competitive marketplace, where success is largely driven by speed, constant iteration, and the rapid abandonment of bad ideas.
It's possible that, in the next few years, the stigma attached to the MBA may even increase. And if that happens, I'd say it's no great loss. This has been coming for years, and it all began when the top schools became more concerned with inflating their annual rankings in a single magazine (U.S. News & World Report) than with the rigor and relevance of their courses.
But what really bothered me about the article was the description of the ongoing, frantic, and utterly expected and lemming-like responses of the business schools to the problem. According to the Times, these schools are going to "follow Silicon Valley into the Data Age" by adopting the best practices from the outside world and adding courses in stats, data science, and A/B testing.
Focusing on A/B testing--as if it were the new tool in town--when the rest of the world (powered by high-velocity, real-time computing and a flood of data drawn instantly from the marketplace) is simultaneously testing and evaluating variables ranging from A to Z is so backward and embarrassing that it's almost hard to believe. The only thing more frightening is the idea that some of our best and brightest students at these schools are being trained by faculty members who are so far behind the times that they don't even know what kind of data now exists or the power that data has when applied in new ways to predict and change behaviors in real time.
Matters of education around data and technology, which are so important to our country's economy, are probably too important to be left to educators. The right solutions and our future progress are going to be dictated by active disrupters with original ideas that come from their visions rather than from their practical experience or prior education. The changes required are discontinuous leaps forward and not linear extensions of legacy systems and programs. In many ways, it's as if the world were finally waking up to the fact that our existing educational institutions just don't have the chops to get the job done any more. These schools are selling their students what they have to sell and not what it takes today to succeed.
This can happen in your own business, too. We all get stuck in these ruts after a while and, as we start out the New Year, there are things we can do to pull ourselves out of the mud. As I see it, there are basically three steps you can take to make sure you are moving forward and not slipping backward. Because, remember, if you only do what you've always done, you'll only get what you've always got--or worse. Nothing is standing still today, and if you're not getting better, you are losing ground.
Understand and acknowledge that the way you have done things to date is neither inevitable nor the only or best way to accomplish the results you are seeking.
In addition, the results you are getting from your efforts today aren't the maximum amounts you can achieve--they're just what you can do now. These limits are determined by our present lack of vision about what is possible and what will be possible as our tools and technologies continue to improve. If you accept the current state as your boundary, you limit your ability to grow beyond it. And you'll be left behind by those whose vision exceeds their grasp and are hell-bent on continuing to grow until that is no longer the case.
When you talk about the future, you need to develop a new language and vocabulary.
That's because--at the moment--your ability to share your vision is bound up and limited by the words and phrases we have at hand. In the context of business schools, when you are completely consumed by day-to-day operations and the commonplace, it's tough to look outside of your surroundings to see what's really going on. You lose the ability to change. Large educational institutions are completely reliant on predictability and linearity--they hate surprises. But in the real world, surprises and the joy of discovery mean everything. They are the very stuff of change.
You need to borrow an idea from nature: goalless planning and progress.
In nature, evolution doesn't proceed toward some known, defined goal. The movement is not toward anything; it is movement away from constraints. Everything in nature wants to be free and unlimited. The goal is never to grow to a certain place or size--it's to never stop growing in every possible direction. As you look to the future, you need to adopt the same type of goalless planning: You need to keep moving forward and measuring your progress, but without accepting the idea that there is only a defined and known goal in mind. The very nature of the future is one of moving targets and new challenges. We can hope to be prepared for new opportunities only if we are looking forward and upward rather than working with our heads down and grinding out steady progress toward a goal that was out-of-date the day it was established. Fluid goals are messy and hard to measure, but the fact that they are challenging and complicated means only that the businesses that master these approaches will be the ones that lead all of us forward.
Our businesses and our schools need to change--and change quickly. But not without first understanding that there are major systemic barriers to effective change that need to be addressed before real progress and improvement can occur. Otherwise, the very nature of the initiatives adopted will be uninformed by the right analysis and information. They will be just about as effective as the drunk looking for his keys under the street lamp--not because he thinks he lost them there, but because the light's better there.