The Design School Advantage

Why the MBA Business Just Has to Get its Act Together

I had a bittersweet conversation with Dan Pink and Joe Gebbia last week. It was immensely enjoyable but saddening at the same time. It inspired me to dedicate my 30th Year II Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece to The Design School Advantage: Why the MBA Business Just Has to Get its Act Together. You can find the previous 82 PTW/PI here.

The Dinner

The conversation was at a dinner for about a dozen of us including old friend and terrific writer Dan Pink who has long been a proponent of design and creativity in business thinking, which he wrote about first in 2004 in a Harvard Business Review article with the cheeky title The MFA is the New MBA and then in 2005 in his best-selling book A Whole New Mind. Also at the dinner table was Joe Gebbia, Co-founder of Airbnb and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). For readers not familiar with the design school hierarchy, RISD has as much of a claim on being the best design school in the world as any other design school on the planet.

At a lull in the conversation, I asked Joe a question: What about his RISD education had been helpful to him in creating Airbnb? To provide a bit of context, I am certain that Joe was unaware of the multitude of things I have written about business education and design in business. There were no introductions at the beginning of the dinner, and I had been completely uninvolved in the conversation at Joe’s end of the table until I asked the question. Later during the discussion of his answer, he asked my name, so I am confident that his answer was not primed by an understanding of why I might have asked the question, and therefore unbiased and genuine.

Plus, it actually wasn’t a design-themed table. A few of us at the table had interests in design (among other things), but it was a varied group. So, the dinner conversation was most certainly not about the role of design in business.

The Answer

His answer was entirely straightforward and quite singular. He didn’t give five reasons or an elliptical, multi-part answer. He said, simply, that his RISD education was extremely helpful because across his entire program, he was given assignment after assignment that challenged him to create something that did not now exist and that was the best possible background preparation for creating Airbnb.

The Sweetness

It was a warm and welcoming answer because I have been making the argument that businesspeople need to be given tools for and practice in creating the future for more than a decade — 13 years in fact since publishing The Design of Business. And Dan Pink has been too in the previously mentioned work. It was great to hear the argument we have long made coming from the lips of a massively successful design school graduate tech entrepreneur, who wasn’t primed by anybody to provide that answer.

The Bitterness

I just don’t think I would have gotten that answer from any MBA-trained tech entrepreneur that I could have interviewed: i.e., Across my entire MBA, I was given assignment after assignment that challenged me to create something that did not now exist and that was the best possible background preparation for creating [successful company x].

I wouldn’t have gotten that answer because it just isn’t true. The vast majority of MBAs aren’t given a single such challenge in their entire MBA program. Sure, some MBA graduates would have done a co-curricular business case competition during their time in their program and that at least touches on the creation of something that does not now exist. Some would have been a member of a co-curricular design club. But my bet is that less than 10% of MBAs engage in a single graded, tenure-stream-professor-led exercise in creating something that does not now exist.

It is not as if this is a new issue. Dan’s A Whole New Mind, Tim Brown’s Change by Design, and my The Design of Business were all published well over a decade ago. In 2007, I led the creation of Rotman DesignWorks based on a hugely successful program for Procter & Gamble that I co-created in 2005–2006 with IDEO co-founder David Kelley and then Dean of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design Patrick Whitney for Procter & Gamble in collaboration with P&G design chief Claudia Kotchka.

The demand for the integration of design into business education by students is huge. While I was Dean at Rotman, the newly-created Design Club became the second biggest student club after the Finance Club — finance had long been the core reputational strength of the school. During my time as Rotman Dean, students at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan petitioned administration to recruit me as Dean in order to bring our design initiatives to the Ross program (I declined the approach).

Despite student enthusiasm, tenure stream business faculty overwhelmingly have zero enthusiasm for design in business schools. They don’t see design as a legitimate business discipline. Overwhelmingly, design in business is still a fringe activity taught by adjunct and teaching stream professors with minimal investment. Even though design was a huge part of Rotman’s reputation, the School’s commitment to it was ramped down as soon as I stepped down as Dean.

There might well be full-time, tenure stream research (not teaching stream) professors of which I am unaware teaching design in business in MBA programs. But by my count, since Case Western Weatherhead School’s Fred Collopy and I retired to become Professors Emeritus, there are only three left — Richard Buchanan and Richard Boland at Weatherhead and Jeanne Liedtka at Darden — and Jeanne is the youngest at 67 years old.

The Problem

From a competitive standpoint, the MBA industry has left a largely open field. Business schools teach the tools and techniques for optimizing what is, and they leave teaching of the tools and techniques for creating what might be almost entirely to design schools.

Sure, there is a bit of the latter in business schools. For example, at Rotman we put in place an incubator, the Creative Destruction Lab toward the end of my time as Dean. Five of the approximately 120 tenure stream faculty members are involved in its operation.

While at one level, it is insane from a strategy perspective to leave such an important part of the playing field entirely open to design schools, I understand fully why it has happened. There is a thorny chicken and egg problem. Business schools are dominantly run by full-time, tenure stream research professors, who collectively make the investment decisions.

The only way to get a job as a tenure stream academic in a business school is to do research work in a sub-field of business that has refereed academic journals — e.g., Strategic Management Journal for strategy, Journal of Finance for finance, The Accounting Review for accounting, Journal of Marketing Research for marketing, Production and Operations Management for operations management, Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes for OBHRM, etc. If you don’t, you won’t get a full-time tenure stream job in the first place. And if you do get a job and don’t get published in those journals, you won’t get tenure and you will be fired in disgrace

Since the consequential academic business journals simply don’t care at all about research in design, there are almost no tenure stream business school professors in design. And with almost no professors researching in design, the business journals aren’t getting more interested in design. And since business schools are run by full-time tenure stream professors, it doesn’t matter a whit that students really care about design. Hence there is little or no momentum in the direction of teaching MBA students the tools and techniques for creating what does not now exist.

Practitioner Insights

For students, the practitioner insight is simple. If you want to learn tools and techniques for analyzing and optimizing what is, go to business school. If you want to learn tools and techniques for creating what does not now exist, go to design school. If you want to learn both, you will need to be creative and proactive.

For business school administrators, watch out. Sure, your size gives you a dominant position. You give out a stunningly high 20% of all university degrees in America each year. For perspective, that is more than all the natural sciences, plus mathematics, plus computer science, plus engineering combined! Design is miniscule in comparison. It is very hard to get accurate numbers for annual design degrees, but I am confident there are fewer than 30K graduates per year, 5% of the volume of approximately 600K/year for business.

But might doesn’t make right — even in educational strategy. Teaching how to create the future is not a flank to leave entirely unprotected. I think doing so creates a long-term existential threat. And the design schools are getting smart about this already by arranging for their students to be able to take courses at business schools to supplement their design education. For example, RISD students can take courses at MIT/Sloan and Babson College.

I doubt that the threat to business education will manifest itself seriously in the next decade given the dominant size of business education. But it is the kind of threat that is too late to parry once its negative impact has started to become obvious — and those are the most dangerous kind.

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Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.

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Roger Martin

Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.

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