Top Five Habits That Business Schools Should Be Teaching

Disclosure: While I’ve been counseling business leaders for over a decade, I do not have an MBA. I earned my master's in human-computer interaction, a form of cognitive psychology that makes me a (cough, cough) humanities grad.

I do hail from a long line of entrepreneurs, though, and was mentored by my now business partner, who is a walking master class in business strategy. In the past, I have worked with and supported many MBAs in transforming their businesses.

Today I help clients—most sporting MBAs—clarify what’s next for their business. And while it amazes me how MBAs approach innovation, I’m more intrigued by what isn’t intuitive. Based on counseling countless companies on innovation and experience design practices, I’ve identified five ways this humanities grad believes business schools can future-proof the next generation of business leaders.

1. Universal Principles Of Design

Regardless of sector, I believe that today’s business leaders must have some fundamental understanding of the seven universal principles of design. These are: “equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort and size and space for approach and use.”

Universal principles direct the design of environments, products and communications so they’re more usable. They guide conversations about abstract experiences and ensure everyone is on the same page. They navigate how products and services need to succeed in order to drive value and profits.

As interactions become more digitized, I predict that business leaders will have to be able to talk about and map out abstract ideas and experiences. The universal principles teach you how to discuss these things and what to look for in your team’s work.

Because human beings all process information similarly, these principles are also cross-cultural and a highly effective tool for focusing, collaborating and connecting with people from different nations and backgrounds.

2. Emerging Economic Models

Financial crises, climate change, loss of biodiversity and financial inequality all show that our economies must evolve. Resources are capping, and I don’t see innovation scaling on pace with the demands of growing populations worldwide. In many industries, we’re not inventing new things but simply producing more options.

In Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth explores circular economic models that include environmental and social impact. Such approaches will likely become a key driver as the current era of mass consumerism shifts to meet the needs of larger, more global consumer populations while also factoring in our planet’s capabilities.

More growth isn’t always strategic growth, and I believe that business leaders need to expand their sourcing, operations and success metrics. With this in mind, design should focus on crafting operational and business models to solve these problems. Dashboards must focus on regenerative growth that makes businesses resilient over the long term, not just unsustainable upward growth.

3. Tap Into Emotional Intelligence

Although everyone is talking about artificial intelligence, I think emotional intelligence (EI) is an even more essential skill for business leaders. As our interactions become increasingly digital, connecting emotionally with our fellow humans is a fundamental skill that can significantly impact a business’s success and profitability.

Poor EI can be career-ending for managers and morale-ending for teams. Understanding its role in the workplace can help you minimize unproductive conflicts and inspire a more inclusive atmosphere.

For the most part, businesses that want to be sustainable need well-educated, global talent pools. Leaders with high EI can ensure the workplace of the future is one where people want to work and can work together.

4. Put Design Thinking To The Test

It’s great to see so many business schools embrace design thinking, but we can forget to teach the purpose behind it. Design thinking creates possibilities in direction. Yet, I am witnessing too many MBAs using it to validate investments.

I often see business leaders wanting to jump to execute outputs after one successful design thinking workshop. A few hours of whiteboarding will never justify spending a small fortune on a group workshop’s output. But without the strategic context behind it, that’s precisely what a strict design thinking tactic is telling you to do.

I believe that business schools need to spend more time on the science behind why design thinking tools work so business leaders can understand how to use them to study, iterate and, most importantly, get market feedback on emerging ideas.

Design thinking principles have made business leaders much more comfortable with failure (which is great), but I think the pendulum has swung a bit far with too much money wasted under the auspices of “failing fast.” In turbulent economic times, you must fail strategically to minimize cost implications.

5. Learn To Fail Strategically

This segues into my final observation. Business schools should focus on teaching how to fail strategically by managing risk. Business leaders can learn how to use practical qualitative research—actual testing with customers—and use specific projects as experiments and controlled investments.

Strategically failing helps us shift away from the current trend of creating lots of things and failing fast. The latter encourages a “darts at the dartboard approach” to innovation, where you’re endlessly releasing things until something finally sticks. And that’s not only time-consuming and budget-absorbing, but it also deflates morale.

Business leaders can instead learn to look for patterns of failure when reducing investment or investigating team issues. Responding to patterns instead of isolated project failures enables your company to learn from small, intentional investments that are acceptable losses in order to gain a better understanding and confidence in pursuing bigger opportunities. This is where critical mass is achieved.

Taking A Page From Liberal Arts

True, I’ve experienced my fair share of side glances for not having MBA creds, but I don’t think a humanities degree is superior. When it comes to innovation, we all learn from each other.

Instead of siloing departments or managerial positions by the MBAs, the liberal arts grads and the techies, integrating the best parts of each discipline can result in more effective, successful and profitable outcomes.

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