With 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.
Strategies 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:
Inflate 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.
Where’s the plug? After inflating, students look for a plug. The instructor waits a few seconds and takes 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.
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.
This 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.
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…
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).
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:
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
The decision by a chemical company to use local safety standards in its different markets, which is completely legal,
The decision to sell skin whitening creams in countries in India by large multinational companies,
Provision of significantly discounted or couponed milk products for newborns,
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 →
Managing change is given little time in most strategy courses. We often understate how difficult strategic change actually is and then wonder why organizations struggle so much with implementation (and our students think its all common sense). You can think of it as walking blindfolded on a tightrope between two solid foundations. During the transition, there is great uncertainty about whether the desired path is attainable. This, of course, is another way of looking at Lewin’s unfreeze/change/refreeze model. This video can help to illustrate the issue:
The $104B merger between AB InBev and SABMiller makes a great holiday addition to your classroom. While it is largely a corporate strategy question, I used this discussion to kick off my course and I plan to come back to it as we hit various topics. Here is a packet of news articles that I used as the basis of the case. I also had students complete a brief online poll in advance of the class. This allowed me to start by summarizing their positions and to call on people who I knew had relatively unusual opinions. I used the case to show them how to draw a decision tree (click the image to enlarge) reflecting the uncertainty associated with the acquisition. Of course, it also frames topics throughout the course. Here are a few examples:
Internal capabilities. AB InBev’s capability to conduct acquisitions and to cut costs.
External analysis. Market structure for beer in different countries (namely Africa and China which drive this deal). Also, we compared the market structure for micro- and macro-brews. Of course, these mega-brews act to control distribution channels so barriers to entry are a key part of the game.
Competitive dynamics. Of course this is a game among the rivals but it also includes adjacent industries (like spirits).
Corporate. What are the logics for value creation? For example, to what extent does scale lower manufacturing costs as opposed to purchasing power or other mechanisms. At what point is a larger scale no longer an advantage?
Strategic factor markets: The M&A context makes it clear that most of the synergies go to the target (especially at the 50% bid premium).
Global. As indicated above, this is mostly about entry into new markets (China and Africa, among others).
Pivoting from one strategy to another is essential for entrepreneurial firms but also for more established firms operating in a dynamic environment (see other materials on dynamic capabilities on this site). The video below can stimulate a conversation on what it takes to pivot (both in entrepreneurial and established contexts). Of course, its also moderately entertaining…
Rather than fully embed superior design capabilities in organizational routines, Apple has instead identified and promoted Jony Ive into the design guru role once occupied by Steve Jobs. Ive “worked closely with the late co-founder Steve Jobs, who called Mr Ive his spiritual partner on products stretching back to the iMac.” As before, the reliance on a single person in this role raises key questions: An article published in the New Yorker earlier this year described how “Mr Ive had been describing himself as both ‘deeply, deeply tired‘ and ‘always anxious’ and said he was uncomfortable knowing that ‘a hundred thousand Apple employees rely on his decision-making – his taste – and that a sudden announcement of his retirement would ambush Apple shareholders.‘” Can this be described as an organizational capability? An organizational routine? A dynamic capability? Does it matter that the capability is largely embedded in a single person who is not an owner? All good questions to kick off a nice class discussion…
Contributed by Russ Coff
American Eagle Outfitters has shown strength among teens at a time when hipster Abercrombie & Fitch is struggling (see this WSJ article for details). The company credited their “Don’t Ask Why” collection in part for its 3% increase in revenue. They referred to the collection a cost-effective “testing lab” to spot trends. By experimenting with new fabrics, washes and styles, they believe they can gauge which styles are gaining favor and add them to the regular collection. American Eagle said the process was key to turning around the company’s tops business, which is now one of the best-performing segments. For example, one of the trends is to abandon the logo covered clothing that was popular in the 1990s. For class, this might make a discussion of dynamic capabilities much more tangible than the academic literature has so far achieved. How do they do it? Does this confer an advantage? If so, to what extent is it sustainable? Of course, this is also an opportunity to bring research into the classroom. For example, one might have students discuss whether this example looks more like Eisenhardt & Martin’s view or dynamic capabilities or those of Teece, Helfat, Peteraf, Winter or others (even Coff had something to say about this ;-).
Dave Kryscynski has provided an excellent series of online videos to supplement your course or to help move portions of it online. These are very well produced and may allow you to spend class time on more experiential activities found elsewhere on this site. Below is the video on Porter’s generic strategies but I have provided links to all of the available videos below and listed others that you can gain access to through Wiley.
In this video, Henry Mintzberg presents the story behind the classic Honda B case. That is, when Honda tried to enter the traditional US motorcycle market with large machines but ran into implementation problems that pushed it toward introducing small bikes through non-traditional distribution channels. As a result of their pivots, they were able to create a new market for smaller bikes in the US. This was a startling contrast to the “A” case which implied that the strategy was intentional from the start.
This interview with the founders of Justin.tv and Twitch presents an example of how founders shift their strategy in the face of feedback from customers, and emerging opportunities. They started Justin.tv to broadcast their lives, but soon discovered that people really wanted to watch gaming. This interview describes how they pivoted. In a strategy class, this illustrates intended vs. emergent strategies as well as the need for entrepreneurs to pivot off of initial ideas. There is also an interesting discussion of how technology has helped to make gaming and poker into competitive sports. You may think these guys are crazy, but Amazon paid $1 Billion for Twitch. The video goes on (@ 19 min) to discuss their involvement with Y-Combinator which provided seed capital. Warning: around 13:45 there is discussion of mature content that some students may find inappropriate.
Contributed by Susana Velez-Castrillon
A useful way to introduce the topic of leadership is to understand how leaders differ from managers. The “Vision Thing” exercise is designed to help students distinguish the activities of leaders and managers in a fun and engaging manner. The exercise involves creating a three-tiered hierarchical structure. One person is the CEO, another is the manager, and a third is the employee. The CEO prepares a vision statement in advance and works with the manager to determine how to translate the vision to a tangible “product” using the toy construction set. The manager then guides the employee on building the “product.” The process is iterative in nature—the manager can communicate with the CEO and employee as often as necessary. But there is a finite amount of time available to implement the vision. Once the exercise is complete the team comes together to examine how close the team came to implementing the CEO’s vision. The learning objectives are:
To understand the distinct, yet complementary roles of leaders and managers
To appreciate the challenges involved in articulating a vision
To learn the difference between a vision and a strategy
This Onion video illustrates some … um … interesting strategies one might apply in job interviews. While the strategies portrayed are entertaining, there is a key point hidden behind the humor: Analyzing a company’s strategy might help students ask questions that set them apart from other job candidates. Here is a 6-step “listicle” by Google’s HR executive on how to prepare for an interview. Getting a job could be turned into a class exercise that helps students see how the strategy content might be useful right away (as opposed to waiting until they are CEOs). For any case, consider a range of recruiter questions that convey a deeper understanding of a company’s strategy. For example, a good question for Apple might reveal an understanding of the nature and extent of their competitive advantage as well as strategic challenges: “How does Apple’s culture of creative product design extend to less creative jobs like sales and service?” or “How does Apple create a sense of urgency among employees to respond to rivals like Samsung?” Many of the key strategy frameworks can be applied to generate such probing questions:
5 forces/Industry analysis might help you understand the market position & efforts to increase buyer switching costs. This might include marketing or operations efforts to get closer to customers (customer intimacy). Probing questions along these lines convey that you understand strategic issues in the industry.
VRINE/Internal analysis might help identify key resources to leverage (e.g., Apple example above). If culture is a critical resource, one might ask questions about how they develop and maintain it.
STAR framework might help to identify levers to develop and maintain a valuable culture or, for example, coordination across units (e.g., MicroTech negotiation). Thus, one could probe into hiring, reward systems, structure, and processes to understand how they achieve these capabilities.
“Four C” framework might be useful if alliances are a key component of the firm’s strategy (outsourcing, R&D, etc.). How do they find partners with congruent goals? How do they managing the changing relationship over time? End game?
There are lots of cases, exercises, & simulations dealing with making strategic decisions, but few that deal with execution. Since implementation is a major hurdle for achieving a successful strategy, this can leave an important gap in the traditional strategy course. Bill Judge created this simulation dealing with strategy execution of an organization-wide strategic change. The product, developed in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing, is a single-player, online simulation that can be played over the internet or in the classroom. The student plays the role of a change agent trying to convince other managers to adopt the proposed green strategy. There are social networks embedded among them that are only revealed as stakeholders are interviewed (one of the 18 “levers” in the game). They, in turn, convince others based on their social ties. The simulation allows you to “play” in four scenarios that alter the change agent’s power (CEO vs. R&D director) and urgency (an opportunity to expand vs. the risk of losing the firm’s largest customer). This is a good vehicle to introduce notions of power and influence, human capital, readiness for change, leadership challenges, dynamic capabilities, balancing financial and social imperatives, and the organization and environment interface. The cost of the simulation is nominal if you are playing it within an academic institution (about the cost of 4 HBS cases). If you would like to explore this further, please click here and check it out. You can check out how it works since there is a video and preview available. If you have comments, questions, or suggestions, please email Bill Judge here.
Of course entrepreneurs need to anticipate when to pivot off of their initial plans (same applies to larger firms but it’s harder). This silly video drives home the need to pivot lest you run up against a wall. You might then follow up with some examples of first movers who had the business model almost right but failed to pivot (firms like MySpace, LinkedIn, AOL, Yahoo).