Are Today's MBA Students Bad Critical Thinkers?

By Mary Lippitt, Professor of Business Analytics, University of South Florida Muma College of Business and St. Petersburg's Kate Tiedemann College of Business
March 15, 2017

Business man with scribbles for headKudos to those schools that have revitalized their MBA programs with new initiatives in areas such as big data and globalization. Now it’s time to add another: critical thinking.

In the MBA courses I have taught in recent years, I found my students to be both intelligent and educated in basic management theories; yet they have difficulty navigating intricate, fluctuating environments. Let me share an example. A newly graduated MBA from a prestigious school joined a financial institution’s management development program. While in the program, he developed a recommendation that he was convinced would be successful. When his manager rejected the proposal, he was shocked. Rather than try to analyze why it had been rejected, he mistakenly jumped up the chain of command to press for approval. In the end, he damaged his reputation and career prospects.

What created this blunder? He had adopted a narrow perspective, assumed that the issue was simple, ignored the issue’s complexity, and minimized potential resistance to change. He was confused by organizational politics and entrenched practices, and was unable to effectively influence decision makers.

Some universities have done a good job of revitalizing their MBA programs with new initiatives on globalization, big data, social responsibility, and ethical decision-making. Unfortunately, too little attention has been given to strategic thinking, mental agility, complex systems, organization savvy, change management, and coping with complexity.

Currently, I teach a capstone MBA course, Integrated Business Analytics, and have found that many students struggle to integrate and tailor their thinking as they prepare a strategic plan for a local firm. In many cases, they are flummoxed by complexity, latching on to just one solution per discipline. For a marketing challenge there is only social media. For cultural alignment the single solution is greater openness and transparency.

Critical thinking, organizational savvy mental agility, and contextual analysis must be included in the MBA curriculum. To help students develop their critical thinking, I help them recognize complexity’s signals. This awareness triggers a comprehensive environmental scan. A checklist of questions grouped under six goal-oriented mindsets guides their analysis to avoid blind spots. With complete situational understanding, they can identify and evaluate alternatives. But selecting the best option still requires a final risk analysis to guarantee against blind spots and unintended consequences.

I’m not criticizing any particular school or student body. Having taught at five universities, I can attest that critical thinking remains consistently undervalued. Business leaders have also observed the shortcomings. Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO, recently echoed my concerns about MBA grads in the Economist: “We have these kids who don't know anything about business in great detail.”

MBA programs can remedy this shortcoming by following McGill professor Henry Mintzberg advice to devote at least half of MBA instruction to experience-based learning. This would enable students to learn from the real world, where decisions are integrated, issues are nuanced, solutions are fleeting, and support is essential to execution.

Sure, job placement and starting salaries are important, but the true measure of success for an MBA program should be preparedness for authentic business challenges.

What can we do to better prepare our students? I offer four proposals:

1. Recognize the ancillary skills that critical thinking enables: collecting data and scanning circumstances, reframing problems, combining perspectives, generating innovative solutions, and developing strategies for influencing others. We must develop student wisdom to know what to do when neat packages or standard practices fail.

2. Expand leadership development beyond motivation, style, and character. Leadership also requires situational mastery and strategic thinking. Students should be taught to ask the right questions, rather than merely replicating standard answers. There must be a dedicated effort to seek new solutions, detect bias, test assumptions, and assess risk to identify successful strategic solutions that will succeed in the short- and long-term. Wells Fargo’s and Volkswagen’s recent brand-impacting blunders could have been prevented with greater scrutiny.

3. Expand single-disciplinary core competencies into interdisciplinary competencies. Knowing how to perform a skill must be balanced with knowing when it is needed, how it must be customized for a specific situation and what will gain active support for implementation. As data analysis advances, the importance of critical thinking and analysis increases.

4. Focus on real-life business practices and business models, rather than outdated or standard theory. Knowledge must be expanded to include application of the knowledge to deliver results. The content taught must also be updated and relevant. Ten year old course designs cannot meet today’s demands. To facilitate updating curriculum to meet today’s challenges, schools should offer short-term “faculty externships” that enable them to observe current thinking and practices. Organizations no longer “stick to their knitting” but leap forward. Standard structures are being transformed into networked designs. And, contrary to older models, firms are divesting both weak and cash-cow components to position themselves for the future. Our curriculums must reflect today’s complex realities.

MBA programs should not only enable graduates to get a job with a solid salary, but they should ensure long-term career success supported by a relevant and up-to-date education.


Headshot of Mary LippittMary Lippitt is founder of Enterprise Management Limited and the author of Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity. She teaches business analytics at the University of South Florida Muma College of Business and St. Petersburg’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business.