Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Stanford Sloan, Entry 22: The Last Entry: Final Finals, Ethics in B-School, the World According to Pixar

Tis the eve of our final final (approximately 11pm when I stared writing this), and throughout the b-school campus, not a mouse is stirring. Well, that’s not entirely true – many MBA’s are out at the final FOAM of the season held at some club in Palo Alto.

As for Sloans, we have our final final exam tomorrow morning, our very last bit of academic nonsense (er, rather, I mean our last serious academic endeavor) during our Sloan year: the HR final exam. The HR class (as per my past post) is one of two Sloan required classes in our final quarter.

Today was officially our last day of class at the GSB, but like many Sloans, I didn’t have any classes today. While many of us were busy studying for our final tomorrow, I took a trip up to San Francisco to wander around a little bit.

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Our other Sloan required class, Non Market Strategy, had a professor who decided to give us our final exam last Thursday. In hindsight this seemed like a brilliant move, because it allowed us to enjoy the beautiful late May/early June weather without stressing about academics last weekend.

This also meant that two of my courses were officially finished last Thursday (the required class, Non Market Strategy, and my elective class, The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry through literature).

Yesterday (Monday, June 1st) I had my last session of the Leadership Entertainment Industry class (more on this, including our visit to Pixar and the visit of David E. Kelly later). Which means three out of four classes are done, and in less than 12 hours, my academic experience at the Stanford Sloan program will be complete!

As I sit here, I should be cramming for this final exam in HR, I can’t help but reflect what an odd class ithe HR class been. In this class, doing data regression about HR was often emphasized more than actual HR strategy, and cases that we wrote about our co-workers companies seemed much more interesting than the “official cases” from Harvard and Stanford Business School that we were supposed to be learning from. Oh well, learning from our peers has been one of the keys to making business school worthwhile, so I guess this shouldn’t’ surprise me!

Ethics and Morality in Business?

One component of the our Non-Market Strategy class that came up over the past few weeks was the “ethics” component. Despite being a little philosophically abstract (Kantian vs. Utilitarian, anyone? I think I’d rather debate Tastes Great vs. Less Filling!), there was some valuable self-reflection this class forced us to do, at least for a few minutes.

In the wide world, MBA’s aren’t generally perceived to have any ethics, really. Just a constant stream of number-crunchers coming out of business schools who calculate the path to maximum profits with the least weighted average cost of capital, and always recommend the path of most borrowing at the least interest rate, regardless of the long term consequences.

Case in point: our recent financial crisis.

Well, I can’t really argue that this isn’t what business school teaches us. It actually is, for the most part, what we learn in our finance classes. But, there are bright spots of moral reflection in our other classes too, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

In our Non-market class, we were presented with some ethical dilemmas and asked our opinion.

Our professor called it Trolley-ology. A trolley is coming down the track and it is very likely to kill 5 people who are on the track. You have the option to change the track the trolley is on, to another track where only one person will get killed.

What do you do?

OK next step. Forget about the second track. Suppose you are on a bridge overlooking the trolley that is rolling towards killing 5 people. There is one person on the bridge with you. You could push that person off the bridge, which would kill them, but would stop the trolley, and with certainty save the lives of the 5 people down the road.

What would you do now?

Hmmm. If you’re like me, I don’t know that these hypothetical ethical dilemmas about Trolleys really impact our day to day decision in the business world, however much they do help illuminate how we think about ethical issues.

I’m sure that most MBA’s who were involved with institutions that spear-headed the financial crisis (as well as earlier excesses like Enron and Worldcom) probably had ethics classes like this one, but it’s not clear that they did any good.

More interesting and impactful on my long term view though, was my Moral and Spiritual Inquiry Through Literature class. This class, which was taught in seminar format, put a much more textured and personalized spin on these kinds of moral dilemmas.

By reading a fictional story (a novel a week, mind you) of a character who, for example, is staunchly anti-corruption at the beginning of the novel, but succumbs to taking a bribe by the end of the novel, we move beyond platitudes and abstract philosophy and hopefully gain some insight into human nature.

When Ivan Ilyich, described as a career corporate ladder climber in mercilessly accurate prose by Tolstoy, is about to die prematurely and reflects on what was missing from his materially oriented life, it’s not much of a stretch to see the comparison between this late 19th century Ruppy (Russian upwardly mobile professional) and the corporate climbing business school student of the twenty first century!

By being forced to discuss the nature of ethics and the role of religion and spirituality in our lives (and our work), we get, I think, to a much more personalized view of how we as human beings with vying impulses including greed and self-sufficiency might act in a materially obsessed world.

Moreover, by writing a 4000 word essay on how these books had an impact on my own views on morality and spirituality in the business world, I was forced to think through these issues at a deeper level than even trolleys would allow.

For those of my readers who wonder why I’m taking a class on Literature in Business School, I can only say that I wish everyone who had gotten an MBA over the past 10-20 years had to take this class (Moral and Spiritual Inquiry Through Literature), since it’s taught me more about reflecting on what’s important in life and business than all of my other classes combined.

The Law Acccording to Pixar

As always, I like to write about my Entertainment Industry class. Why? Not only because it’s a fun class, but because everyone likes the movies.

Last week, we went on a class visit to Pixar, which is, as we’ve learned the only major studio which has not had a box office failure. The visit was very eye-opening, not just because there statues of one-eyed monsters in the lobby (from Monsters, Inc), but because it made me (and the rest of the class) think about creativity, business, and the importance of modifying stories (whether in business or entertainment) until we get them right.

Pixar is a very creativity driven place. This comes across from the conversations we had with the CFO of Pixar, and from Andrew Stanton, who was the writer on the Toy Story movies, and the writer/director of Finding Nemo and Wall-e.

The first thing that strikes you when you walk into Pixar these days is that it’s all about one film: Up, the new movie that was just released this last weekend. I loved this movie, and it looks like it’s going to be a commercial success, despite analysts ravings that a movie about “a grumpy old man and a fat kid” has limited market appeal and no toy merchandising possibilities.

The thing about this focus is that for much of its history (going back to Toy Story) the folks at Pixar focused almost exclusively on one film. This is contrary to what we learn at business school and contrary to what almost every major studio in Hollywood says – that you need a diversified portfolio of films every year because you never know which of them are going to be successful.

But, as Andrew described to us their process – it can take 4-5 years to produce a Pixar film, one of their reasons for this success became apparent. Pixar is a mixture of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs was the CEO and investor for many years, and Pixar grew out of Lucasfilm, and was a technology company for most of it’s life). They focus incessantly on the story for the first 2.5 years of this time – recording the whole film using hand drawn sketches and only when/if they get the story right, do they invest in the very costly 3d animation for which they are known.

They also allow for a certain amount of honest creative tension. While the director has the final say, the Pixar brain trust watches early screenings (of hand-drawn sketches with employee-recorded voices) and they “duke it out” with each other for ideas on how to make the story better. According to Stanton, after some painful disputes, they almost always emerged with a better story, which really has been the key to Pixar’s success I think. I could continue writing about Pixar forever, since it's such an interesting company, but will have to leave it at that!

We also had David E. Kelley visit our Entertainment Industry class. He was the creator of such hit television legal dramas as The Practice, Ally McBeal, and the more recent Boston Legal.

I won’t say much about his visit, except that it was also very insightful about the creative process in general and how television works in particular. Two things he said that surprised me?
1) that James Spader didn’t want to work with William Shatner at the beginning of Boston legal (though this changed quickly when they started working together), and
2) the head of the TV network programming (I think it was ABC) thought that the show ‘Lost’ was the “biggest piece of shit” he’d ever seen and he only let it go on the air because he had to contractually (the same executive later happily took credit for what became one of the biggest successes in the networks history).

Sign Off: The Last Entry

This is probably my last entry of the Sloan academic year in this blog. It’s been great fun writing this blog, even when it’s done in the middle of the night before an important exam.

I’d like to remind everyone for posterity that these have been my own personal impressions and rants of a thirty-something software entrepreneur who decided to go back to school and relive his high-school dream of attending Stanford University.

Several of next year’s Sloan’s have told me that they heard about the program or decided to join the Sloan program at Stanford because of my blog (or maybe it was despite my blog?? – just kidding!). For those of you who’ve been reading it regulary, I thank you and feel free to drop me a note any time.

From now on, I’ll be heading back to the world of work, dipping my toe in Venture Capital, and continuing to work on my organization, BayView Labs.

As for the blog, I’m going to go back to writing about entrepreneurship, zen, personal growth, and of course, the movies!

So what did I learn about succeeding in the business world in business school?

Well, speaking of the movies, perhaps the best way to sum up what I learned in business school is also in fact the best way to sum up my class about the Entertainment Industry.

This line, which was quoted to us by both David E. Kelley and our professor (Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Bill Guttentag), was from the book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, by William Goldman.

Goldman summed up his own experiences in Hollywood with the very simple line: “Nobody knows anything!”

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Anonymous Nikki said...

Thanks Riz, I read every entry you wrote. I enjoyed understanding your perspective of our same course. Very often it completely jived with mine and sometimes it gave me a whole new perspective.

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Very insightful series of posts from a very insightful guy. This was great, thanks - enjoyed it all. - jill

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