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
Are 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
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…
Contributed by Rich Makadok
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)…
Contributed by Russ Coff
The MicroTech negotiation is a slightly simpler version of another exercise in the Toolbox. It focuses on the problems promoting cooperation across divisions (for example to achieve synergies). MicroTech is a negotiation over the terms to transfer a technology between 2 divisions of a company to take advantage of a market opportunity. Sub-optimal agreements (money left on the table) represent transaction costs and inefficiencies that must be overcome in order to create corporate value. There are two roles (Gant and Coleman). One division, Household Appliances (HA), has developed a new technology that has value if sold outside of the company. However, the division does not have a charter to sell chips. In order to take advantage, the technology must be transferred to the Chips & components (CC) division. In the process, about 20-40% of the potential value is typically left on the table. The discussion focuses on how to align objectives and achieve cooperation across divisions. It turns out that such cooperation is hard to achieve in a competitive culture. How, then, can the firm create a cooperative culture? This, it turns out, may be a VRIO resource…
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
You can find a complete writeup of this exercise in an article that Atul Teckchandani and Frank Schultz published in the Journal of Leadership Studies: The Vision Thing: An experiential exercise introducing the key activities performed by leaders.
Contributed by Atul Teckchandani
Rich Makadok invites his students to send pictures of strange business combinations. The sequence of Delta Dental commercials offer humorous combinations of businesses that drive home the topic of corporate strategy. However, these pale when compared to many real world combinations. One of my favorites is when the CEO of Occidental Petroleum (Armand Hammer) purchased a significant interest in the company that makes Arm & Hammer Baking Soda because he liked the name. The scavenger hunt exercise involves asking students to search for real life examples of strange business combinations and bring pictures to class. Once you are looking for them, you realize the examples are everywhere. For example, Boeing plans to produce a new smartphone (really, not a joke). The restaurant above offers family planning advice and products. The exercise will help students realize how rare a sound corporate strategy really is. Click <Continue Reading> to see additional examples (in many cases, you can click the picture to go to the company’s web page): Continue reading
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?
Contributed by Russ Coff
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.
Contributed by William Judge
A recent study found that recruiters look at each resume for an average of 6 seconds (using eye tracking software). This is especially revealing given self reports of 4 to 5 minutes per resume. Online profiles get about the same amount of scrutiny with almost 20% of the time spent on the picture — of course this has the potential to introduce significant bias. The other few seconds is spent scanning the current and prior work experience, dates, and education. They do report that well-organized resumes, with clear headers marking the critical information, are rated significantly better. So you teach a strategy class, why should you care? First of all, this is an insight into how imperfect strategic factor markets actually are. In this context, you might ask, how can a firm gain an advantage in hiring talent. A key reason to use this example is that your students will tend to care about the job market and this will instantly get their attention. You could couple this with an exercise where teams of students rank a stack of resumes to identify candidates who might have critical capabilities for a company you are doing a case on (could work with any case where human capital is critical).
Contributed by Russ Coff
This exercise is a simplified version of the Global Alliance Game. That is, there are resource complementarities created among teams. However, this one emphasizes (to a greater extent) that the teams are in direct competition to complete the same tasks. As such, it is a nice exercise to explore coopetition and alliances with competitors. Introduce the exercise as an experience with the use of resources needed to accomplish a task that have been distributed unequally. Form the groups. Groups should be placed far enough away from each other so that their negotiation positions are not compromised by casual observation. Distribute an envelope of materials and a copy of the accompanying task sheet to each group. Explain that each group has different materials, but must complete the same tasks. Explain that groups may negotiate for the use of materials and tools with other teams. The first group to finish all the tasks is the winner. Give the signal to begin. When the groups have finished, declare the winner. Then conduct a discussion on using resources, sharing, negotiating, competing and using power.
Group Materials (Groups may negotiate with each other for the use of needed materials and tools on any mutually agreeable basis):
This TED talk describes the marshmallow challenge exercise. This discussion has a nice twist to focus on team dynamics and the decision process. Interestingly, kindergarten students tend to do best on the exercise because they are more likely to iterate and prototype rather than separate planning and execution (as MBA students tend to do). Of course, this is similar to the Tinkertoy exercise but the team dynamics and decision-making message is quite distinct. You may also recognize this as a slightly altered version of the spaghetti challenge exercise that has been around for quite some time.
Contributed by Darren Dahl and Joann Peck
Stanford’s Tina Seelig describes a classroom experiment (below) where students were given $5 of “seed” funding and 2 hours to make as much money as possible. The best teams made money by working outside of the stated constraints (e.g., ignoring the seed funding & timeframe). Understanding their human capital and unique resources was critical. This really simple exercise gets at the crux of entrepreneurial opportunity.
Contributed by Russ Coff
Gourmet adventures is a very nice exercise to demonstrate the Winner’s curse in class. The key takeaway there is that decision-makers need to try to understand how certain they are in order to figure out how much to shade their bids — something that few managers actually do. If you have an online course or don’t have time to do this in class, you might consider this simple winner’s curse online simulation (by Mike Shor). The Java applet works nicely to simulate bidding competition over a target including an estimate of the private synergies. Note that you may have to turn off popup blockers and lower security settings for the web page to run properly.
Contributed by Russ Coff
Having a paper fight in class can really shake things up. It also allows you to demonstrate some simple competitive dynamics principles in a very short exercise. I use this with evening, executive and BBA students — generally on the first day of class to shake things up and introduce the topic.
- Industry evolution and performance targets.
- Strategic resources & competitive advantage
- Dynamic capabilities and hyper-competition
- Competitive dynamics and game theory
- Improvisation and strategy
- Shake things up!
This exercise focuses on the problems with designing incentives and structures to promote the cooperation across divisions needed to achieve synergies. MicroDesign is a negotiation to transfer a technology between 2 divisions of a corporation in order to take advantage of a market opportunity. Sub-optimal agreements (money left on the table) represent transaction costs and inefficiencies that must be overcome in order to create corporate value.
There are two roles (Gant and Coleman). One division, Household Appliances (HA), has developed a new technology that has value if sold outside of the company. However, the division does not have a charter to sell chips. In order to take advantage, the technology must be transferred to the Chips & components (CC) division. Continue reading
Norman Sheehan has developed an award winning exercise to teach value chain analysis (see the JME paper). Here are excepts from the abstract: Despite its ubiquity, many students struggle to understand and apply value chain concepts. JetFighter uses a complex manufacturing process (intricate paper planes) to enhance students’ value chain competencies. Teams are use value chain concepts to develop innovative strategies to fulfill customer requirements and outperform rivals. The exercise involves two production periods with a brief value chain lecture occurring after the first period. Given that teams typically lose money in the first round, their motivation to learn is enhanced as they are immediately provided an opportunity to apply this knowledge in the second period. Here are materials for the exercise:
Contributed by Norman Sheehan
You may recall the Gourmet Adventures exercise on the winners’ curse in M&A. This is a nice exercise to emphasize the risk of overbidding in M&A. Elisa Operti has taken this a step further. She writes: “I love using the Gourmet Adventures exercise in my Corporate Strategy course. I have been teaching in France and Italy in recent years. Thus, I developed a European version of the game (see the Aventures Gastronomiques Instruction sheet). I use a jar with 1€ coins, 10cents coins and 5cents and updated all the references (diameter, labels, etc…). I’ve labeled the restaurant chains after the French hero celebrated on each type of Euro coin. As a final suggestion, I found that, in this context, the game works perfectly with small groups (3-4 students).” The only thing I might add to this is that you may want to use coins from different countries to capture how country risk may increase the risk of the winners’ curse (e.g., it introduces more error/uncertainty into the valuations). Often students have been introduced to the concept of the winners curse. The point here is to emphasize that the strategic aspects of M&A (country risk, diversified targets, synergies, etc.) increase the risk by injecting uncertainty into valuations.
Contributed by Elisa Operti
This exercise from Norman Sheehan is based loosely on the Tinkertoy exercise (on this site). The main difference is that groups get unequal resource endowments (one group gets tape and paper, while the rest get paper clips, elastic bands and paper) and are asked to build the highest paper tower. The results lead to a discussion of how superior resources (tape) can lead to better performance if they are organized properly. The takeaway is that students need to see if their focal firm has a tape-like resource. If so, they need to make it the cornerstone of their strategy. If the focal case firm lacks a tape-like resource, then it needs to be excellent at execution if it is to have any chance at having above average performance. Students love the exercise and it is a great way to teach students why they should look for VRIO resources when doing a case analysis. A related exercise, the Egg Drop Auction, explores strategic factor markets and the accumulation of heterogeneous resources. Here is the Paperscape Teaching Note (published in JME) and here are Discussion Questions to assist in the debriefing.
Contributed by Norman Sheehan