A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 12, 2015

Google Executives Explain Why They Think the MBA Approach to Business Design Is, Well, 'Stupid'

Stupid is not a word they approve of in business school. Too judgmental, offensive - and likely to get in the way of enhanced productivity, to say nothing of getting deals done and fees paid.

They're not afraid of it at Google, however. 'Don't be evil' should never be interpreted to mean 'always be nice,' but the larger point is not really about manners. It's about expectations.

The crux of the Google argument, which is reflective of a broader Silicon Valley/tech industry belief system, is that good stuff often happens randomly and really good stuff happens even more randomly.

That is why offices are set up to encourage spontaneous interaction and the free flow of ideas. This is, supposedly, behavior diametrically opposed to the ostensibly MBA-ish notion that everything must be measured, managed and planned within an inch of its life.

And it's probably not bad advice. The irony is, however, that designing those offices that way - the open plan/foosball table/Friday afternoon beer party ethos - was planned for effect. Serendipity is awesome, but it should probably be encouraged rather than hoped for. JL

Gregory Ferenstein reports in Venture Beat:

Google prefers to design for the unexpected and work with engineers in an iterative fashion.
Google executives also regard staples of traditional business school training at the nation’s elite colleges as downright “stupid.”
Former senior vice president Jonathan Rosenberg explained how cofounder Larry Page first schooled him in the Google approach to business product: Design things for unexpected results.
Rosenberg had been hired early on in Google’s history to help transform the company from a scrappy startup to a mature multinational. He thought this meant his MBA mattered. “The way you do project management is the MBA comes in and writes the plan,” he told an audience at Silicon Valley’s Commonwealth Club in Santa Clara, California, in an interview with Khan Academy founder Salman Khan last fall (the video was released this winter).
The MBA, he was taught, was the almighty director, who set the direction for project management like Moses coming down from the mountaintop. Among his favorite tool was a common visual timeline technique, Gantt charts, commonly taught at the Harvard Business Schools of the world [PDF].
The conversation that Rosenberg recounts with Larry Page is worth quoting in full (it has been trimmed for clarity; Page is speaking to Rosenberg in the opening line):
“Well, these are very pretty, pretty pictures that you’ve made. That’s very impressive.”
And he goes to the 3rd and the 4th page and he says, “Noooooo.”
“When have you ever produced a plan like this where the engineers stuck features in that weren’t in your plan?”
“Well, never.”
“When did the engineers ever finish a project faster than what’s in your — what do you call it — a Gantt chart?”
“Well, never.”
“Then your plans are stupid. Please stop doing them.”
“What am I doing here?!”
“Go sit with the engineers.”
The point, as both Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt learned, was that Google prefers to design for the unexpected and work with engineers in an iterative fashion. If managers don’t leave room for the unplanned, they can never be pleasantly surprised.


Chad said...

I would argue this an issue with appropriate tools for appropriate goals. Project Management tools. -- like Gantt charts, work breakdown structures, and network diagrams -- are highly useful for development projects full of knowns by keeping them focused, on track, and within schedule and budget, as well as predicting and mitigating when they are headed off-target well in advance. Great for manufacturing, design work, construction, and a wide array of engineering activities. Even the development end of R&D can benefit if, say, applying already invented state-of-the-art techniques to build a new product.

Research, innovation, and other creative endeavours do not really fit this situation. You can't plan a task for "invent something cool".

That being said, it's more likely that a Project Management Professional (PMP) would be applying these tools than an MBA. An MBA learns about business administration (the BA part), and is likely an amateur at project management. A PMP leans about project managment, and must keep learning to maintain their credentials. It be a waste of money to pay an MBA to manage projects, paying too much for the wrongs skills.

Just my thoughts.

Jon Low said...

Well said. It is worth noting that Google has an arrangement with the Haas Business School at Berkeley to offer executive MBAs to Google staff. The Haas profs come to the Google campus to teach it. And Google project managers are eligible to participate.

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