Reinvent the MBA for the 21st Century by Mastering the Ambiguity in Business

Ambiguity is, and has always been, the friend of the true entrepreneur. Embrace it -- and 'master' it.

learn more about Lisa Kay Solomon

By Lisa Kay Solomon

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The MBA, which in 2014 became the world's most popular advanced degree, is seen throughout the world as a ticket to financial and professional success. But in a global economy where uncertainty and disruption are the order of the day, it's time to re-examine this symbol of achievement, which afterall was conceived over 100 years ago when leadership and management were more predictable and linear.

Related: Get an MBA If You Want to Get Ahead in Business. Skip It If You Want Your Business to Get Ahead.

In contrast, today's rapid pace of change, dynamic market conditions and emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation require a very different type of education.

The result is that the MBA needs to be redesigned. We can do this by keeping the abbreviation for "master's of business administration" but changing what it stands for. In fact, I believe that instead of "administration," the "A" should stand for "ambiguity."

Think about it: The rise of artificial intelligence means that humans will be focusing a lot less on "administering" things and more on coming up with "big picture" strategies and ideas. That means that the core of the MBA -- mastery of quantitative decision-making -- will become largely redundant in favor of subjects that today are mere electives: entrepreneurship, innovation and business model design.

To reinvent the MBA as the "master's in business ambiguity" -- and I'm completely serious here -- business schools should move those competencies to their core programs, emphasizing the new domains of adaptive mastery and practice. For ways in how that would look, consider these five categories:

How a revitalized "master of ambiguity" degree might look

Discovery as a discipline: The most important innovations in modern times have come from a process of questioning and discovery, rather than conscious attempts at improving on existing products or services.

For example, Sarah Blakely, founder of billion-dollar hosiery company Spanx, never consciously decided to "disrupt" women's underwear. Rather, she had a personal experience that led her down the path to entrepreneurship. Blakely's story of innovation is one of continuous questioning, experimenting and hustle. An MBA program that teaches students how to recognize unmet customer needs, question openly and imagine new solutions could strengthen discovery as a learnable process.

Mastering business-model design: Sustainable innovation is more than novel ideas. It requires a deeper understanding of how value gets created, captured and scaled. Creating a business model that continuously reinvents itself and seizes new opportunities is how Amazon became one of the most successful companies of all time, while a former industry leader like Nokia -- among the best at what it did but blind to technological disruption -- ultimately failed.

A revitalized MBA program would embrace the lessons of renowned theorists Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, whose 2010 book Business Model Generation pioneered a visual framework to help entrepreneurs map their assumptions and hypothesis about the desirability, feasibility and viability of their businesses.

Related: Making the Most of an Online MBA Degree

New products and services come and go, but a truly innovative business can reinvent ways of staying relevant with customers while adapting its back-end systems.

Growth strategy: In an age of heightened social connectivity and rapidly evolving technology, the formula for sustainable growth is far more dynamic than the reliable "4 Ps" of traditional marketing mechanics (price, product, promotion and place). Today, growth is an integrated blend of customer experience, technical expertise, sales, social media and operational responsibilities.

The new MBA should teach students that an optimal growth strategy requires cross-disciplinary input and support, integrating multiple sources of quantitative and qualitative data that reflect the facts on the ground.

Where earlier entrepreneurs could delegate growth and sales to marketers, the research and development of new products and services must now be thoroughly integrated into a company's ongoing customer relationships.

Network and platform weaving: As boundaries among stakeholders, including competitors, become more porous, entrepreneurs and innovators must learn how to identify and engage new kinds of partnerships and strategic relationships.

Leaders need to not only think expansively about who might be in their ecosystem of value creation, but also how to most effectively engage them. We're moving from a binary transactional form of deal-making between and among organizations to a more holistic set of relationships and currencies that create meaningful connection with new allies, influencers, and even movements.

"Networking" is no longer about whom you know and how many business cards you collect; it's about developing deep trust and aligning action across shared values.

Storytelling and engagement: Finally, entrepreneurs must be master storytellers, engaging their audience of potential customers, investors and talent with the purpose and promise of their organization. This is perhaps the sharpest divergence from the traditional MBA, which prefers the realm of facts and figures over that of creativity and communication.

In today's world, where leaders embody their company's brand more than ever before, crafting a compelling story is essential to success. MBA students must become the beacon for what their company is and hopes to achieve, embodying an entrepreneurial passion and purpose in order to woo prospective customers and investors and retain employees.

Related: To MBA or Not to MBA

These new foundations for a 21st century MBA program can be learned and taught, preparing future generations for the sea change occurring in business -- a shift from "slow and steady" to "fast and agile" as the maxim of good business. To those who would balk at, or fear, the injection of ambiguity into the heart of the world's foremost business accreditation, I submit that ambiguity is and has always been the friend of the true entrepreneur. Embrace it -- and "master" it.

Lisa Kay Solomon

Faculty Chair, Transformational Practices, Singularity University; Author

Lisa Kay Solomon is an expert on business leadership and culture design. She is the founding chair of Transformational Practices and Leadership at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank and business incubator; and a teacher of design, innovation and leadership at Stanford University’s d.School. She is also the co-author of Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change.

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