The Alphabet Soup exercise was posted here earlier as a general exercise to flesh out the impact of cognitive traps when applying frameworks. This focuses students to think about how frameworks, while valuable, could lead them astray as they try to analyze complex problems. A special application of this lesson is in the discussion of the problem of Architectural Innovation (see Henderson and Clark, ASQ 1990). That is, when firms are very familiar with a set of components, a small change in how they interact may create a very difficult adaptation challenge. Here, the letters in the alphabet are the components and a simple priming tool gets people focused on how these components relate. This exercise is very easy to run and makes the point powerfully how such cognitive frames may prevent people from reaching obvious solutions.
As Netflix’s strategy unfolds it becomes clearer the extent to which it threatens traditional media companies. Initially, Netflix was a welcome partner who paid for access to older entertainment assets – new income streams for studios. More recently they have developed new content and lure top talent away from traditional media companies. Now, by offering a compelling portfolio of options, they compete more directly against traditional media companies. AT&T, Comcast, Fox, and Disney have taken notice of Netflix’s increasingly vertically integrated business model that bypasses traditional distributors (cable, DSL, satellite) and doesn’t rely on advertising revenue. The new model is driving mega mergers & bidding wars as rivals try to build compelling portfolios to offer streaming services. This is a great live case to frame many strategic management course topics including:
- What is strategy? I use the Strategy Diamond and Netflix is a great case to look at things like staging and pacing, vehicles, and arenas.
- Market structure – How attractive is the media industry and how has this streaming model affected industry profitability
- Resources/Capabilities – Rivals lack some resources and some of their substantial existing resources have become “core rigidities” that hinder adaptation
- Competitive dynamics – What strategic moves can we observe? How will Netflix respond?
- Disruptive innovation – Netflix started as a limited low-cost alternative but added features that eventually made it a significant threat to incumbents.
- Corporate strategy – The billions rivals spent on M&A are another critical angle. This also provides a vehicle to discuss when vertical integration creates value.
I have assembled some useful materials to frame a discussion of this case. First, the case can be taught using a series of recent news articles (sample article pack). In addition, I have prepared a spreadsheet to explore scenarios for how various events might affect the value of Netflix. For instance, what would happen to its business model if the market started to value the company as a traditional media company as opposed to a tech firm? Similarly, what will happen if rivals’ M&A strategies succeed and pose a critical challenge? Finally, here is a link to a sample pre-class survey to help students think about the strategic issues before class.
Contributed by Russ Coff
Some fear that eventually and robots will be able to do anything that humans can — better. Many have hailed the dangers of artificial intelligence to society (see Stephan Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, etc.). Hundreds of millions of jobs would be affected. Trillions of dollars of wealth created (and captured by whom?). These are the potential impacts of a coming wave of automation. In this episode of Moving Upstream (below), the Wall Street Journal traveled to Asia to see the next generation of industrial robots, what they’re capable of, and whether they’re friend or foe to low-skilled workers. Interestingly, new innovations in robotics allow robots to work safely side-by-side with humans and this achieves higher levels of productivity than either humans alone or robots alone. This is because most processes are not 100% programmable and working side-by-side allows for greater flexibility in handling exceptions to programmed routines. This is a great video to discuss topics like technological innovation, substitution of capital for labor, and interfaces between humans and technology.
Heard through Nicolai Foss
Print the Legend (2014) is a documentary about the 3-D printing industry, that offers an engaging case study covering industry, firm & technology life cycles, disruptive technologies, and strategy in emerging firms & industries. This industry was established in the 1980s focusing on large expensive printers for industrial use – Two key players dominated using different technologies. The market was seriously shaken by startups in the 2010s that drastically reduced pricing created a consumer market. As such, we see two distinct market segments (industrial & consumer) and two technologies (stereolithography & fused-deposition) all battling it out.
The film follows two startups from emergence through VC funding, and shows their diverging paths as one is acquired and one remains independent. MakerBot, hires an experienced Strategy Director who (with the VC) radically shifts the founding strategy. This leads to high turnover and eventually, founder exit and acquisition by a leading industrial 3-D printing incumbent. In contrast, FormLabs, takes a more emergent approach to strategizing and positioning. The award-winning film is very well-made and fun to watch – Students love it and learn from it. It features a prominent VC (Brad Feld) and startups that students may be aware of.
Teaching notes: The film (available on Netflix) runs 100 minutes, so with discussion, it takes a full 3-hour class. It is helpful toward the end of the semester as a “movie day” with popcorn and snacks – students appreciate a break the week before their big final project is due. It is helpful to spend about 20 minutes at the start of class giving a mini-lecture on firm & industry life cycles and disruptive technologies, to set up the film, as well as about 10 minutes at the end for a debrief. One can show the film in 10-20 minute segments, pausing to discuss what has happened so far. This case has been a big hit over the 2 years it has been in use. It’s a little logistically complex, and requires strict adherence to a schedule, but once you have it down, it’s a very easy class and case to teach. Full teaching notes, assigned pre-reading, slides, and film segments are available on Gina’s shared teaching site.
Contributed by Gina Dokko
Entrepreneurship 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
Strategic 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
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.
Contributed by Russ Coff
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.
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
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.
Contributed by Russ Coff
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
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
Students might be confused about time compression diseconomies as a foundational component of a resource-based advantage. However, Dierickx and Cool’s (1989) idea here is quite simple: It may take time to build a resource or capability and even if rivals know the source of an advantage, they may not be able to recreate the resource in a timely fashion. Of course, Barney (1991) captures this as history or path dependence being the barrier to imitation. This simple video illustrates the principle (in a darkly humorous way). Of course, in this case, our protagonist merely needs to incur some search costs to find a fully grown tree. There is no practical way to rush the process to get the tree to grow substantially faster.
Contributed by Russ Coff
Most students quickly grasp the concept of game theory–figuring out what your opponent is likely to do helps you decide what you ought to do. As this clip shows, however, failing to understand the real decision choices to be made can lead to deadly, but funny results. In class, after introducing simultaneous vs. sequential games, I show the clip, pausing it just before the 2:11 mark. At this point the poison is in the goblet, and I ask the students who haven’t seen the movie which goblet they think is poisoned. I record answers, and then show the clip (up to anywhere between 4:45 and 5:02). I then ask if they were surprised. I then show the remainder of the clip, and we discuss what mistake Vazinni made. Students see the real payoff matrix as: a) if I (Vazinni) guess wrong, I’m dead; b) If I guess right, then the Dread Pirate Roberts knows it too has incentive to kill me before he dies. I only live if Iocane powder kills instantly. My correct answer can only be not to drink either goblet if I want to live. After watching this video clip and class discussion, students can:
- identify what is a simultaneous decision
- identify the true payoffs in a payoff matrix
- understand the value of changing the game
- never get into a ground war in Asia (okay, just kidding about that one).
Princess Bride fans might also appreciate this clip illustrating non-substitutability…
Economics-games.com is a free educational games site for teaching microeconomics, industrial organization and game theory. This site includes some simple (short) simulations designed to demonstrate specific principles. This should not be confused with longer simulations that extend across many class sessions. Instructors set up user IDs & passwords for their class and students are paired with others in the class (or even across universities if desired). These are really nice interactive online exercises that can be done between classes. In this sense, they are an excellent online complement beyond the usual readings and talking head videos. Here are some of the games:
- Cournot and Stackelberg games
- Public good financing game
- Common-pool resources game
- Prisoner’s dilemma
- Asymmetric matching penny game
- An air transport economics simulation covering price discrimination, vertical differentiation and peak-load pricing.
Ronnie Chatterji and Charlie Williams have put together an excellent research podcast series. They describe it as “Big ideas from business school professors.” It offers an excellent bridge between cutting edge business research and the world of practice. The podcast is sponsored by the Strategic Management Society (publisher of the Strategic Management Journal, Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, and Global Strategy Journal). You can find the podcasts at iTunes, Soundcloud, and YouTube among other places. Want a quick taste? Here are some of the topics that this reviewer found especially interesting in the realm of entrepreneurship and innovation:
- RC1: Accelerators
- RC3: Can Big Companies Succeed as Venture Capitalists?
- RC4: Is disruptive innovation still a useful theory?
Contributed by Russ Coff
Early movers stand to lose if late movers learn from their mistakes and enter with better product offerings or better strategies. Classic early movers who lost include Osborne Computer Company (subsequently overtaken by Compaq) or EMI’s exit from the CT Scanner business. Myspace and AoL might also be counted among early entrants that ultimately fizzled.
That said, early movers can can gain key assets that make it hard for rivals to enter and compete. You may have noticed that “JebBush.com” takes one to Donald Trump’s home page and there are numerous other political misdirections along these lines for other candidates. Similarly, Tesla Motors has only just gained ownership of the Tesla.com domain (probably at a handsome price). In this way, there can be a race to secure resources and capabilities to take advantage of an opportunity and others are in competition for those resources even if the resources are firm specific (as candidate domains tend to be). From a scholarly standpoint, such resources can be approached from a variety of perspectives including strategic factor market theory, Coasean bargaining, or first mover advantages. Of course, there is a humorous side to all of this. SNL has captured this nicely in their spoof commercial for Dillon Edwards Investments (note that this may be a bit “saucy” for many classrooms but we’re all adults here).
Contributed by Peter Klein
PEST analysis can be helpful to identify trends or factors outside of a firm’s focal industry that will ultimately affect the industry. It stands for Political, Economic, Socio-cultural, and Technological factors. PESTEL is a similar framework that adds Environmental and Legal trends to the mix. The PEST framework is simple but it has the advantage of focusing trend analysis efforts so you can cover ground in a more systematic fashion (than, for example, SWOT analysis which is quite unsystematic). Shad Morris’ video below offers a great introduction to the analytic framework.
Contributed by Shad Morris
I started my class last Saturday with words of hope that my students’ friends and family were safe. Since I teach in Madison Wisconsin, it was a fair bet that they were not heavily touched. This first response is probably a good starting point. However, where does the discussion in a strategy class go then? Here are a few brief thoughts:
- Responding to the humanitarian crisis. From there, one might explore how firms can respond to the humanitarian crisis. Do the Syrian refugees and terror victims all over the world pose an imperative to which businesses must respond? How can they help? What types of businesses can make a real difference?
- Responsibility to shareholders. Should firms help even if this hurts shareholder returns? Of course, helping people can build a firm’s reputation. When would this come into play and how can firms position such actions to help firm performance (eliminating any conflict with shareholders)? If it does hurt profitability, when is that justifiable? When is it an imperative?
- Global strategy. How should firms develop and execute international strategies in a more uncertain business environment? How should they balance this type of risk in their portfolio?
- Employee Welfare. What steps should be taken to assure employee welfare and/or help employees in need?
- Opportunity. Some firms may see economic opportunities amid the uncertainty. Of course, defense contractors and security-related firms may win. What other types of firms might see opportunity? See, for example, the video below about Ikea’s refugee shelters or bulletproof blankets for kids in response to school shootings.
- Exploitation & Fraud. One of my students pointed out that some firms may take advantage the situation and play off of people’s fears. This might be considered the unethical side of opportunity and is certainly important to discuss as well.
- Broader economic impact. Andrew Ross Sorkin offers a brief discussion of this. Conventional wisdom (from studies of the economic impact) is that attacks cause only small blips in GDP and stock markets. However, the political impact and the diversion of resources to agencies like homeland security and defense contractors show up positively in GDP and so understate the impact. Isolationism also may impact global trade well beyond the initial shock.
You may notice that I offer questions rather than answers. I think this topic is fruitful for class discussion and I would hope to learn from the students. I only wish I had answers…
Contributed by Russ Coff
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).
Contributed by Russ Coff
Sometimes students struggle with how a firm can have valuable, rare, inimitable resources and still not have an advantage. This is central to the resource-based view and the VRIO framework. This clip from “Triumph of the Nerds” shows how PARC Xerox developed the GUI interface, object-oriented programming, and local area networks. Then it shows how they failed to exploit any of these innovations. In particular, it shows how Steve Jobs toured PARC and lifted the GUI to create the Macintosh computer. Here is a nice discussion of what the Xerox engineers thought of Steve Jobs’ visit. This can lead to a nice discussion of intellectual property, complementary assets, internal and external analysis. It is useful to show the first half (first 4.5 minutes) and ask students to speculate on why we don’t all have Xerox computers. Then the second half explains how Apple exploited the innovations.
Given Apple’s legal actions against Samsung and Google over the look and feel of their product, there is a certain irony that Apple imitated Xerox in their flagship product.
Contributed by Rich Makadok