Observations: MBAs & Government

Sometimes I am reminded that there are a lot of observations & stories that I tell in real life that I haven’t shared on this blog.  This is one that I’ve mentioned in conversation three times this week, so I’m making an effort to actually write it out.

When I attend business school at Harvard, I took a couple of elective classes that were roughly equally populated by both MBA students and Government students.  Harvard is fairly unique in that it has both a world-class business school (technically, the oldest) and a world-class government school (Kennedy School of Government).

What I learned in these classes had less to do with the material, and more to do with the fundamental difference in mindset between the two types of students.

In every class, for every business case, the argument almost always broke down as follows:

The MBA Students:

Tell us what the rules of the game are, and we’ll tell you how to win the game.

The Government Students:

Tell us who you want to win the game, and we’ll tell you how to make the rules.

Needless to say, the conversations typically went nowhere.  The business students always felt it was unethical to either change the rules mid-stream, or to create an unlevel playing field.  The government students always felt it was unethical to set up rules that weren’t destined to generate the ideal outcome.

Let me know how many times you see echoes of this disconnect in both business &  political discussions.

8 thoughts on “Observations: MBAs & Government

  1. Yes, and the number one destination for all of your fine classmates was Wall Street. And, of course, they did a fine job of “winning the game”. Obviously they found it terribly distasteful to “change the rules mid-stream” or to compete on an “unlevel playing field.” sic.

    I’m not sure what the insight you intended to share from this post was (please do tell). But I’m guessing that what Chris took away that caused him to have kittens is far different than what I took away.

    • Actually, the number one recruiter for my class was Siebel Systems, if truth be told. Remember, 2001 wasn’t the sweet spot for hiring on Wall Street.

      I think you may have come at this one with a little too much edge. If you re-read, you’ll see I wasn’t talking about Harvard specifically, except in the context of the fact that it uniquely has a unique, world-class graduate school of government, and a world-class graduate school of business. The takeaway here isn’t that either side is right or wrong (there are elements of truth in both positions), but that the logical frames of the positions are so far apart they literally miss each other. I’ve seen this pattern repeat over and over again in both business & political discussions.

      As for HBS, I do not think there is any evidence that any misbehavior was disproportionally centered on the school or its graduates. Unless the more general point is that HBS graduates have a disproportionate amount of success in finance & business, so they are over-represented in the finance industry, period.

      I’m pretty sure Chris “had kittens” in response to this post for three reasons. (1) He went to HBS, and blogs about it. (2) He has seen this same debate, and found it amusing & accurate the same way I did. (3) He’s a friend of mine, so he’s going to bias supportive.

      Take care,

  2. Pingback: Observations: The Paradox of Being a “Smart” Venture Capitalist « Psychohistory

  3. Interesting insights, Adam. This public vs. private sector discussion brings to mind a paradox I’ve observed, having worked in both areas.

    Private sector free market thinkers often deride the wisdom of government programs because it’s centralized planning, bureaucratic, political, inefficient, etc. And yet those are precisely the behaviors exhibited within most private sector companies. At eBay, for example, they had committees dedicated to figuring out pricing, elaborate lobbying processes for doling our train seats, and teams whose job it was to rig the rules for certain desired outcomes.

    The free market is supposed to be about meritocracy, survival of the fittest, and individual responsibility. But in practice, most private sector corporations rarely operate on those principles. Instead, they typically behave with hierarchical command and control systems that would make the Kremlin proud.

    • Joe, I agree. I’ve seen the same contradiction in many large organizations. The need for single, centralized reporting to investors tends to drive top-down, monolithic processes that business leaders tend to deride in governments. The difference, of course, is that businesses compete with each other, which leads to meritocracy between companies, if not within them.

      I’ve also noticed that progressive companies and business leaders are embracing more distributed systems and management styles into their organizations.

      Interestingly, in technology, I’m noticing the opposite happen as well. People with extremely liberal political beliefs and a strong bias towards centralized planning are embracing highly distributed organizations and control structures in their web 2.0 companies, largely because they map to the distributed architectures of their products and services.

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