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

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