When an MBA Isn’t an MBA, and Agile Marketing

Alan Belniakbusiness, MTIE10 Comments

Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead

I was listening to a Mitch Joel Six Pixels of Separation podcast the other day.  Mitch was interviewing David Meerman Scott, author of many books, the latest being Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn From The Most Iconic Band In History.  I’m reading the book and am familiar with David’s work; I also listen to Mitch’s podcast pretty regularly.  So, I was happily listening to Mitch interview David, when David (from the 27:00 to the 28:00 mark) mentioned something to the effect of, “It doesn’t work with the command-and-control-type mentality [I whole-heartedly agree]… It’s a different approach – it’s not what they teach at MBA school.”  In all likelihood, David was speaking in generalities.  But as a business school graduate myself, I paused for a moment, and though that – for me – this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Again, I’m sure this was David setting up a larger point, but it got me thinking… and writing…

The Way of the MBA

I earned my MBA and am proud and thankful that I possess a skill set that runs counter to what David described.  I took some standard business courses, but then got exposed to different business models, different ways of approaching problems, and different ways of monetizing things and ideas and products.  In general, yes – MBA school teaches you to follow rigid norms and such.  My thought on the matter is this:

If you’re in an MBA program, and you step back and examine your curriculum, and it follows loosely what David describes, and that’s what you’re learning, then get out.  Unless of course, you’re just going for the piece of paper.  The onus is on you to know when to get out if you feel you’re getting corralled.

Seth Godin loves to point out that MBAs are useless or valueless.  Obviously, I disagree.  People get them for various reasons – I started to earn mine for one or two, and discovered another reason along the way.  I do agree that a very traditional, run-of-the-mill MBA, and one that follows a business structure from 1972 is out-of-date and not worth your spend – in tuition or in your time.  But… if you select courses that will challenge you, look at new business paradigms, examine new ways to approach things, then an MBA – the right MBA – could be worthwhile.  Business school is a great opportunity to try and fail and learn and repeat.

The point here is the following: If you choose to go to school or back to school, look to learn something and not simply go through the paces.

Flexibility and Agility versus Rigidity and “The Way”

BUFD – Big Up Front Design/Big Design Upfront.  This is how software was written in the past, and in some cases, still is.  I’m not a software developer, so I’m not going to pretend to be super-knowledgeable on the deep pros and cons of the preferred software development approach, but I do work at a software company, and was a product manager for a while.  I’m somewhat familiar with the methods.  One approach we tried with my product was Agile software development.  There are many flavors of this, and the BUFD/Waterfall vs. Agile conversation is almost like a holy war.  That’s not what I want to talk about here.  Instead, I want to riff on something David referenced at the 24:20 mark, and see if the Agile approach can be applied to marketing and budgeting and such in larger organizations.  In fact – to this point – David mentions that at HubSpot (where his co-author Brian Halligan is CEO and co-founder), they work on monthly ‘development’ cycles – something like 18 days of development, a few days of retrospect, and then 10 or so days of marketing (skip to the 26:30 mark to hear David mention this).  They don’t plan out 12 months or four quarters of development and marketing and messaging and such.  They plan out one month.  I’m sure high level plans exist for the overall year.  But the clarity and sharpness isn’t decided until the release date gets closer.

This agile-like approach eliminates the weeks on weeks of time upfront planning on something that could feasibly (or not!) happen 11 months from when the fiscal year starts.  And if your marketing organization already plans on a midyear course-correction, well then what’s the point of BUFD in the beginning anyway?  If the R&D organization – arguably the backbone of a software company – can develop this way, why can’t the marketing group organize itself this way?

Traditional marketing becomes today marketing when they can think more nimbly, react quicker, plan less (but not less smartly), and try to break down existing, artificial barriers and models.

disclosure: I earned my MBA from the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College (aka “Babson”).  They didn’t compensate me at all to write this post.

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