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The MFA is the new MBA

Harvard Business Review recently published a conversation between Roger Martin – who is the former dean of the Rotman School – and Tim Brown – who is CEO of the global design firm IDEO. The title of the talk is “Capitalism Needs Design Thinking.” But I decided to call this post something else after reading Roger say this:

My friend Dan Pink argued in an HBR piece in 2004 that the MFA is the new MBA. I wrote to Dan to say that if that’s the case we have a problem because America pumps out a mere 1,500 MFAs a year versus 150,000 MBAs. Thirty MFAs per state per year is just a rounding error. This is one of the reasons I was so keen on transforming business education. It’s a huge infrastructure: 27% of all graduate students in America are in an MBA program. If they’re all being taught how to analyze things to death, that’s going to affect how they’ll shape the future of business.

But what this conversation is really about is the future of democratic capitalism, which is why I think it’s a nice tie-in to yesterday’s Architect This City post about startups and inequality.

I’m very worried about the fact that in America we’ve now gone 24 years without the median household income rising — it was the same in 2013 as it was in 1989. That’s unprecedented in American history. The longest that’s ever happened before is when it took just under 20 years to recover, after the Great Depression. This long period of stagnation has coincided with the top 1% of the economy doing spectacularly.

And so while it’s easy to point fingers at the tech community and say that it’s to blame for rising income inequality, the reality, I think, is that there are other more fundamental issues that need addressing. Roger and Tim believe that design thinking can help. Here’s another great snippet from the former:

I think the way that government generally works is to think, think, think, think, and then finally create legislation that brings about some change, and then they ignore their legislation and say okay, we’re finished with that. Then people go and figure out how to game that legislation, and the government doesn’t do anything about it. Whereas if they had a design view of it, they’d say when they passed a bill, that’s just the best idea we’ve got now, we have to go see how it works in practice, and then fix it. That’s just not the mentality.

Technology is having a profound impact on the world. And it’s something that is very visible. But part of the challenge is that governments aren’t keeping up. They are almost never out in front.

So when something new comes along, like Airbnb or Uber, the reaction is to just stop it. It doesn’t conform to the rules and regulations currently in place, and so it shouldn’t exist.

But as Roger and Tim point out, maybe we need to look at our rules and regulations as simply part of an iterative process (like designers do). Because if we did that, maybe we’d be better equipped to transfer the benefits of innovation over to society as a whole.

Image: HBR

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