Throughout my blogging I have maintained that anybody can invent, create or innovate. Good ideas don’t have to come from the most intelligent, most educated, or most powerful. Rather, the ideas arise when people apply their minds to areas they know best. It takes the willingness to ponder and think, “how can this be solved? What is something others might not have thought of already?” Anybody with a comprehensive knowledge base—be it in gardening, plumbing, power-walking, or navigating gridlocked traffic on the way to work—is a likely candidate for a breakthrough, because they know the many pitfalls and hurdles that must be avoided.
There is also an argument that some people are more naturally creative or imaginative, and are inherently better equipped to innovate. Sarah O’Leary wrote an article today in the Huffington Post arguing that the leaders of today’s businesses are ill equipped to innovate. She points out that the highest-ranking officers of large companies tend to have MBA’s or secondary degrees, while the most creative people don’t seek higher educations because it is “considered damaging to one’s imagination” and are stuck at the bottom battling bureaucracy to see their creative ideas flourish.
While Ms. O’Leary is correct in her assertion that great ideas often struggle with the many layers of bureaucracy, the notion that MBA’s squander creativity is erroneous.
The entire idea of a higher education is to create a holistic understanding of a subject area so graduates are better prepared for the decisions they have to make. MBA’s become experts in many areas of the business so they understand the ramifications of each decision. A change in marketing strategy is not automatically limited to the marketing department, but can impact finance, manufacturing, and logistics. It’s critical that company officers understand the big-picture implications, as a great improvement for manufacturing might be a disastrous decision for the company’s finances.
The officer’s holistic understanding of business also makes it far more likely for the decision makers to have innovative ideas. As discussed in the first paragraph, those that know a topic best are the ones best equipped to create a break through. Now this isn’t to say that MBA’s have a better understanding of the customers than those that work in customer service. The customer reps likely do. But MBA’s have the better understanding of the over all business strategy and the rationale for why tasks are currently performed the way they are. Thus, it is crucial to have clear communication channels between all levels of the corporation so thoughts or suggestions from department specialists can be evaluated in the larger context. The ideas may be brilliant as is, require a subtle tweak to make reduce the impacts on other divisions, or lead to a series of different, yet related ideas.
Basically a successfully innovative company does not rely on one person to do all the innovating. Rather, it is about empowering each employee to look at what they know better than anybody else, find a way of doing it better, and communicating that the company. It is of course the company’s job to listen.
Lastly, MBA management classes stress the importance of engaging other employees, listening to their ideas, and above all, never assuming omniscience. Ms. O’Leary points out that many MBA schools “have fostered a false sense of deity among its student bodies,” yet management professors continually stress the necessity for humble attitudes and the crucial importance of empowering others. A business curriculum that encourages students to dismiss ideas off hand and talk down to subordinates is about as useful as dentistry curriculum that encourages students to use a baseball bat, hack saw, and goalie mask when drilling cavities. If MBA students are acting with an inflated sense of self, it’s because they weren’t paying attention in class.
Far from tarnishing the creativity of students, MBA’s and secondary educations provide more an essential holistic understanding of businesses, a structure for solving issues, and stress the importance of listening to others. The MBA graduates that truly embraced their education will be the humble officers that pop into call centers to see how the telephone operators are doing, and the ones that encourage subordinates to come to them with ideas for discussion. These grads don’t assume a few IT classes in business school make them more knowledgeable about programming than a computer programmer. Rather, a great MBA student knows a lot about many areas, but still knows just how much they don’t know.