September 19, 2013 4 min read

Helping students to understand how to cope with the ambiguity and uncertainty that will inevitably surround them as leaders should be the goal of all business school professors. But it is not. Instead, we discuss case studies that have “right answers” and are drawn from long-past business environments; we teach from textbooks and administer exams on mathematical models with defined datasets; we require students to “turn off the internet” when they are in the classroom because we don’t want them distracted by the real world. We do everything we can to limit the issues we discuss in class to our own academic disciplines.

There are lots of reasons behind why modern education systems reject any hints of uncertainty and ambiguity in their world. We see this in the standard metrics of achievement: accreditation, school rankings, and teacher ratings. The very nature of big bureaucracies is to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. And when big bureaucracies gang together, they strive to create a world where absolutely nothing is going to change, because those in control rarely benefit from change.

The way that education works today is as a guild system. There was a time when guilds ruled the business world. Groups of incumbent business people, in an attempt to increase their own profits and remove the threat of new entrants into their businesses, legislated that all companies of a similar ilk do everything the same way. Changes were only possible with the permission of the most powerful participants in the guilds. And damningly, this was all done under the guise of protecting customers from charlatans. Little new can be achieved when guilds run the world.

Accreditation and rankings ensure that no school can exhibit too much innovative behavior. Faculty members from competing schools carry out accreditation reviews with a self-interest in the status-quo. School rankings (determined by a set of criteria often designed by journalists who buy into what incumbents tell them) enforce a similar uniformity, and now it’s turned into a big business in and of itself.

Teachers vie for good teacher ratings, which are best achieved through years of practiced, rote delivery of lectures and discussions. The more times you’ve done exactly the same thing as a professor, the more likely you are to achieve your desired result: a stage-like one-woman (or man) performance. A professor’s holy grail is to get students to laugh, cry, and even learn at precisely prescribed moments. That has become our definition of good teaching—and it results in stellar teacher ratings. But this outcome generally requires that no new or unexpected or, heaven forbid, unanswerable questions are allowed to interrupt the carefully crafted show.

Egos, evaluations, and organizational imperatives all work against training students in dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity; they are miscreants that understandably make students, teachers, administrators, and accreditors uncomfortable. It just feels more like a good and proper education when everything about the process is predictable and measurable. Everyone in the system buys into the ideal of a good education “factory.”

Unfortunately, this factory spits students out into current work environments that are usually anything but factories—they are less predictable and uniform than any time since the days that hunter-gatherers trekked the Earth. The more we have “tamed” our work environment and created machines to do the predictable and routine work for us, the more need there is for workplace leaders who can deal with—and even create—the unexpected. The world is changing at a faster rate, posing challenges that are thornier in nature and more complex than ever before. There is no rulebook, no textbook, and no case study on how to tackle convoluted problems with a dash of moral quandary. And there are no teaching notes offering a neatly composed solution.

Employers of newly minted graduates have been complaining about the inability of educational institutions to produce “work ready” managers and leaders for decades now.  But little has been done to bring about any serious kind of change in formal education systems. We still dole out “learning” in almost the same way our grandparents received it.  So, businesses end up taking the brunt of training their new hires in the way the world really works because the ivory tower has never been able to do it well, and is arguably getting worse at it.

Last year, in the face of institutional opposition, I ran an experiment to see how much ambiguity I could squeeze into a single Business Strategy course. The syllabus was spare, the reading list was long and completely “optional,” there were no exams or quizzes, the projects were loosely defined, and the students were expected to teach each other what they were learning. Going into the course, I had no idea if the students could do what I was asking of them: deliver strategic management advice to clients (not supplied by the school or the professor) in a non-native-language in a city where they had never lived before. Three months later, over half of the clients reported they were “wowed” by the teams’ results. 

The students survived, even thrived through the crucible. I did not get the best teacher ratings of my life—it was a really challenging course—but students learned like I have never seen students learn in 25 years of teaching. I had conducted the experiment without the blessings of the institution, and that was too much for the school and for me to bear. We parted ways as soon as the experiment was over. I decided I could never teach again in an institution that limits me to the standardized and predictable.

CEOs around the globe say that they want more from business programs and business graduates. And business schools say they want to better meet employers’ needs. In spite of that, structural impediments remain and obstruct any easy path to teaching about uncertainty and ambiguity. The biggest question on my mind these days is: is there any school out there capable of designing cutting-edge, innovative programs, and educational systems for training the minds of future leaders to thrive in the real—incredibly inexact—world of twenty-first century business? I have not found it yet, but a guy can hope…

(illustration: luke andrew scowen/flickr)