Someone once told me that it takes two career changes to realise what you really learnt on your MBA, so five years and two changes later, here are the critical things that I think I got from my MBA, that I fall back on most often and which contributed to helping me in my career.
First, breadth – a critical input for creative thinking is a breadth of insight – being able to hunt in many different areas for the key to cracking a particular problem (or even spotting the next big opportunity). MBAs are designed for breadth at speed – from the breadth of my cohort, to the breadth of tools and ways of dissecting a problem.
Second, curiosity, perhaps the most vital skill for anyone aspiring to bring more creativity into their work. Curiosity not only helps spot opportunities before others, but also to find more innovative ways of unlocking them. Beyond the breadth of backgrounds and cultures in my cohort, it was the new tools that helped to explain how businesses work – and how they might be made to work differently that was a massive curiosity-booster. Once you’ve understood the Business Model Canvas, the next step is to use it dissect and remix existing businesses. ‘What happens if I do this bit differently’? Why should these established norms be treated as constants? A curiosity for how things work, is helpful – my MBA gave me the tools to be able to look at businesses and organisations in the same way – as dynamic things that can work in different ways, given different inputs, conditions, capabilities or goals.
Next is confidence – not the cliché of freshly-minted tech-bro MBAs who use those three little letters as some kind of signifier that their opinion is somehow more valuable, but rather the confidence that comes from having previously opaque concepts demystified, from understanding how things work. The confidence to challenge the orthodox, the confidence to ask pointed questions, and the confidence to get stuck in, build something, experiment – confident that even if you should fail, you will at least learn faster than others. Confidence in the knowledge that inflexibility is often designed into scaled businesses to help them operate day-to-day, and so by design they must reject new ideas – all the more need for confidence and stamina to keep challenging, keep making things better!
And, yes, the foundational skills. All the above was backed up by the foundational skills of creativity and innovation – the diverging and converging model of design thinking, insight-led strategy and design; theories of innovation that sound dry but ultimately are underpinned by these same principles of curiosity, breadth and confidence. The Business Model Canvas as a way of quickly understanding and interrogating a business, and the many practical assignments that simulated the experience of having to quickly stand up a business case, see how a business mode might work.
Highlights included building up a business case and first version of a platform business to connect buyers and producers of artisan food across Europe, a strategy for how traditional black cabs might differentiate to thrive in a world of Uber, and a social enterprise telemedicine solution for the developing world built on a stunningly simple but sustainable business model – a project that included close collaboration with service designers from the RCA and interviews and fieldwork with primary healthcare workers in Uganda.
In all of the above, I want to stress that only seeing creativity within acknowledged frameworks such as design thinking risks completely underplaying the potential for creative impact. In fact, it’s the application of creative mindset to traditional business skills that is most impactful. An example: I would never have thought that I would find accounting interesting – but there is something beautifully creative about interrogating a balance sheet and using the power of ratios to tell a compelling story about a business, a category, a historical shift.