The New MBA: A Masters in Business Ambiguity

Source: Franzi Sessler, DMBA Student, Design Strategist and Creative Director

Source: Franzi Sessler, DMBA Student, Design Strategist and Creative Director


Fifteen years ago, I earned a Masters in Business Administration from a top business school. I studied the prescribed disciplines of marketing, economics, finance, operations, organizational behavior and leadership through lectures, textbooks, case studies, and group assignments. I learned that marketing revolved around 4 P’s, competition comprised 5 forces, and strategy boiled down to one of three choices: market leader, fast follower or low-cost provider. A leader was someone who could communicate the big picture, and managers had operational skills to oversee projects and people.

A lot has changed since then. Today, technology is constantly fueling new disruptors and disruptions, leaving strategies in the dust. Competition is no longer based on grabbing the biggest share of (fixed) customer needs but by creating fundamentally new customer needs and intimate relationships. With a click customers can find any service or product they desire, all while tracking their footsteps, heart-rate and investments. And, if they don’t like what’s offered, they have a global megaphone that can instantly inflict damage with a few nasty tweets.

Driving for innovation is the rule today, not the exception. Viable business models now come in a variety of flavors, and enduring success is a great deal more complicated than outlined in the case studies used in my traditional MBA courses.

So what do future business leaders need to know and experience to lead successfully in today’s dynamic, unpredictable, and yes, exciting environment?

Ten years ago, author Daniel Pink challenged us to think of the “MFA, or Masters in Fine Arts, as the new MBA.” In his seminal book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future, Pink predicted the world would get more automated, outsourced, and abundant in its offerings. He argued that more education and organizational attention should be placed on high-touch, high-concept skills such as empathy, story, play and meaning. In short, he urged disciplined training to support the development of both our creative and intuitive skills and our process-driven, quantitative skills.

Pink’s vision predates smart phones, big data and the Internet of Things, the Jeopardy win by IBM’s Watson, Elon Musk’s warning about artificial intelligence, and the rise of tech-driven market makers like UBER and Airbnb. He was right in his predictions, just wrong on how soon they would occur.

I believe it’s time to incorporate Pink’s MFA as the new standard for MBA programs. We can start by changing the title of what this graduate education is about. Long gone are the days of “Mastering Business ‘Administration.” (What are we administering anymore?) Today, the model we should be teaching is more appropriately titled: “Mastering Business Ambiguity.”

For the last six years, I’ve been part of a relatively new MBA in Design Strategy focused on integrating creative and analytical problem-solving skills that help create, capture and scale value in sustainable and impact-driven ways. As one of 13 progressive graduate programs at the California College of the Arts, the “DMBA” curriculum is informed by the integrated pedagogy of the 106 year-old art and design school and the entrepreneurial spirit of the bay area.

At the DMBA, each of the four semesters includes a studio-based course that weaves together theory, best practices, dynamic tools and hands-on engagement with real clients or emerging world issues. Classes are designed to help students think beyond profits to consider the social, community and environmental impacts of their work. In my course, “Innovation Studio,” students have tackled complex, adaptive problems such as The Future of Money, The Future of Work, and the Future of Voter Engagement. These challenges start on the first day of their graduate school experience, as a primer of the divergent and convergent processes they’ll experience and practice throughout the program.

This approach calls for courage and a willingness to take on problems that don’t have single, simple answers. Students discover their way to possible solutions, applying the theories, skills, tools, and behaviors that are introduced throughout the semester. They learn generative skills such as visual and design thinking, perspective taking and empathetic, open-ended questioning. They learn to facilitate collaborative and productive teams of diverse perspectives across nearly every kind of communication channels. They have the opportunity to work directly with a wide range of industry experts and leaders who frequently come to our classes not just to lecture, but to also learn with the students as co-creators, mentors and network builders.

In each semester, our students have opportunities to create original solutions to unfolding issues. They use dynamic frameworks and tools to interrogate existing business models — and invent new ones. They have to be ruthlessly curious investigators and methodical researchers, while also honing their own intuition and strategic judgment. They have to find new and compelling ways to translate their insights into hypothesis-driven experiments to move ideas into action. They learn to share their ideas through compelling stories and experiential presentations that highlight emotional needs, not just the financial upside of an idea.

Yet the most powerful learning is deeply personal and social. Students take risks and move outside of their comfort zones to build new competencies, even if it means early failure. They learn to give and receive constructive critique and peer feedback because they know the environment is safe and supportive. They become adept at crossing boundaries and building bridges between industries, disciplines, geographies, and generations to embrace and share new perspectives and expertise. Along they way they grow comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity; as one student stated, “Learning to ask ‘what if’ and having the space and time to process what we learn on the other side allows us to humanize ambiguity.”

Source: DMBA Student Gaganvir Mauli

Source: DMBA Student Gaganvir Mauli


Most importantly, they learn a mindset of possibility, optimism and abundance — a confidence that their role as leaders is not to deliver a single, proven “right” answer, but to create the space, conditions and team to bring to life something fundamentally new.

Language is a powerful lever of change. What would it take to transform our traditional “Masters in Business Administration” programs and transform them into the type of dynamic, holistic, experiential education that will help all leaders build skills as “Masters in Business Ambiguity?”

This is the education at the heart of the ‘Whole New MBA’.

Source: DMBA Student Di Wu

Source: DMBA Student Di Wu

Special thanks to Nancy Murphy, Bonnie Kay, Franzi Sessler, Garganvir Mauli and Di Wu for their contributions to this post.

Franzi Sessler