Frameworks, or Full Steam Ahead vs Pause and reflect

In my last post, I talked about three instances that got me thinking. First, feedback from students about more lecture notes and for more snazzy powerpoint slides; second, Kevin Roberts talk about a super VUCA (Vibrant, Unreal, Crazy and Astounding) compared to the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguity), and finally a video from some years back that I found on twitter : the behavioural economist Dan Ariely talking about how the MBAs in MIT marked him down because he never talked about frameworks.

It was sheer coincidence that I experienced all three in the space of a week. I was going to write my reflections a week after the previous post but my travel schedule put that on the backburner till now. This delay has also allowed me to see if I still agree with my initial thoughts before writing this post.

Whether or not you believe in a  Super VUCA world or a VUCA world, one conclusion that you must draw is that modelling the world has become very difficult, almost impossible. And yet, we still yearn for general models that help us understand the world. Nowhere is this yearning for models as strong as in MBA programs where bright students come to find out the secrets that would unlock the mysterious world of management.

I will be the first to admit that models and frameworks are useful. In fact, we use frameworks everyday in our social lives without thinking about them :- we have certain heuristics that help us make judgements about everyday situations, e.g. whether it is a good time to have a tough conversation with one’s boss when he or she comes to work flustered after a particularly bad commute; or that it is a bad idea to offer to pay one’s mother-in-law for her home cooking at Thanksgiving dinner; and an equally bad idea to think that one could walk out of a restaurant without paying for one’s meal.

But at the same time, we need to understand the limitations of models if we are to stay ahead in a Super VUCA/VUCA world. In this world, no models or frameworks predicted before the fact, that Gangnam Style would become such a global hit; or that  companies such as Goldman Sachs and Starbucks would be forced by public anger to shelve their bonus plans or voluntarily pay more tax.

This leads to the question of how should an MBA programme look like. By and large, all MBA programmes have similar programme structures with some minor variations (eg in Cambridge, we have a heavy emphasis on group work through two live consulting projects). MBAs are expect to absorb a huge amount of knowledge in a relatively short period of time and it is tempting for an MBA student to accept the taught knowledge as fact without much questioning of the underlying rationale or limitations. That temptation is strengthened when MBAs go for case interviews where they find that the recruiters are really looking to see how one applies frameworks, or adapt existing case studies to a particular situation.

I myself don’t have an answer as to how one should structure an MBA programme to have the right balance between teaching frameworks and allowing time for students to reflect, test the limits of existing frameworks and develop their original thinking or insights. However, I try to set aside time to learn about things outside MBA world, assimilate that knowledge so that I can apply them to MBA world or test the robustness of my own heuristics. The environment at Cambridge is an ideal space for this thought process because there are just so many intellectually exciting events that are completely outside the realm of the business school, and yet there might be a nugget of knowledge, that if one were to connect the dots, could produce great insights. For example, last week I attended a talk hosted by the History faculty that helped me articulate the importance of middle management. But more of that in a later post.


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