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.

6 thoughts on “MBA case studies teach the wrong things

  1. Dan,
    As a current MBA student, I have to agree this is largely the case. And I struggle in classes, wanting to make many comments about these issues.
    The good news, if there is any, is that not every single case-study now is so focused. In the first class any MBA student takes at my school, there are a few alternate viewpoints shared. Speve Spear’s “Decoding the DNA” is required reading. And early on, there is a great case study about Johnsonville Sausage, where the CEO himself talks about realising that he could not command and control (or rather that he could, but that 10 years of doing so had not led the company to where he thought it could be). The rest of the case is about how he tried to create a problem-solving culture, where every person is engaged.
    If only we could get to the place where the majority of cases and articles are like that, instead of the current minority.

  2. Jane,

    Thanks for the feedback. Seems like there’s some hope for improvement in the MBA curriculum, although we still have a long way to go. Some sort of PDCA/A3 exercises in class would be a welcome addition, too.

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  4. Dan, good post…Spear is almost always on target.

    Interesgintly, at your suggestion a couple of posts ago, I downloaded “Switch” to my Kindle and have been fascinated by it. In a number of respects, the Heath’s cite there people who truly “went to gemba” and found a way to make things better. It contains more on experimentation and “trying stuff” than the average business tome.

    Will books like that get used in MBA curricula?? I had one course in my MBA where such books would land but only one. And that was the best course of the lot.



  5. Very well put. I have felt this way and you explained the reasons better than I have been able to.

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