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Restore Balance to the Force: Critiquing A Whole New Mind February 7, 2011

Posted by meganrast in A Whole New Mind, Design Thinking.

A review of previous Haas MBA’s blog posts on Daniel Pink’s 2006 book A Whole New Mind shows depth on describing left-brained vs. right-brainedbackground information, and the ever-easier ability to poke holes in dated information.   Pink does an excellent job describing neuroscience, making the case for design-thinking in business, and supporting the softer, holistic side of human abilities above the long-standing analytics of your typical knowledge worker.

In light of the forces of automation, globalization and affluence, his points regarding the need for design-based holistic thinking for in order to stay on innovation’s leading edge are well made.  If it weren’t for a belief that my skillset is unique in the post-MBA marketplace, the lengthy discussion of “Abundance, Asia and Automation” would have instilled panic at my life choices.   The short of it is to ask yourself: can someone overseas do it cheaper?  Can a computer do it faster?  Am I fulfilling a transcendent, unmet human need?

Whether Pink sparked this discussion, or encapsulated design in the zeitgeist of emotional intelligence in leadership, his book is still a good read for new-comers to the space.  His values of “Story,” “Empathy” and “Meaning” are particularly important in light of the Great Recession when consumer trust in corporations has eroded significantly.


But I am a Haas MBA, and thanks to our dear Dean Lyons, we have our own well-designed symphony of cultural values to give meaning to our time in business school: one of which is “Questioning the Status Quo.”  So instead of propping up the book with another mildly positive posting, I’m taking a critical stand that Pink’s book undermines itself.   Let me explain.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to principle that cognition requires both the left and right sides of the brain.  Pink argues that pseudo-science wasted years arguing which side of the brain was more important, when our current understanding reveals the need for both sides of our brain to work in concert.  That is to say the strength for someone analytical and logical (a “left-brainer”) comes from building up our holistic, perceptive capabilities (from the “right-brain”).

Subscription to the Daniel Pink orthodoxy would have me run away from my MBA towards his described “new MBA”: the Masters of Fine Arts.  In his fever to make this point, however, Pink goes full-tilt towards the right brain and loses the balance inherit in modern neuroscience: that we need BOTH sides.  Businesses that hire MFAs without a shred of financial and analytic capabilities are doomed to make sub-optimal decisions.  Businesses that hire MBAs without exposure to design-thinking and story-telling are going to miss the “big picture” and strategic opportunities in the competitive landscape.  The power comes from being multi-disciplinary, not from one side over the other.

To take the argument one step further, we newly minted MBAs are already getting a heavy dose of the “right-brained” skillsets in design-thinking, leadership communication, story-telling and emotional intelligence (for any current Haas MBAs, I only need say the word “BILD”).  I doubt my counterparts getting their MFAs are similarly multi-tasking in financial models or analytics.   Just as I doubt MBAs from 10 or more years past are exposed to these concepts.

But though I’m an idealist sort of MBA, I know the real economics of the situation.  Bestsellers rarely become so by using moderation and qualifications, which means we are doomed to read books with an overly-extreme point of view.   A title of “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers (with the skillsets of a Left Brainer) or Vice Versa Will Rule the Future” just doesn’t have the same pithy ring.



1. Jon Pittman - February 9, 2011

Nice analysis and I like the fact that you challenged Daniel Pink. I, too like the discussion of Asia, Abundance, and Automation and believe it captures the essence of why we need to work (and educate differently). It makes a succinct and, in my experience, very accurate argument.

I also agree that Pink overreaches by going hard-right on the brain. While he talks about balancing analytical and holistic thinking skills, the book is particularly unbalanced – perhaps intentionally so to make a point. In my view, the best solution is to develop both thinking styles. To give Pink the benefit of the doubt, it does help make the case to overstate the point.

Pink was not the first to coin the phrase “the MFA is the new MBA”, but he does reinforce it. I believe this statement fails to make a distinction between art and design. While some design programs offer an MFA they tend to take the “art” view of design rather than the view that design is about making useful things (with beauty perhaps one attribute of useful things). I, too would be quite concerned about MFA graduates leading businesses as they perhaps lack the left brain skills that MBAs possess to an even greater degree than MBAs may lack right brain skills. Further the view of design as art is flawed and could be destructive.

Regarding the design exposure that Haas is getting, you are correct that we — and other leading business schools — are beginning to teach design principles and methods and are focusing on creativity and innovation. I’d maintain that we have a long way to go. Even in design programs, the understanding of design and innovation is pretty immature.

We have an excellent guest speaker, Hugh Dubberly, near the end of the course who can address some of these issues and I look forward to us all having the chance to debate some of these issues with Hugh.

2. Daniel Pink - February 14, 2011

Megan —

Great post. I wish I’d included Challenging the Status Quo as the 7th aptitude. It’s one of those abilities that has always been useful but that today has become urgent.

On the MFA/MBA brouhaha, don’t withdraw from Haas just yet. IMHO, the very best education is one that combines the two approaches — MBA + MFA — which is what you’re doing in this course and which itself is challenging the status quo.

Dan Pink

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