MBA's, strategy and judgement

The objective of an MBA strategy program is to expose leaders of the future to various theories, frameworks and concepts of strategy.  But the reality is that many of strategy’s concepts are not necessarily settled.  Even theories with the pedigree of Porter’s five forces model, perhaps the most famous of all strategy models, has its detractors who point to limitations in its application. 

So, I approach the program design with a strong bias to practice.  I teach the core frameworks and concepts through stories and cases studies.

But why do we teach these models and frameworks?   On the surface, it reflects Lewin’s famous aphorism: ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’.  More recently, Christensen[1] added his own observation:

“management has to take action on a theory rather than on evidence.  When they wait until the data is clear, the game is over”

More fundamentally, our goal is to help the students improve their judgement.  Good strategy is fundamentally a question of judgement.  Strategy is fundamentally about ‘controversial choices’.  To outperform against other competitors and gain competitive advantage a firm must make choices that are distinct from its competitors.  These choices occur in both options and implementation. 

And the nature of these choices vary across time.  At one end of the strategy life cycle it is about reaffirming and refining; at the other end it is reinvention.  As Sir Lawrence Freedman[2] opined:

“a strategy could never really be considered a settled product, a fixed reference point for all decision making, but rather a continuing activity, with important moments of decision.  Such moments could not settle matter once and for all, but provided the basis for moving on until the next decision”

What is judgement?  Mant’s articulation[3] is as powerful as any I’ve seen: “judgement is what you do when you don’t (and can’t) know what to do – but you know you have to do something fast”.   Strategy’s various frameworks and concepts offer leaders mental models which can, over time, help them to develop better judgement. 

But judgement has a synthetic quality about it.  Describing judgement, Mant argues that while it is not the only skill or capability a leader needs, it is the sine qua non of leadership:

“We are not talking just about computing power.  All of the best leaders do things on the basis of ‘feel’ and by encompassing the whole picture, even though many of the necessary bits aren’t yet in place.  They are not just computing fast from one angle, but making a kind of mosaic from a broad range of different views”  

And this description is the essence of strategic thinking.  It is about framing and reframing the world; creating new mental models of how the world might unfold and how your organisation can best position itself to capture advantage in that world. 

Each of the concepts and frameworks we teach in an MBA offers just one lens into the strategic puzzle.  But real insight comes from this ability to synthesise these multiple insights to glean a ‘truth’ that enables the firm to capture a competitive advantage. 

I start and finish all my strategy programs with a simple mantra: ‘immersion, synthesis, and simplification’.  It is the practical expression of this process.  

You are probably not doing an MBA, so what does this mean for you?  Perhaps ask yourself these three questions:

  • Has your strategy process applied multiple models each of which presents a particular window into your options?  Or have you applied a single lens to your strategic analysis?
  • Has the process revealed ‘controversial choices’? 
  • Is the tension between ‘black and white’ or shades of grey in these choices?

These are great questions to surface underlying assumptions the various players are bringing to the conversation. 

DDB ... a strategist's view

PS: to my regular readers, my apologies. It has been too long.  But in the last couple of months I've been teaching multiple MBA programs; working with a CEO to develop their strategy; and travelling to KL for some leadership development programs on strategy execution.  And more.  

[1] Clayton Christensen is the author of the modern form of disruption theory.  He describes three layers of theory: descriptive (patterns observed); explanatory; and predictive. 

[2] Sir Lawrence Freedman has been described as the ‘Dean of British strategic studies’.

[3] Mant, A. (1997). Intelligent Leadership. pp. 48