Why MBA’s are bad project managers and six ways to fix it

Do MBA's make best project managersOnly two of the world’s top 100 business schools include Project Management as a core element of the MBA program.    While grooming our future business leaders with a curriculum of strategy, leadership, marketing, and finance, they do not consider the experience of implementing a company-wide initiative or bringing a new product to market to be a worthwhile use of their education.   The MBA is about leadership, strategy and top-line growth. Project Management is the distant second cousin that is not worthy of the attention of Michael Porter, Peter Drucker, and the Ivy League academic world.  At best, it is thought to be technical in nature, perhaps suitable for engineers.  At worst, Project Management is a step above a blue-color profession, and a step in the wrong direction.

If I am over-simplifying, it’s not by much.  Run this small experiment:  ask a recent MBA to choose between an Agile or Waterfall methodology and you will likely be met with a blank stare.  In fairness to the B-schools, they are merely responding to the demand of their customer base.  The reality is that many MBA’s graduates with six-figure debt and the only feasible way to break even on their investment are to bypass mid-level management positions (read “project manager type”).

Based on my direct experience, business schools neglect Project Management to the detriment of their students.

While the traditional role of executive management and leadership is still valid in hierarchical organizations, the model does not work in an environment where leadership is defined by example and reputation.   The typical Project Manager needs to engage with experienced engineers, designers and independent contributors with strong views.   What is required is not management via decree, but collaboration and consensus around an idea.

The Art of Questioning

Project Managers need to be skilled in asking the right questions from experts in the project domain.  The ability to probe and query within a collaborative environment can be difficult for the MBA leader/warrior who considers himself or herself an independent thinker.   To some extent, the art of asking questions requires a degree of humility that could be perceived as a sign of weakness or lack of command.  

Strategy versus Context

MBA programs tend to teach strategy from the top-down and provide frameworks on how decision making supports the overall strategy of an organization.  Project Management is required to execute within the complex environment that decisions are made.  MBA’s often consider the day-to-day execution of decisions too detailed to follow and focus on the big picture/top-line objectives.  

 The Macro versus Micro View

In the course of their studies, MBA’s drill down in the details of how companies make decisions and the interconnectedness between the functions of finance, sales, marketing, manufacturing, logistics, and operations.  Project managers view the same topic slightly differently:  how to best execute projects in these functional areas.  The difference in viewpoint becomes significant and can even paralyze the MBA who needs to move from high-level decision making to the consensus required to move a project forward. 

How MBAs can become the best Project Managers

Although I am not suggesting that the MBA offers a dual PMP track, there is a significant amount that can be gained by incorporating the Project Management discipline in the MBA program.   Even without formally including Project Management coursework in the curriculum, the skill set required from a Project Manager can make a good MBA even better:

  • In Project Management authority is not derived by title.  Reputation, knowledge about the field, past history and the ability to convince others are integral to the success of a Project Manager whose job is compared to herding cats.
  • The biggest enemy the successful project manager is ego, a quality that has been known to exist in some of our finer business schools.   Simply graduating from a top-tier school is not enough; one still needs the ability to get buy-in from management, peers, and people that report to you.
  • The best tool a project manager has is to listen and listen well. Most MBAs are taught to lead by giving speeches and not listening. Learning to listen to everybody on your team will make you a much better project manager.
  • Possess domain expertise in Project Management as applied to a particular field.  Apart from generic project management skills, Project Managers need a deep familiarity with one or multiple fields which gives them a natural authority and solid strategic insight.
  • Rely on experts in your team (both inside and outside the company) to get help to solve problems which might not be your area of expertise.
  • Support the development of a Project Management Office (PMO).  MBA’s in positions of leadership can use the PMO as a bridge between strategic goals and strategic project initiatives.

Did you find this article interesting?   Please feel free to comment below.

Dan Smiljanić

Dan is a practitioner of project management and our resident geek. With a background in computer science, Dan is the lead product tester at Binfire. When Dan not writing code, you will probably find him cycling and hiking with friends.

  1. Well! It's a hard truth. Doing MBA itself makes us students fell that we have good leadership and project management skills. Your post enlightened me about some of the wrong concepts I had in my mind. Definitely , project management nedds to be taught as an individual subject which will help MBAs to learn the right skill sets needed to be a good project manager.

  2. As an Electrical Engineer who completed an MBA, the career progression at my company was to move into Project Management. I will say that I enjoy my job, but I completely agree that my MBA experience did not prepare me for it (other than the one semester Project Management course that I took, which was a pretty high level overview). There is a bit of a sense that Project Management is a "necessary evil" when it comes to running the business, and I have had to work hard to promote the idea that "Project Management" is more of an approach than a title, and that it can be used across the company for any type of initiative.

  3. "agile or waterfall methodology" I did have a blank stare. There is truth in the blog and I shall be taking these tips to heart. You're right about the viewpoint. Excellent article.

  4. As a student and a witness to the curriculum in a MBA program, you have compelled me to agree with you Dan. I can see the light! The MBA program I find, has a curriculum filled with ironies. Candidates expect to lead teams once they graduate, but are taught to do so by being self-centered individuals. It is indeed hard to explain to young folk that the way to the top is to start from the bottom rung, where teamwork is what gets you by and this is the start of Project Management. This is where you learn to deal with co-workers and their varying abilities to do various tasks. Unfortunately, the MBA program was designed to skip this entire level of experience. As for ego part of it, maybe that is what you get when Steve Jobs becomes the idol for a lot of management trainees out there!

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