Free Money … No Takers?

FreeMoneyEntrepreneurship students often think they’ve found a “no brainer” idea – one that everyone “obviously” will want. We’ve all seen it before – an idea that is so good that it requires zero dollars for customer acquisition because word of mouth and social media will lead to infinite sales, virtually overnight.

Here’s an exercise that may help open students eyes to just how hard it can be to sell something. Even something as wonderful as their idea. Give each student group five single dollar bills. Ask them to develop a plan for giving away the dollar bills to strangers, in a public place. Have them develop a business plan that includes a target audience, script, etc. Giving away free money is harder than it appears! And if it’s hard to give away dollar bills, it will also be hard to get the attention of customers even for a “no brainer” idea. This exercise comes from the following video which might be assigned after the exercise as part of the debriefing.

Contributed by Susan Cohen

Tom Petty & the Perils of Strategic Alliances

AllianceFourCStrategic Alliances don’t make the news the way M&A do so some may struggle for examples. It is especially helpful to make students aware that, while Alliances may be less risky than M&A, there are still risks that need to be analyzed. Tom Petty provided a useful example to apply the “Four C” alliance framework. Like many musicians, he signed a contract with a record label before he made it. He and ABC had Complementary capabilities needed to develop and promote hits. Initially, they had Congruent Goals in that their interests were aligned to make the band a hit. Organizationally, they were Compatible in that they were able to coordinate effectively. What Petty failed to anticipate was how things would Change over the course of their agreement. By their 3rd album, he felt that the arrangement was so unfair that he tried to back out of the agreement claiming that ABC had no right to sell the contract to MCA. Ultimately, he only got out of it by declaring bankruptcy. The song, Refugee captures the anger he felt over how he was treated by the record companies and offers a nice lead in to the discussion. This also brings out a discussion of bargaining power and how it may change over time.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Jeopardy 2017: Updated Course Closer

JeopardyWhat is the best way to close out a course? The current gamification trend suggests updating some tried and true methods. Below is a classic Toolbox post on how to turn the last day into a game of Jeopardy. However, MBA students at the University of South Florida have recently updated it with a very slick PowerPoint version that is really worth checking out. Since the file has macros, you will need to download it and run it in PowerPoint (can’t be viewed otherwise). The categories and questions can be edited in PowerPoint. The students read Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy and turned the key points into Jeopardy questions. They then used buzzers (below) and the file above to run a Jeopardy-based class exercise. (Thanks so much to Erwin Danneels and his students, Pranali Panjwani, Elliott Parker, Blesson Mullappally, Saharsh Kislaya, Bikash Patra, for sharing).

89c1ac36-e750-4a0f-a42e-8eccd5e54a2c_1-5ae0247df31b71a1396c2e2e65660ca1If you want to add some spice to this exercise, you might get a set of buzzers that contestants can use to get control of the board. Here is a link for a reasonably priced set of buzzers on Amazon.

This can also be done in a lower tech manner by using a white board for the categories and dollar amounts.  One can also have Daily Doubles and a final Jeopardy question.  The ‘prize’ might be that the winning team gets extra class participation points for that day. Alternatively, one might find other meaningful prizes to distribute.

Here is another take at Jeopardy Questions in a word file. As you can see, they are a mix of course ideas and fun topics. For the category ‘Before and After’ (which is the hardest), the instructor would display the question on a projector so students could read and think about it (otherwise one can just read the questions).

Submarines, Electric Cars and Corporate Scope

SubIt’s been a red letter week in terms of the business combination scavenger hunt. In addition to Dyson entering electric cars, now we see Aston Martin going into the submarine business. These are both serious ventures. Dyson has had 400 staff members working on this project for over two years and expects to bring a product to market in 2020. One can’t resist wondering if it will really suck (I know, vacuum humor isn’t in vogue — if it ever was)…

More seriously, Dyson is a private company and so won’t face as much market pressure to explain why/how the business portfolio creates value. Also, while most of us are more familiar with their vacuum business, they are a diversified manufacturing company. This includes supplying inputs for the automobile industry among others. One might argue that they have more complementary assets to produce electric cars than Tesla had when they first started. But still…

Aston Martin’s effort is also serious. It’s worth noting that, unlike Dyson, they plan to do this with a partner, Triton Submarines, that is already a player in the luxury submarine market.

Drawing on the Strategy Diamond framework, a vehicle is the mode used to acquire resources needed to enter a new market. In this context, why would Dyson use organic growth to enter electric cars while Aston Martin forms a strategic alliance to enter submarines? In each case, the firm lacks important resources needed to enter. One might apply Capron & Mitchell’s Resource Pathway’s Framework. This could lead one to conclude that Dyson is overestimating the relevance of its internal resources (to go without a partner). In the case of Aston Martin, since their partner has all the capabilities needed to produce the product, the main asset that Aston Martin brings is their brand. This may be useful to court customers who are James Bond fans — Perhaps not the largest market segment among those seeking submarines.

Meanwhile, Ikea just acquired TaskRabbit — presumably a bid to vertically integrate into assembling the furniture they sell in kits.

These efforts do not necessarily restore one’s confidence in managers’ abilities to make reasoned decisions about the scope of the firm.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Does the Term “Core Competence” Destroy Value?

CoreCompSoul1The term “core competence” has taken hold in the business world. Not many academic terms break through to common usage so this might be viewed as a tremendous success. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that it is particularly useful with the modified practitioner definition. As it is commonly used, it seems to mean “stuff the firm is pretty good at.” Unlike Prahalad and Hamel’s original article, common usage does not suggest that these capabilities: necessarily confer value in the eyes of customers over what rivals can produce, are hard to imitate, or that they are especially relevant in a corporate (multi-business) context.

Stripped of these defining characteristics, is the term useful?

As it is commonly used, the term can help firms distinguish what they are relatively good at from things that they are not. This is akin to a simple business unit-level internal analysis that identifies strengths and weaknesses. While it is important for firms to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, by not comparing the strengths to rivals, we cannot infer whether the firm has a competitive advantage or how long such an advantage might last. It could even reflect a competitive disadvantage if rivals are superior in those areas. As a mode of internal analysis, the common usage doesn’t really go beyond SWOT analysis, which itself is woefully inadequate as a form of analysis.

When practitioners use the term core competence, it is often preceded by the words “stick to your…” That is, the firm should understand what they are good at and avoid straying from strengths. Of course, acquiring a new competence should be an important strategic decision – not to be taken lightly. However, the traditional advice seems to miss the mark if it implies that firms should avoid such decisions altogether. Classic examples of railroads, radio broadcasting, or, more recently, Toys ‘R’ Us illustrate how sticking to one’s knitting is not always the best strategy.

In short, as an internal analysis tool, the common usage of the term core competence does not add much value – certainly not relative to other internal analysis tools like value chain and VRIO analysis.

How do multi-business firms create value?   Continue reading

Market Entry: A Fish Story

When there is a new lucrative opportunity, a small number of firms may exploit it initially. However, if the opportunity is visible to others and the entry barriers are low, the market will soon be swamped. This short video illustrates this vividly (best w/sound off):

Contributed by Russ Coff

Get Out the Vote … In Class

VotingArrows-smWhen leading a case discussion, wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what positions students were prepared to defend? You want to bring people into the conversation who you know will have diverse perspectives to bring about a balanced discussion. Idie Kesner has a great low tech solution to your problem. Create arrow tents that can be reversed so they can display either up or down arrows (see the picture to the right). You can see instantly who is in favor or opposed to the strategic move proposed in a case. The instructor can call on people with an idea of what perspective they will bring in and/or encourage debate between students who have different positions. Here is a a template for the Student Voting Arrows (2 arrows/page).

IMG_20170915_171852A related innovation is tents that display the letters A through D. This can be used for cases that offer up to 5 alternatives that students might vote for (a,b,c,d, and no tent). Here is a template for the “a through d” student voting table tent. This must be folded lengthwise first to select the appropriate letter and then widthwise so the letter is displayed as a table tent (visible from both sides).

Contributed by Idie Kesner

Amazon Eats Whole Foods

amazonwholefoodsWith its $13.7B bid, Amazon agreed to pay a 27% premium over Whole Foods’ previous market valuation. This makes for a nice live case case in your strategy classroom. Was this a sound business decision? The market rewarded Amazon with an increase in its stock price. While some opportunities are apparent, it remains unclear exactly how Whole Foods will be worth 27% more to Amazon (and that’s just to break even). A five forces analysis will reveal that the grocery market is highly competitive with exceptionally thin margins — not an especially attractive industry to enter. So how can they win in this game? There are many possibilities that may come up in a discussion. For example, Amazon may:

  • Build online grocery sales, a tiny but growing portion of the industry.
  • Lower costs by applying automation technology and their supply chain expertise.
  • Use customer data to build sales through Amazon or to sell some higher margin “impulse” items at Whole Foods.
  • Leverage the market’s expectations that Amazon won’t pay dividends or post significant profit to lower prices and invest in the business.

Of course, these are highly speculative and carry significant risks. What is the likelihood that any of these will be achieved? Can Amazon manage change in such a large acquisition? Will other grocers make similar changes (or be bought out by tech companies with similar capabilities)? There is lots of fodder to discuss. Here is a packet of news articles that may be helpful. Also, I have prepared a spreadsheet to explore different scenarios for how this might play out where the starting point is Whole Foods’ recent financial performance (note that the decision tree requires the PrecisionTree Excel Add-in). Finally, here is a very brief poll to help assure that students come to class prepared and with an opinion on the deal.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Deflategate: Letting the air out of strategic planning

ballStrategies rarely work out as planned but somehow, students remain eternally hopeful that everything will go exactly as they expect. This experiential exercise allows students to “feel” Mintzberg’s (1994) critique of strategic planning. It also helps to illustrate and compare causation and effectuation decision-making logics (e.g., finding entrepreneurial opportunities). You can bring “Deflategate” (from the 2015 NFL season) to a classroom near you. The exercise proceeds as follows:

  1. Air pumpInflate ball & sit on it. Ask 2 volunteers to inflate a heavy duty inflatable ball using a small air pump (one can buy these a sport store) and try to sit on it afterwards for a minute. While introducing the exercise, the instructor should keep the plug hidden in her/his pocket. Inflating the ball is amusing (both the volunteers and the audience). It is not easy or quick to inflate the ball.
  2. Where’s the plug? After inflating, students look for a plug. The instructor waits a few seconds and plugtakes the plug out admitting that she/he had it all the time. The class will laugh. It may be frustrating for the volunteers but then we begin the debrief and explain the reason for the deception in the exercise.
  3. Debrief: According to Mintzberg, decision-makers (those who inflate the ball) expect everything will go smoothly according to what they planned but usually some unexpected circumstances occur that alter the plan’s effectiveness. Decision-makers cannot anticipate everything and the exercise drives this home and shifts focus to decision-makers’ bounded rationality. It is quite rare that students will look for a plug before doing the exercise (though it happens on occasion). One might move from here to discuss innovation, business models and disruptive innovation.

Other related toolbox exercises that demonstrate the challenge of predicting outcomes and implementing effectively include the Tinkertoy Exercise, the Strategy Puzzle, and the Paper fight. There are also some materials under the topic of scenario planning.

Contributed by Piotr WÓJCIK

Failure: The sequel

learning-failuretosuccessThis is another in our series of explorations in learning from failure (and learning from success). The Swedish Museum of Failures reminds us of some of the most spectacular product failures. Interestingly, most of them can be closely linked to some spectacular product successes. A complete failure may be a near miss. Perhaps a slight pivot away from extreme success. This video offers a window into some of the more interesting exhibits in the museum. One might ask students to review the video and imagine how a well-placed pivot might have helped each failure turn the corner. This might also fit with some of the toolbox posts on pivoting.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Hollywood Breaks Into China

20151017_wbc183.pngHow do firms modify their products so they will be well-received in the most promising global markets? Case in point: Hollywood’s biggest movies are being subtly reworked to appeal to Chinese audiences. Since, that market may soon outstrip the U.S. to become the most lucrative movie audience in the world (see chart). Movies like Warcraft and Now You See Me 2 have been huge successes in China even though their domestic performance has lagged. Why? The Warcraft cast features Daniel Wu, a very bright star in China, who may have been unrecognizable as the orc Gul’dan, but his promotional efforts were important to the film’s success. Similarly, Now You See Me director, Jon M. Chu, cast star Jay Chou and filmed a portion of the movie in the Chinese region of Macau. The movie industry is a great example of product design for market entry. The following video frames it nicely for students interested in addressing barriers to market entry.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Angry Shareholders Sacrifice Donkey

StockholderFluDartShareholder activism is often identified as a mechanism to discipline managers and keep them focused on value creation for investors. An NPR story reports that shareholders in a zoo near Shanghai, frustrated that they weren’t making a profit on their investment, fed a live donkey to zoo tigers as a form of protest. At a shareholders meeting they voted in favor of feeding the donkey to the tigers to express their anger. Their objections center on the zoo’s debts and legal troubles. For two years, the investors said the venture has not been profitable. The video of the event has stoked public outrage and condemnation. While this is a rather unusual example of shareholder activism, it may spur some fruitful discussion in class. One of the interesting elements of this action is that the Corporate Social Responsibility literature would lead us to expect that investors have idiosyncratic preferences and will make trade-offs on returns (see this article by Mackey, Mackey & Barney). For example, one might expect that investors in a zoo would be willing to trade off financial returns to care for animals. A protest of poor profitability that hurts an animal seems especially unlikely. Yet there is is. As the cartoon implies, there are other ways for investors to protest…

Contributed by Russ Coff

Moving Mountains on a Rugged Landscape

Strategies rarely come together as the plan would have suggested. The unexpected could come externally, from shifts in the marketplace, or internally, as the pieces don’t come together as intended. This video depicts the unexpected — a massive falling boulder crashing down on the road in front of a car (and almost hitting the car in front). This may trigger a discussion of sources of uncertainty and how to address them in a planning process. It might also be used to set the stage for the Tinkertoy exercise or other scenario planning materials. The first 30 seconds should do the trick…

Contributed by Russ Coff

Bride of Frankenwatch: An RBV story

WatchThe Financial Times reports that in 2010, a Heuer Autavia Reference 2446, a popular driver’s chronograph of the 1960s, was sold for £5,400. But late in 2016, Christie’s achieved $125,000 for an identical watch. Valuable and rare resources are heavily sought after. This also creates a strong incentive to imitate. Enter “Frankenwatches.” Enterprising individuals have been able to cobble together watches from vintage spare parts that can be convincing. This has bread mistrust in the market and increased the value of market mechanisms (e.g., prim auction houses) that can certify authenticity. Then, there is also a market for known fakes (if they are done well). Ultimately, this demonstrates valuable and rare resources as well as imperfect imitation. Perfect for watch affectionados and students of the resource based view. The Financial Times article is a good (and timely) reading to prime a classroom discussion of strategic resources and attempts to imitate.

Contributed by Russ Coff (H/T Nicolai Foss)

Exercise: Lie Detector

dishonestyAre there cultural norms for telling the truth? Recent research by David Hugh-Jones suggests that this may be the case. In his coin flip experiment, respondents were asked to get a coin ready. On the next screen, they were asked to flip the coin and report the result. They were also informed that they would receive an incentive (either $3 or $5) if they reported “heads.” As such, respondents who flipped “tails” had to choose between telling the truth and receiving the money. This experiment allows honesty to be estimated at an aggregate level, by comparing the proportion reporting heads in any group to the 50% proportion expected. The figure above shows how the results for honest reporting differed by country. You may be able to repeat a version of this in your class. You may note that another coin flip exercise is recommended in the toolbox to explore luck and entrepreneurial success. You might run this in an earlier class with no incentive and record the proportion of people that report heads on each round. Then, in a class on ethics (or global strategy), repeat the exercise with an incentive ($20 should be enough). See if the proportions of heads reported differ. It may be that the class setting affords enough monitoring that cheating is not observed. Also, a large sample (100 or so per group) would generally be required to find significant differences in honesty. Even so, you can still present the results of the study (and, perhaps, argue that your class is more honest than average subjects in their country). You could also try to duplicate the lack of monitoring in the experiment by having students flip a coin at home or online and report the result. As such, there might be reasons to have students do this exercise outside of class and discuss the results in class.

Contributed by Aya Chacar and Russ Coff

Trump’s Taiwan Move: The Strategic Value of “Crazy”

Most of the media has chalked up President Elect Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, as driven by inexperience and/or a willingness to ignore prior policy. Indeed, the call has certainly sparked ire from the China and raised concerns of increasing tension. A recent WSJ article notes that it may have been an intentional and calculated move. However, this move is likely to have a completely different meaning coming from Trump. He has expressed a willingness to consider drastic/risky solutions and it may be more likely that China will ultimately blink. In a game of chicken, his reputation may be a distinct advantage over the more calculating reputations of prior presidents. Consider Thomas Schelling’s concept of the “rationality of irrationality.” In a game of chicken, a driver who appears crazy enough to prefer dying over chickening out will enjoy an advantage. In this context, it may be rational to convince rivals that one is actually irrational. Game theory can seem inaccessible when it is only presented using abstract examples (though Dilbert can help there), this offers a concrete example that may bring it to life for the students. Perhaps ironically, this post mirrors one that was posted here two years ago regarding Vladimir Putin’s strategy. Of course, it is worth noting that the game of chicken can also end very badly…

Contributed by Russ Coff

Trumped up Strategy Class

This isn’t the first time polls have been wrong. The election of Donald Trump was a shock to many college students (as well as the press) and this may warrant some class time. Some instructors responded by providing space for students to express their feelings and this may be within the scope of the educational objectives for some classes. For a strategy class, a more relevant focus might be to examine the implications of the outcome for business strategies or to examine the campaigns from a strategic perspective. This might be considered as a template for how to discuss other sudden world events in the strategy classroom. Here are some takes on how to bring the election in while still emphasizing the pedagogical objectives of a strategy course:

  • Project case scenario analyses (Aya Chacar). Scenario analysis is designed to unearth factors that affect the efficacy of a given strategy. In a global context, country risk is a central factor in assessing strategic alternatives. In class, students discussed the likely impact of the election on the companies their teams are studying. Can you help the company? What do you think “could” be the impact on the companies under the new American administration -based on stated positions or past behavior? The companies they chose to study in this class are Amazon, Auchan, Didi Chuxing, General Motors, Naver, Uber, Volkswagen, and Walmart. All already have major international presence with some but not all having significant operations in China, Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, SouthEast Asia and the US.
  • Entrepreneurship/Opportunity Recognition. The pollsters were all wrong. Often businesses and whole industries miss critical trends in consumer preferences and this probably means that there is unserved market space. Given trends that are now unearthed by the election, what market opportunities might there be for firms in various industries? One could use the project firms, cases you have done or specific firms that you think might be affected.
  • SWOT on campaigns (Peter Klein). While this framework is not preferred by most strategy scholars, it may raise some good points. A few examples from the Clinton campaign: O: demographics (e.g., increased Hispanic population, more socially tolerant electorate), unpopular opponent,chance to make history. T: middle-class concerns about economic inequality, backlash against political correctness, Clinton fatigue, incumbent fatigue, WikiLeaks. S: experience; support from major media, Wall Street, large corporations; ties to Obama and WJ Clinton; large staff of handlers; polish. W: experience; support from major media, Wall Street, large corporations; ties to Obama and WJ Clinton; large staff of handlers; polish.
  • Resources/Capabilities. Many of the campaign strengths turn out to be weaknesses depending on the context (experience, polish, support from corporations, etc.). What resources give a party a sustained advantage? What does “sustained” mean in this context? This might bring in a discussion of core rigidities and how once valuable resources can become critical weaknesses over time.
  • Disruptive Innovation (David Burkus). Clay Christensen described disruptive innovations as an innovation (typically from an outsider) that creates a new market and value network that eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leading firms, products and alliances. The Trump campaign might be viewed in this light as a disruptive strategy that overtook the conventional establishment.
  • PESTEL. Of course, this demonstrates the value/importance of looking outside of the industry for trends that may influence whether a given strategy will be effective or not. The PESTEL framework is a simple tool for bringing this in to the analysis (Political, Economic, Social Technological, Environmental, and Legal).
  • First 100 Days. Trump offered an ambitious list of things he planned to try and accomplish in the first 100 days. One can divide the list among groups and ask them to identify the implications of the policies for business in general or, preferably, for a specific firm/client.

Contributed by Russ Coff

Are Internal Capital Markets Better for Selfie Sticks?

Why isn’t the BCG matrix dead as a framework? I still consistently find that my students have been exposed to it (generally in Marketing). They don’t even understand that it is a framework for internal capital markets (where firms add value by serving as a source of funding) or that it is hopelessly flawed. It’s a dog, divest right away. If the sale generates cash, funnel it to any other management framework (even SWOT) and I’m sure it will create value.

Internal capital markets only create value when they perform better than external capital markets. Generally, this is because the parent company has better information than external markets about the business. I often describe how Big Pharma companies fund biotech startups — their inside knowledge of the science and downstream capabilities help them understand the potential. As such, their expertise and private information allows them to invest much more efficiently than external capital markets.

Peter Klein points out that capital markets also fail when secrecy is required to buy time to implement an entrepreneurial strategy. He points to the example of Yekutiel Sherman’s Kickstarter campaign. His phone case/selfie stick (or StikBox) was being sold on AliExpress in China by copycats before he had even raised money to take it to market. It has since spread to other outlets like eBay and even Sears. The public disclosure required for his Kickstarter campaign assured that he would not realize the gains from his idea. Here is the Kickstarter video. You might also check out a related post on stolen IP where Kramer’s idea for a scent is stolen by Calvin Klein (no relation to Peter)

Contributed by Russ Coff and Peter Klein

Ethics: Gautam Style

Gautam Ahuja won the 2016 BPS Irwin Outstanding Educator award. It became clear from student testimonials that the capstone ethics lecture was not just memorable, it was an emotional peak that few students (or teachers) ever reach. What follows is a brief description/outline of the lecture. While it certainly won’t do it justice, it may offer some important ideas for instructors to explore.

I have them debate an actual decision (that varies from year to year). Essentially, I pick some current significant and controversial business decision or event that is legal and ideally, morally ambiguous, or even amoral (not immoral), at least apriori, and then foster a discussion on its pros and cons. This reveals much deeper fundamental issues. To illustrate I have used the following in different years:

  1. The decision by banks to award bonuses to traders for being on the “correct” side of the financial crisis deals in the years following the Lehman collapse
  2. The decision by a chemical company to use local safety standards in its different markets, which is completely legal,
  3. The decision to sell skin whitening creams in countries in India by large multinational companies,
  4. Provision of significantly discounted or couponed milk products for newborns,
  5. The federal reserves decision to keep interest rates low for the last x years
    and so on…

I then try and get them to debate this and, almost invariably, there emerge two sides to the issue. However what is interesting is that three other factors usually emerge: A) the problem is much deeper and more morally ambiguous than you thought, B) reflexive reversion to standard MBA, theories frameworks and concepts often leads to very flawed decisions ( in a good session an amazing large number of people change their initial decision), and C) In fact using the framework is itself part of the problem. Continue reading

Will Mitchell on Industry Analysis (5 Forces + 3 more)

Will presents his 5 forces plus 3 more framework. In the video, he discussed the standard 5 forces framework but adds the following 3 critical elements that are left out of the five forces: Complementors, Social forces, and new strategies. Complementors are organizations that provide complementary products or services to an industry (e.g., cases for iPhones). New strategies refer mostly to rivals who are pursuing distinct strategies that may alter the fundamental way that firms compete in the industry. Social forces refer to the customer values and norms that may affect their preferences and thus, their willingness to pay. In short, these additions may serve to unpack factors that drive change in the five forces over time in an industry. Here is the video:

Contributed by Will Mitchell