MFAs & MBAs – the Perfect Business Marriage?

There has been so much written about how MFAs are the new MBAs. After the hoopla dies down, it’s my hope that the world of business realizes the truth that poet and artist William Blake stumbled upon when he called for a “sweet science” to drive insights.

This sweet science would bring the two universes together: the scientific process taught in schools that offer a Master of Business Administration degree and the creative process taught in Master of Fine Arts degree programs.

Reason and intuition feeding each other so that humans can have a better existence—and after all, isn’t that why companies should exist? To make life better? What is the real value of business?

Right now, we live with a left-brain imbalance and each day, I see signs of a second Age of Reason. This one is fueled with data, analytics, and complex models of information sets that require technical wizardry to slice, dice, and analyze. They are massive in scale. So many decisions get made with the assurance of such data sets—from marketing to new products to operations—that making a choice without substantial quantitative testing seems absurd and unprofessional. This is the default paradigm: data, big data, and bigger data.

The industrial age’s holy grail is something you can manage so much that it can be completely optimized. However, such a view does not lead or create real, shape-shifting change. More and more data points out problems that cannot be solved without a holistic reassessment of the nature of the problem itself. This is the imbalance, in brief.

Reason alone—the MBA tool set—can diagnose the issue, but not discover new ways to solve it, to radically recreate a company’s business model for real innovation and change. On the other hand, the MFA gift—intuition—is a boon, but cannot answer everything without being filtered through the MBA mind.

To get more in balance, some smart companies are employing such techniques as Design Thinking and bringing in MFAs to shake up the MBA-industrial revolution-management paradigm. They are creating more human-centic products and services and winning in the market: doing well by doing good.

Here are some tool sets and frameworks that MFAs bring to the table, to help re-humanize work and business:

1. Wayfinding MFAs are great explorers and discoverers. They leave the office and the spreadsheet and head into the world for inspiration, connecting with customers in native environments.
2. Workshop mentality They do not think of the world as a perfected PowerPoint presentation, backed by numbers. Instead, all projects are a work-in-progress that can be changed, made better, and open to feedback, making the process more collaborative from ideation to the next versions.
3. Comfortable with uncertainty MFAs are used to the darkness before the dawn and trust that the answers will come as part of the creative process. Life and business are uncertain, and you need scouts who can stay centered and not get anxious during such times.
4. Rooted imagination What sets winning products and services apart is how well the human imagination has been rooted in a particular problem. After working as an artist for some time, this mindset can be a valuable muscle to companies trying to grow market share with new products or by entering new markets.
5. Empathy MFAs go into the field, listen to the wants and needs of real people, and gain a critical contextual awareness of the people for whom they are designing products and services.

By offsetting the second Age of Reason with the humanizing skills of the MFA, we can enter a new era of human-centric living. Smart companies are catching on. The others will go the way of the dinosaur.

image credit: Michael Graber

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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.

Michael Graber




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