Picasso and the MBA

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The curse of the MBA is upon us. The MBA is one of the few well named degrees: PhDs are rarely philosophers or doctors. But MBAs are truly Masters of Business Administration. They understand the theory of administration and understand nothing of the practice of leadership.

The curse of the MBA is exhibited by their crushing orthodoxy. Everyone does the same analysis, so everyone comes up with the same answers. This is not effective competition: it is collective suicide. When everyone comes up with the same answer the result is the dot.com doom and bust, the telecom auction frenzy and occasional bouts of merger mania. When an entire industry chases the same solution, profits are competed away and disaster ensues. You gain competitive advantage by being different, not by being the same.

Many of the most successful leaders are MBA free zones: Charlie Dunstone (Carphone Warehouse) Philip Green (the High Street) and Richard Branson (everything else). They did not build their empires on the orthodox ways of business schools: they played to their rules, not other people’s rules. They dared to be different.

Most leaders of established businesses do not pretend to know all the answers. But they are smart enough to know the right questions. As Picasso said: “Computers are useless: they only give you answers”. As a young manager I was cut down to size by a crusty CEO after what I thought was a brilliant presentation. “That was a brilliant presentation” he said, building me up to knock me down “I only have one question: what was the problem you were solving?”

There are always lots of bright young MBAs, analysts and managers to find the right answers. For leaders the far greater challenge is Picasso’s: to find the right question.

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