MBA case studies teach the wrong things

A couple of months ago, Steve Spear wrote that C-level and other senior leaders usually don’t embrace lean as a strategic concern, because their training has been focused on making decisions about transactions, rather than making discoveries through experimentation. As he describes it,

Business managers are not trained to learn/discover.  Rather they are trained to decide about transactions.  Consider the MBA curriculum core:

  • Finance–how to value transactions
  • Accounting–how to track transactions
  • Strategy–taught as a transactional discipline of entering or exiting markets based on relative strength and weakness
  • OM courses–heavily pervaded by analytical tools (in support of decisions)

Largely absent: scientific method, experimentation, exploration, learning methods, teaching methods, etc.

I couldn't agree more. When I think back to my MBA classes (1990-92), I remember wading through case studies in all my classes that ostensibly taught me something about business. But the truth is that these simplified, post-hoc analyses really didn't do a great job in teaching any useful information (at least for me). The eventual business success achieved by the heroic managers in times of crisis were attributed to brilliant insight, or "leveraging core competencies," or some other management buzzword of the day. I can't think of a single case where the leadership team said, in effect, "Well, we're screwed. Now what do we do? How about if we try a few countermeasures and see what works?"

Even worse, the great insight was almost always a major -- even revolutionary -- idea springing fully-developed from the forehead of the brilliant leader in isolation. No incremental steps or improvements that, over time, lead to a successful shift. No input or ideas from the workforce, who, as Kevin Meyer always reminds us, is composed of more than just pairs of hands. No guidance on how to understand the real problem, rather than simply leaping to solutions. No lessons on how to work through PDCA cycles in an effort to make real, lasting improvement.

The truth is that the corporate ecosystem is enormously complex. Presenting a simplified view of that ecosystem may seem to make pedagogical sense, but it leads to the false belief that problems are easily understood, that there is one "right" answer, and that there's no need for experimentation. And that's a tremendous disservice to future business leaders.