Theory is, by definition, a simplification of reality. A useful theory is parsimonious in that it reflects the most important details of the context and allows for reasonably accurate predictions (see a review of Weick and Thorngate’s discussion here). In a similar fashion, strategy frameworks and tools are simplifications designed to guide decision-makers. Ultimately, the question is, what are the essential elements of the problem that must be analyzed? This is what a simplified framework is designed to capture. Ignacio Canales has designed a class exercise that brings this to the forefront and makes a great introduction to the topic before diving into individual frameworks. With no warning, he asks the class to take out a piece of paper and draw a bull. He then invites them to post their pictures in the front of the class and pick the best drawing. The debrief focuses on what are the essential elements needed for the drawing to clearly be a bull? He then introduces Picasso’s study of a bull and how this is used in Apple’s training to focus designers on the most essential elements. Here is a more detailed description of the exercise and here are some slides of the Picasso art.
Contributed by Ignacio Canales
Team projects are quite common in strategy classes. While the topic of team effectiveness is usually more central for organizational behavior courses, it is essential for organizational effectiveness … and team projects. While you may not want to allocate a lot of time and resources to the topic, you may want to get teams off to a good start so you don’t have to address dysfunctions later in the semester. One reason things may go south is the team’s desire for a “fast and enthusiastic start.” A bias for action can sometimes sabotage collaborative efforts. That well-meaning call to action — “let’s get this done!” – can result in a “sloppy start.”
Larry Dressler offers a solution to this challenge for teams in organizations — require that teams undergo a careful process of “chartering.” This involves bringing team members together at the outset to clearly articulate answers to these questions. The following adapts the chartering process for student project teams:
- Purpose: Why does this team exist? Why are team projects important for the learning process?
- Role: What is our authority to make decisions? What aspects are required for the project and on what dimensions does the team have latitude?
- Goals: What concrete outcomes do we intend to accomplish as a team? What level of quality? What learning objectives? What grade?
- Agreements: What do we expect from one another? What shared commitments do we want to put in place in order to ensure we function well? (e.g., How we go about sharing information, meeting, making decisions, etc.)?
- Support: What kind of support (e.g., guidance, resources, information, etc.) do we think we will need from others to succeed in achieving our purpose and objectives?
High performing teams invest the time and effort to create a project charter at the outset. Skipping the chartering process is like blowing off breakfast so you can get to work 30 minutes earlier. It seems like a good idea until intelligence and productivity fade away as your blood sugar plummets by 9:30 am. Once a clear project charter is in place, the team should review it periodically to reaffirm shared purpose, goals, and agreements or to update that charter based on what the team has been learning over the course of the work.
Contributed by Larry Dressler
Managing change is an essential part of strategy execution but many courses focus on strategy content and fail to give implementation the attention is deserves. As such, students may underestimate how much resistance they will encounter and managing this is key to success. Amy Lewis and Mark Grosser published a Journal of Management Education paper that describes an exercise for teaching change management. This 45-minute exercise can be used in a range of management courses and works well in almost any size class. Students are divided into two groups (managers and workers) that must cooperate to produce a re-organization (a simple seating chart). However, managers discover that workers are reluctant to move and about 90% of classes fail to achieve the task. This generates a lively discussion on what is required to lead change, as well as on topics such as communication, trust, power, and motivation. I just ran this for the first time and, to my surprise, the students were successful. However, in the process, it was clear that there were moments of distrust within and between groups. A last person held out to see if he could appropriate more value. In the end, the management team gave up all value that was created. That is, employees appropriated all of the value and managers actually lost money in the exercise. It was quite successful and students thanked me for the experience. All of the details needed to run the exercise are in the article at the link above and it was easy to set up and run.
Contributed by Russ Coff
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.
Strategy classes often give short shrift to managing change but this is where the rubber hits the road. Chris Smith offers a number of very simple group exercises that allow a deeper dive. These are especially helpful since they demonstrate key points quickly but in an interactive way. Of course, there are many other change management materials in the toolbox. One of my favorites is the classroom ruse. Here are a few that jumped out at me from Smith’s page:
Small Change: Cross Your Arms. Ask students to cross their arms. When they are comfortable, ask them to cross their arms the other way. Ask why the 2nd attempt might have left them feeling uncomfortable, even though it’s basically the same action. How tricky is it to cross your arms in different ways and equally how tricky it is to cope with even very small changes? Steer the conversation towards specific changes within the university or in their experience with other organizations. Discuss how to deal with such discomfort.
Mindful Routines: Alien at Dinner. Ask students to imagine themselves as aliens observing a human dinner party. Their task is to point out unusual human social norms and to explain them to the beings on their imaginary planet. Why do they drink poisonous alcohol? Why do they knock their glasses together when celebrating? This exercise helps to point out that just because something is accepted, does not mean it is the best way of doing things. It prompts students to examine existing routines anew and assess whether there are better methods. Continue reading
Generic strategies are easy enough to explain and students typically feel that they understand. But do they really? Could they develop and implement a sound strategy? Sometimes it’s worth a bit of additional hands-on experience to make sure the lessons stick. Probably the most important message is alignment — the need to design the organization and product to fit the strategy. In other words, to make the appropriate tradeoffs. Lee Bolman offers a very simple house building exercise (out of index cards) that makes these points very nicely. Teams plan what kind of houses they will build and organize their production. Strategies naturally fall into more low cost (simple one story house) or differentiation (complex two story). The 20% quality bonus and 20% first mover bonus help to highlight these competing objectives. This one-page handout describes the rules and process for running the exercise. The debrief focuses on the teams’ strategies and how they organized:
- Planning process — How did they frame the problem and explore solutions?
- Competitive Dynamics — A strategy is more likely to be successful if few firms (teams) adopt it. How do they anticipate what rivals will do?
- Implementation — Plans often don’t unfold as expected. A common problem is that when the time is up, they are stuck with inventories of unfinished products.
Overall, this is a simple and easy to implement exercise that drives home basic strategy and organization issues nicely. The exercise can be run in a little as 75 minutes, though 90 to 120 minutes provides more time for both the exercise and debriefing. The steps to run the exercise are:
- Provide materials to teams (2 packs of 3-5 cards, 2-3 rolls of tape, 2-3 markers).
- Distribute the Quality Housing Instructions. Briefly introduce the exercise and announce how much time is available for planning (10 min). At the end of the production period, do a count-down from 5 and firmly announce “Stop!”. Teams may be startled when the time is up.
- Once teams have produced, have them calculate their expenses, revenue, and net income. You can check houses against the specifications either immediately after a team produces, or after all teams have produced. If a team produces multiple houses, test a few to see if they can be dropped 12 inches without damage.
- Collect the financial results from all teams (revenue, costs, net), and award the bonuses for quality and first-to-market.
Contributed by Lee Bolman
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
What is the best way to close out a course? The current gamification trend suggests updating some tried and true methods. Below is a classic Toolbox post on how to turn the last day into a game of Jeopardy. However, MBA students at the University of South Florida have recently updated it with a very slick PowerPoint version that is really worth checking out. Since the file has macros, you will need to download it and run it in PowerPoint (can’t be viewed otherwise). The categories and questions can be edited in PowerPoint. The students read Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy and turned the key points into Jeopardy questions. They then used buzzers (below) and the file above to run a Jeopardy-based class exercise. (Thanks so much to Erwin Danneels and his students, Pranali Panjwani, Elliott Parker, Blesson Mullappally, Saharsh Kislaya, Bikash Patra, for sharing).
If you want to add some spice to this exercise, you might get a set of buzzers that contestants can use to get control of the board. Here is a link for a reasonably priced set of buzzers on Amazon.
This can also be done in a lower tech manner by using a white board for the categories and dollar amounts. One can also have Daily Doubles and a final Jeopardy question. The ‘prize’ might be that the winning team gets extra class participation points for that day. Alternatively, one might find other meaningful prizes to distribute.
Here is another take at Jeopardy Questions in a word file. As you can see, they are a mix of course ideas and fun topics. For the category ‘Before and After’ (which is the hardest), the instructor would display the question on a projector so students could read and think about it (otherwise one can just read the questions).
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):