Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Three Big Takeaways from MBA

The one question that I get asked a lot is "what are the top 1 or 2 things you learned during MBA"? It takes a while to put your finger on what MBA gives you (at least it took me some time to figure this out). Blame it on the nature of the degree, it's vastness, and the nature of business itself (a blend of analytics, science and an art in many ways). So, if you were to ask me that question, following are the three things that I think you would learn in an MBA from a top school like Duke:

  1. How to cut through the clutter and gather information. I spend days on end reading, researching, validating, observing and thinking about information. This might seem trivial, but much of the information out there is based on shaky assumptions or is driven by wrongful incentives. Some are just downright inaccurate. Even when you are not looking for information actively, you see things around you in a different light. An otherwise great commercial on TV might start looking ineffective when you see it through your "MBA lens" or a downright irritating one will start making sense. A casual remark by a colleague about politics or life or celebrity will get you thinking about how people think and react to information. The courses in an MBA delve into fields ranging from philosophy to sociology to psychology, statistics and many more apart from the usual ones like economics, finance etc.
  2. "Managers ought to be good at skimming the cream from different fields of expertise and putting them together in many different and interesting ways."

    Which leads me to the next big takeaway.

  3. How to take a step back and structure information. Gathering information and being able to poke holes or criticize or appreciate the right information is one thing. Putting them together in a structure and template, drawing up patterns and getting your hands around what it all collectively is telling you is a very different thing. During MBA, you will learn how to structure information, how to put them together in models, how to drop or pick up relevant information, and how to make realistic assumptions for parts that are not available or not visible clearly. When you have to look at your industry, the economy, the competition and what have you, the way these interplay with each other and the amount of factors that you have to deal with can become mind-numbing. You might not get the right answer, but you cannot afford to have no answer! The real deal is to be able to gain insights from the information.

    Once, while doing a competitive analysis, I was taken aback by what came out of it. In an emerging field and a nascent industry, the companies I analyzed were taking six different approaches to running their businesses! It is very hard to predict how an emerging industry would structure itself, and you have to look at everything from regulatory environment to disruptive forces to consumer behavior and myriad other factors to be able to take a stance. Even if you believe you can change course during execution, you have to know how and when, and why! Time and again, I have seen people getting the individual pieces right, but still struggling with the comprehensiveness of it all.
  4. "For what it is worth, it's like getting one face of a Rubik's cube right. Solving the whole puzzle is a very different ballgame."
  5. How to present information. You can gather and structure information in the best possible way, but communicating the information to others is paramount. Business world is ridden with skepticism. There is attention deficit and information overload at the top no matter which organization you pick. When you walk into the boardroom with information and an analysis that you think truly provides a way forward for your company or your product, you have to be able to present that information really well. You need to have all the bases covered, and be ready for the tough questions that will follow. This is not about making your slides pretty. This is about carefully uncovering layer upon layer of information you have gathered and structured to create the right impact and convince the folks in that room. I have seen managers jumping from slide 3 to slide 10 and then back to 5 and so on in order to answer a question. I have seen them fumbling with their notepads and Excel sheets for the right data points - yes, during a presentation (you can guess how well and how long those meetings went!). So remember,
  6. "What you present is at least as important as what you have."

Of course, none of the above is exclusive to MBA. But they are fundamental to running any business. And sure enough, a good MBA will give you a shot at doing these three things - gathering information, structuring information and presenting information - really, really well.

(Truth be told, it is Feb 2011 as I publish this post. I wrote this post almost two years ago. I didn't publish it then, but I found it surprisingly relevant even today. This would probably be my last post related directly to MBA - as the MBA itself is not a big part of my life anymore. I do feel a bit silly posting it - just like how a school-time crush feels silly when you reach college - but it closes an important chapter nevertheless.)


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