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What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems

Numbers and bullet points aren’t the only things driving executive decision making. And pretty pictures won’t get you there either. Both designers and MBAs have a lot to learn.

This year marks the third anniversary of the Rotman Design Challenge. It started out as a commendable experiment by the school’s Business Design Club to expose MBAs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management to the value of design methods in business problem solving. This year, the competition drew teams from a few other MBA schools and some of the best design schools in North America. As a final-round judge, I had a front-row seat to the five best solutions to the competition’s challenge: To help TD Bank foster lifelong customer relationships with students and recent graduates while encouraging healthy financial behaviors.

Both this year and last—the two years that Rotman invited other schools to participate—business school students were slaughtered by the design school students. Of the 12 Rotman teams this year, not one of them made the final round. And while only seven of the 23 competing teams were from design schools (including California College of Arts, Ontario College of Art and Design, and the University of Cincinnati), design teams scooped the top three places in the competition, doing significantly better than their MBA counterparts. So what does this tell us?

It might tell us that MBAs significantly underestimate the skill and expertise a designer brings to the table. After all, about 80 MBA students volunteered their evenings and weekends, believing they had a chance of winning a design competition with minimal, if any, design training. Would you go toe-to-toe with even a purple belt in jiu jitsu having never taken a lesson? While the typical design-school competitor has (at the least) studied the design process in depth for several semesters and practiced it in co-ops and internships, for many MBA students, this was their very first exposure to the discipline. So while we should applaud the organizers’ efforts to open MBA eyes to the importance and value of design in solving business problems, it seems that even its most forward-thinking students may not have fully digested that design is a serious pursuit that requires serious training.

The competition outcome might also tell us that designers have reason to be encouraged. With only 15 minutes to convince a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today, they fared significantly better than their MBA counterparts. Why? Because they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making.

Finally, it tells us that we still have a long way to go to develop business professionals who both appreciate and can engage the tools of design effectively. Rotman gets kudos for taking a step in the right direction. But a few workshops and an extracurricular competition won’t produce business leaders with real design-thinking skills. Business education must be completely redefined to include the best, most appropriate principles of design in every curriculum. Marketing classes should teach a deep reverence for the user in context and the power of observational research methods. Finance classes should teach the art of storytelling and information design. Strategy classes should teach systems thinking and synthesis. If the goal is to create great "hybrid thinkers" who will have real impact, design should not be tacked on to existing business education but infused throughout it.

I’m not letting design schools off the hook either. While design students fared much better than their MBA counterparts that Saturday afternoon, I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.

And I was less than impressed with the business-thinking skills of designers the following Monday morning, when I interviewed 10 of them at the Institute of Design in Chicago for jobs at Doblin. To most candidates, I asked of the ideas they presented in their portfolios, "But how does it make money? Who will pay for that? How much would you need to sell to be profitable?" and was met with far too many blank expressions when I did so. Design schools have a long way to go to integrate good business thinking into their programs. In order to make their value known to the world, designers need to speak the language of business—that’s where great ideas get funded and developed. Design education needs as much of an overhaul as business education if we are to benefit from the talents of design thinkers in the business world.

I hope that we see meaningful reinvention of both design and business education so that the business world can realize the true value of design thinking. Until that happens, Rotman’s Business Design Club would be wise to require challenge teams to comprise both designers and MBAs. At least it would level the playing field, and it may improve the educational experience for both—assuming each can decipher what the other is saying.

[Image: Morphart Creations Inc., sextoacto and ueapun via Shutterstock]

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  • Thomas Gaskin

    An important note, both wining teams from the Institute of Design included dual-degree students (students doing both a full MBA and full Masters of Design) - a unique combo not offered at other schools.

  • Thomas Gaskin

    Update: the Institute of Design won the Rotman Design Challenge again this year.

  • Sandy Hequin

    Melissa, you hit the nail in the head, my daughter is looking for a college that will allow her to graduate with a, let's call it business of design degree. We found the dual enrollment of RISD and Brown University, although Browns business program focuses on economics and entrepreneurship would be a better match.

    In your research have you found any program that would fulfill her needs. She wants to be able to run the company that sells what she designs.

    Thank you.

  • Peter Varshavsky

    Melissa, do you have any further articles for suggested reading about learning design, product design and problem solving? I'm applying to business schools now and spending my free time learning about systems thinking and working with several musicians on setting up marketing systems for them, which involves a bit of design thinking. I'd love to explore more.

    I'm hoping that by the end of the year, I'll have a clear idea for how to build my MBA around something that involves product design/marketing/management.

  • mirkowinkel

    dear Melissa,
    very interesting. I work in a business referred to as design, design-furniture and lighting.
    In our business there can be no division between intuition & future on one side and analysis and present time on the other.
    I did write an  essay about it, based on my 23 yrs consultancy and management experience, identifying 3 "heads" needed to lead a company in our business, one more actually than I see in these discussions.
    I'd love to send a copy to you and receive your feedback 

  • IG

    It's interesting that the MFA presentation were so strong compared to the MBAs. It seems to prove that they have value to offer, but this constant state of trying to prove value is really (unfortunately) an essential state of being for a designer. MBAs don't really have to deal with that in the same way. The people in the design profession often feel that they have to prove their worth, that they are undervalued, and have skills that are not understood by management. I applaud the contest for being a clear lesson to MBAs on the value that MFAs can bring, those kind of lessons are hard to come by. But, saying that all MFAs need to also be MBAs is not really a decent solution. They are distinct disciplines and we need fewer generalists an more specialists to really be efficient and successful. As well, it is still not giving value to the MFA process unless it can be couched in MBA terms and values. There really needs to be a respectful collaboration between peers (a Jobs and Ives partnership). The problem is that money often drives business and money is where the power is, so it creates an artificially skewed perception of value. What you need is well trained MBAs and well trained MFAs working together as equal and respectful collaborators for mutually generated equity, rather than as competitors for value. For when we're competitors, the MBAs understanding of money wins the value contest, but MFAs understanding wins the innovation and marketing equation in the long run.

  • Ian Smith

    Looks like the lesson that was learnt is that designers have an over inflated view of their own importance and are quite as capable as MBAs of corruptly stacking the deck in their favour. Better make sure any design work is outsourced to China to ensure that they don't start trying to steer the boat rather than row it.

  • LBJeffreis

    This is fun.
    It's a given that the ideal solution is on finding the right balance between two ways of problem solving, this is not a game of winners and losers.
    But I rather take a radical approach in defense of the MFA point of view, because the MBAs are already at the top of the food chain, and they (you) are no willing to let anyone to challenge their (your) status.
    But. as Jobs said, it's more fun to be a pirate than join the navy.
    Humans are using design as a Trojan horse to challenge from the inside some of the psychopathic assumptions of corporate management (corporations, as everyone knows are ruled by a race of alien reptiles that use MBAs as their slaves).
    Design is a virus in the system...

  • Michel Sohel

    Very inspiring Melissa, I am designing a sylabus to teach design and creativity for children in schools. Its a good idea to design one for MBA,s too, Ill work on that .

  • Ralf J.Ritter

    We live in an age where design is quickly becoming one of the key (if not the key) discriminator for consumers, so MBAs without designers would be quite lonely and most likely without a job. I say this as an MBAer who has had the benefit of working with creatives and researchers. What was I going to sell without them? The whole debate reminds me, once again, of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. It's not so much about business models as it is about an all-encompassing experience that delights and enchants. A strong grounding in liberal/fine arts with sound commercial discipline would be one way. At the end, it's all about being well-rounded, open-minded and curious. I wonder whether we are not really talking about empathy rather than the differences between two disciplines.

  • David Wrate

    I fully support your perspectives. To say one or the other is better is disingenuous as it implies that one has more value, when in fact the most value is created from a perfect pairing of the two disciplines.
    Spoken as an MBA married to a professional creative with an MBA.

  • Angus

    I feel as though i am missing a point here - it is a competition set up by the design school - and designers won it?  The conclusion pushed out of this doesn't fully follow.  As i work in a role that combines business and design, i can see the benefits of both - especially in design for creating compelling presentations.  I also can say that I have been in WAY too many meetings where the customer viewpoint isn't focused on as much as profit.  The presentations described likely wouldn't fly very well with VCs.  I agree both need to learn from each other, but I also am disappointed that there is an assumption that all MBAs are about numbers and bullet points.

  • Ruben Ocampo

    Thank you Melissa, for a couple of reasons. First, because it adds to the growing body of evidence to proof to businesspeople that designers can take on problems far more wicked than the aesthetics of presentations and products. Second, because as designers we love to toot our own horn and criticize MBA's without reflecting on our own shortcomings. Designers still miss the mark in understanding the economics of value creation, delivery and capture, and it's important to continue bringing this issue to the fore.

  • TraX Actions

    Thanks for tackling this topic of the old-business-as-usual MBA education.  When I was looking for a program that broke the mold, I found Presidio Graduate School, for a Sustainable Management degree. 
    While we are far from perfect, the school runs more like a creative startup, since 2003, and functions more like a design academy actually. By taking classes that emphasize the triple bottom line and systems thinking we include great design into each course. 
    It also helps that I have a studio arts degree too, to balance the brains. 
    Learn more at
    We are not your dad's MBA program!

  • Craig LaRosa

    Someone get's it! It's amazing how long it has taken for people to see that it's the mix of both that will solve the--even more complex--business challenges we are facing. I work side by side with "MBA's" everyday. We are in a constant back and forth of learning and making our work better every day.Those designers who embrace business and those MBAs who embrace design are the future leaders of our corporations, institutes and I hope even government.

    The problems facing these organizations today are to complex to use one side of our brain. We need the left and the right.

    Great article thanks Melissa.

  • Wize Adz

    I'm halfway through my MBA program.  I'm in my 30s, and I spent my teens and 20s developing real expertise in a practical field.  When I signed up for my MBA program, I thought that an MBA is a great supplement to a real education, and I still think so.  An MBA is not a replacement for a regular education.

    I got interested in an MBA program because I had some questions about how to be better at work, and it's done a pretty good job of answering these questions -- while keeping me so f-ing busy that I can barely hold on to my current job, even though I'm much better at many aspects of it than I was when I started the program.  But the MBA program is all "meta skills" -- it's all once removed from the actual skills and work that an organization does.  It's valuable, but we have to be honest about what the limitations of the education is.I wonder how many of the MBAs in the above event went straight from a Bachelor's degree in Business to MBA?  If so, they probably have lots of meta-skills, but they don't have any concrete skills or knowledge about particular industry yet -- so it's no surprise that they're loosing a design competition to someone who's actually been taught some sort of skill.

    When you add these meta-skills to the toolbox of a person who already knows an industry or has expertise, the meta-skills in the MBA toolbox are a very potent value-multiplier.  But, in order to bring the value, you've got to have something to multiply.

  • Calvin Lawrence

    I found this article to be a worthwhile read. I am an MBA who provides IT business solutions and have found that when I spend good time on information design, the solution is more robust and requires less re-work. My favourite paragraph helped remind me of and reinforce the importance of good design... " Marketing classes should teach a deep reverence for the user in context and the power of observational research methods. Finance classes should teach the art of storytelling and information design. Strategy classes should teach systems thinking and synthesis. If the goal is to create great "hybrid thinkers" who will have real impact, design should not be tacked on to existing business education but infused throughout it. "


  • rob

    I'm an MBA with an undergrad in graphic design, so I feel like I can offer somewhat of a unique perspective here. It sounds like Melissa is on to something. I face this issue in the real world on a daily basis, where business leaders struggle translating insights and analyses into visualizations, and creatives churn articulating abstract ideas as business cases. There are absolutely opportunities to close the gap. I'd say those that do both well today typically become consultants. I mean, why not take advantage of the arbitrage situation while the going is good?

    In any case, it would have been helpful if context and orientation to the "business problem" at hand was specified. Although what I gather from the piece is that it sounds like the MBAs had a tough time coming up with and pitching a new business idea. But it is unfair to simply draw the conclusion that "MBAs are less equipped to solve business problems than MFAs." Problems come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps we can say that MBAs typically don't make the best entrepreneurs...