This is a very useful talk by Matt Abrahams of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, on how to optimize when you get to speak on the cuff, and don’t have time to prepare, organize, or create the slide deck. It’s almost an hour long, and a privilege to be able to watch. It was originally part of the MBA program. I chose it for my Friday video this week because it emphasizes the “think fast, talk smart” skills that you’ll need when you don’t have the deck to lean on, or time to prepare. That’s so valuable in real business.
Does business education stifle innovation and creativity? You probably already know Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, from 2006, Do Schools Kill Creativity? It’s one of the five or so most viewed and most discussed TED talks. His basic idea is that school focus too much on the academic, not enough on other kinds of intelligence. He was talking about classic elementary education mostly. What about business, and business education?
I have trouble myself with some of the recent themes about education and entrepreneurship. I shudder when people ask, “Why get an education if I’m going to be an entrepreneur?” And then there’s the other one, “you can’t teach entrepreneurship.” I’m somewhere in the middle on these controversies; I believe general education makes life better; that the value of education isn’t to be measured in earnings dollars after education; that a liberal arts education is great preparation for entrepreneurship; and that an MBA degree was useful to me and can be to others, but isn’t a universal requirement, by any means. I’ve posted here previously 5 things business schools can teach and 5 things they can’t. And also, can business schools teach entrepreneurship?
The James March Question
But there’s also this idea, always in the back of my mind: the talk I had with James March, way back in the 1980s, about how higher education teaches us to do what everybody else has done, not to do things differently.
The best class I took at the Stanford Business School during my MBA years (1979-81) was taught by Professor James March, co-author of the book An Introduction to Models in the Social Science. It was about the same subject. He was funny. He was contrarian. He was brilliant. He had a mathematical model of a cocktail party that predicted how many people would be passed out at the end of the party, based on inputs including how many couples, how many singles, and, particularly important, how many more male singles than female singles. That may be too gender-specific for today’s world, but it was applicable 30 years ago.
I liked and respected Prof. March so much that in the middle 1980s I tried to get him to join me in what would have been a venture to create a game that teaches business. Prof. March didn’t join me and I didn’t create the new venture. I continued with my business plan consulting instead.
I’ve never forgotten the conversation we had in his office that day. I can’t remember the exact words, of course, but Prof. March reminded me that there is an underlying conflict between education and creativity. He was an educator, but he was also a contrarian and a thinker, so he enjoyed flanking our standard assumptions.
“Schools teach conformity,” he said. “Education is about reinforcing the supposed right way of doing something, meaning the way we’ve always done it, the way the establishment expects us to do it.” Schools taught that the world is flat until a renegade proved otherwise.
“New ideas come from people that haven’t been indoctrinated,” he said. This was of course before the phrase “think outside the box” came along, but he would have referenced that if we’d been later in time. Schooling is about learning how to think inside the box. If you believe this line of reasoning.
Here again, I run into paradox. I believe in education but I also believe what Prof. March suggests. Is the answer that you have to know the fundamentals before you transcend them?
I just ran across Should Employees Design Their Own Jobs? on one of the Stanford Business School sites. It reminded me of what I saw quite often while running my business – employees design their own jobs, whether you like it or not. Maybe, if you do it right, you can guide, control, or prevent it happening. But, all things being equal, it will.
The Stanford article is about job crafting, which is…
… a set of techniques for helping you reconfigure the elements of your job to spark greater engagement and meaning.
The article talks about three kinds of job crafting:
Task crafting is about retooling the activities included in your job, relational crafting is about revamping your interactions with others, and cognitive crafting is about reframing how you view your tasks and relationships.
Experts like the idea. The article says …
Participating in a job crafting workshop led employees to be significantly happier and more effective in their jobs six weeks later, based on ratings from their peers and managers. Although some job crafting may be good for the employee but not his or her company, our research suggests that, on average, it’s good for both. … Job crafting may also help facilitate creativity and innovation. It’s very difficult for a company to stay innovative if everyone’s job stays the same. We are creatures of habit, and organizations tend to be bureaucracies that impose order and consistency. The default will always be for people to get stuck in the day-to-day and have a lot of trouble taking a step back and seeing opportunities for reshaping their jobs. To quote Karl Weick, creative ideas come from ‘putting new things in old combinations and old things in new combinations.’
What I found in starting, running, and growing a software company was that employees tended to mold their jobs to match what they wanted to do.
The best tech support rep I ever had was a natural talker, extremely empathetic, who really liked people. He was just plain happy to be on the phone, one-on-one with somebody he’d never met, helping that person solve problems. Eventually he took that likability into sales and business development.
Then there was a woman who worked for me whose job started as bookkeeping. She liked organization, she liked arranging tasks, and she liked knowing the details of whatever was going on. She became bookkeeper, controller, and personal assistant.
I had somebody managing tech support who loved databases and programming databases. Not surprisingly, his leadership in tech support led to lots of customer programmed databases that were precursors to some of the support group tools that software companies now buy.
And look at small business owners and entrepreneurs. Some of them are personal leaders who loved meetings and motivating people. Others love marketing and strategy. Some love product. Most of them turn their job into what they like doing. And, as they do it, they believe step by step that is the right thing to do. Furthermore, given human nature, and strengths and weaknesses, usually they are right.
Here’s another Friday video offering. I admit that when I saw the title Boost Creativity with Humor, featuring this video by Stanford business school prof Jennifer Aaker, I was expecting funny. The Disney World story it opens with made me chuckle, but the video itself isn’t. But if you want studies to show that funny is good for creativity, health, and, well, humans … this is it. It has nice details.