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MMM: A Pathway to Whole-Brain Thinking

Dean Julio M. Ottino welcomed the new MMM cohort this summer. Read an adaptation of his remarks.

The MMM Program at Northwestern University is a resounding success because this combination of two degrees—MBA and Design Innovation—is the way of the future.

Together, these two programs offer insights into two different sets of logic—business and design. This vantage point creates two types of abilities that rarely coexist in a single person: creative skills and implementation skills.

Its importance becomes clear when viewed through the lens of Whole-Brain Thinking.

Whole-Brain Thinking is one of the defining concepts of McCormick. The metaphor—left-brain thinking associated with logic, convergence, and rationality, right-brain thinking with intuition, divergence, and creativity—is the belief that both types of thinking can and should co-exist. 

In fact, it is more necessary than ever.  MMM prepares students to be whole-brain thinkers full of creative ideas to solve problems.

And today, the world needs ideas.

We live in world full of shades of grey. Urgent and complex problems of the future cannot be solved with tired thinking from the past. COVID-19, global climate change, plastic pollution, social media disinformation, political instability, racial divides, and the worldwide cries for justice and equality are all massive challenges that we need to reckon with in new ways. We need fresh, creative ideas.

But even when we have good ideas, we need more. Our societal problems persist not because we lack those good or creative ideas. Rather, many organizations, societies, or nations fail to implement these solutions in the face of apathy or outright opposition. Implementation is key.

To move forward, we need those two things fostered in MMM: creative skills and implementation skills.

To operate and thrive in these times and in this chaotic landscape we need to develop a broad lens, understand multiple viewpoints, develop situational awareness, and come up with ideas that have a chance of becoming reality (even if they force us to stretch significantly). Most of all, one has to be comfortable with ambiguity, thrive in poorly defined situations, and resist the temptation to clean up problems too quickly.  And, possibly the most important skill of all, you need to reconcile and blend extremes, to see the unity in what may be opposing viewpoints.

And that requires of Whole-Brain Thinking.

Whole-Brain Thinking contains the idea of complementarity, that something can be two things at the same time. We borrow this from quantum physics—light can be a wave and a particle at the same time. Strange? Yes. After 100 years, our logic has not yet caught up with this, but the key point is that complementarity is essential in handling contradictions.

As MMM students learn, complementarity exists in many of the biggest business issues today. Firms are pressed to be both big and small, efficient and effective, and to operate in multiple time frames. These requirements may contain irreconcilable logics and contradictions.

For example, balancing exploitation and exploration.

Exploitation builds on an organization’s past; exploration is about creating futures that may be quite different than the organization’s past. Too much exploiting drives inertia; exploitation may crowd out exploration. At the same time, too much exploration could drive out efficiencies and prevent us gaining economies of scale. Yet, without exploration, firms die. Sustained performance rests in doing both, exploitation and exploration. 

Another example of irreconcilable logics? Being market-driven and market-driving at the same time. Apple, Tesla, Starbucks are seen as market-driving. Ferrari, however, is an example of being two things at the same time. Along with being market-driving, at Ferrari the art of form and the science of function, design and engineering, co-exist. More than that, they continuously challenge and inspire each other. 

Another advantage of Whole-Brain Thinking resides in the word whole. It used to be that “domain expertise” was an advantage. But a heavy reliance on a single perspective may hinder one's ability to successfully navigate vague situations. It is the equivalent of having one tool instead of a full set. Deep knowledge goes with expertise and experts, but expertise itself carries hidden dangers. One can be tempted to fit problems into one set of tools. When a problem is sanitized enough to fit a tool, that problem can be solved; but the cleaning may have eliminated crucial context. The result? An incomplete representation of the total situation. We have solved a problem, but it is the wrong problem.

Throughout all of this, we are required to adapt.  Whole-Brain Thinkers, especially those in MMM, can transition. They can because they have a broader thinking space. Their ideas are not solely anchored in one domain. Having feet in two or more domains increases the number of ideas and possibilities. The domains do not need to be as distant as, say, engineering and art. They need to represent left-brain thinking and right-brain thinking—not repetitions of the same kind of thinking. Design thinking, a cornerstone of MMM, represents a powerful entry point since it has elements of both.

We hear a lot about the increased risk of automation and AI. The best jobs in the future will be the ones reserved for creative human thinkers. Creative thinking will resist automation. These “hybrid jobs” merge skills not normally found together. But they are learned our dual degree program.  Many forward-looking companies seek multi-functional experience when hiring. This flexibility is essential in large organizations where employees jump from team to team and from role to role as well as in startups that do not have the luxury of hiring specialists. As to automation, whole-brain thinkers will decide what gets automated.  

We are working together through a truly unprecedented time. As our society addresses our many challenges, we need new and different ideas. Execution will always be important, but without ideas there is not much to execute. We need good ideas, and the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas—ones that cover the gamut of possibilities. Diversity of ideas as critical for innovation and that those ideas must come from diverse people.  Diverse teams are a must.

Never before has the wide-angle perspective of Whole-Brain Thinking been more relevant. Understanding and defining the problems that we face in new ways, generating ideas, and building teams of cross-functional talent to address them are keys to the innovation and change that the world so desperately needs.

Businesses need someone at the very top who completely understands this. Learning how to think with the perspectives of two or more fields is the ultimate advantage; it demands that we use more of our brains.  What is the magic mix? Analytical capabilities, quantitative and systems thinking, problem framing, problem solving and design thinking skills, and team building skills. And, finally, constant curiosity; this is what drives lifelong learning. Without this, we stagnate.

Our biggest asset going forward is not exactly specific knowledge or a specific skill. It is a philosophy and way of thinking.  MMM will help our students grow into whole-brain thinkers who are prepared to manage and create whole-brain organizations.

We are whole-brain thinkers, and our time is now.

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