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How to take risks? B-schools don't teach that

By Vinnie Vyas
November 28, 2007 10:21 IST
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The innovative learning environment at Wharton was an impressive blend of experiential and team-based learning methods. There were useful lessons in leadership development with a focus on topics like leadership presence, critical decision-making and intergroup dynamics.

Despite these virtues of the MBA programme, there are certain aspects critical to succeeding in business that are not emphasised in business schools.

A willingness to take huge risks for big rewards is one of them. Since students are always taught to measure the economics of business using the risk versus reward trade-offs, they are not willing to take risks that involve a high degree of uncertainty.

Would such metrics have ever allowed Bill Gates to leave Harvard after his freshman year to start a company building software for the nascent PC industry in 1981? Or would it have inspired Narayana Murthy to bet his entire resources on the business model of the now highly-regarded Infosys?

Such huge risks require conviction, passion and perseverance. These cannot necessarily be measured by the risk and return principles advocated by the methodologies taught at business schools.

Another area that lacks emphasis is the ability to motivate constructive dissent. Apple Computer was developing its flagship product, Lisa, in the 1980s. It was touted as a radical commencement that would make computers easy to use.

However, there was a maverick group within Apple, under the leadership of Steve Jobs, that believed Lisa was expensive and cumbersome.

Hence, the birth of Macintosh and, as they say, the rest is history. Such is the power of constructive dissent, but which is never highlighted in business curricula. Progressive business leaders welcome constructive dissent as a process that leads to significant improvements in the quality of their decision-making process.

Another area that deserves more focus is in dealing with failure. Many organisations penalise or look down on those who fail, rather than creating a process of trying out alternatives and eliminating them.

A positive way to deal with failure is exemplified in the space shuttle Columbia. While the shuttle crashed, killing all the astronauts on board, it did not deter NASA from embarking on newer initiatives. It extensively investigated the reasons that led to the mishap and put in place measures to prevent such catastrophes in the future.

The value and importance of MBA programmes notwithstanding, the foregoing are some important considerations that can augment our educational experience and help in assuming the challenges of the business world. 

Vinnie Vyas graduated from the Wharton School of Business in 1997.

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