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).
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.
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).
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
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:
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.
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…
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).
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.
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
Here is a simple exercise to demonstrate competitive advantage on the first day of class. Hold up a crisp $20 bill and ask “Who wants this?” When people look puzzled, ask, “I mean, who really wants this?” and then “Does anyone want this?” Continue this way (repeating this in different ways) until someone actually gets up, walks over, and takes the $20 from your hand. Then the discussion focuses on why this particular person got the money. How did their motivation differ? Did they have different information or perception of the opportunity? Did they have a positional advantage based on where they were sitting? Other personal attributes (e.g., entrepreneurial)? The main question, then, is why do some people/firms perform better than others? This simple exercise gets at the nexus of perceived opportunity, position, resources, and other factors that operate both at the individual and firm level. Note that instructors should tell the class not to share this with other students. However, if you do have a student who has heard about the exercise (and grabs the money), asymmetric information about an opportunity is certainly one aspect of the discussion. The following “vine” might also help drive home the point about money and resources…
Economic bubbles reflect irrational escalation but there is always an element of underlying rationality. This classic exercise, the Dollar Auction, is an ideal vehicle to emphasize how this can come about — even with actors who intend to be rational. With much fanfare, the instructor auctions off a dollar bill (a very crisp one to reflect a “rare” asset). The bill goes to the winner; however, the second-highest bidder also loses the amount that they bid. The game begins with one player bidding five cents (the min), hoping to make a ninety-five-cent profit. However, a ten cent bid would still yield a ninety-cent profit (if bidding stopped there). If the first bidder bids ninety five cents, and the second bidder bids one dollar (for no net gain or loss), the first bidder stands to lose ninety five cents unless she bids $1.05. In this way, bidding continues well beyond a dollar, usually until one player issues a preemptively high bid to signal intent to outbid at any cost. Only the auctioneer gets to profit in the end. While the incentive structure is idiosyncratic, one might debrief with a discussion of why they didn’t anticipate this problem when they started bidding? This fits broadly in discussions where escalation is a risk (decisions under uncertainty, M&A, technology investments, etc.). You may find that some students have seen this exercise previously. However, it only takes two uninformed bidders to create a bubble. Of course, the following classic bubble video is a good fit in the debrief (came out right before the real estate bubble)…
This is another in a series of reminders that individuals respond to perceptions even if they are inaccurate. The short video of the invisible rope prank might be followed by a discussion of how firms can influence the perceptions of their rivals, complementors, and/or customers. This is especially an issue in contexts where there is a great deal of uncertainty (entrepreneurship, technology, etc.). An earlier post presents a driving prank with a similar theme.
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 ;-).
This clip shows a cheetah catching a gazelle. Then a hyena tries to steal dinner from the cheetah. While they are busy fighting, the gazelle, who was playing dead, gets up and runs away. In this way, a cunning weaker firm might avoid being noticed by more resource rich firms until the moment when it has more resources of its own. A basic principle of competitive dynamics under bounded rationality is to fly under the radar so as to avoid retaliation from stronger incumbents.