Why Exec Ed gets an F in Strategy

Volume 15 Letter 12

We’ve all done it – enthusiastically gone off on some executive leadership/strategy retreat only to return Monday morning and nothing – zip – zero has changed. It’s as if the fairy dust that was to transform us into strategic thinkers and business leaders was only icing sugar. Most managers who have attended top executive education programs come back confused as ever about how to develop and execute a cohesive business strategy.

Executive programs looking to turn managers into strategic thinkers and leaders prepared to confront today’s business challenges face their own serious challenges. For most leadership programs the difficulty starts in understanding that business strategy cannot be taught in a traditional classroom. Strategy is unlike other management disciplines like finance, operations, supply chain, big data management etc. where there is a correct answer. In strategy the answer is always situation specific! Furthermore, to be developed and honed, principles of strategy must be applied and practiced in a competitive situation. Professors must take their charges beyond talking and reading about business strategy to actually creating and executing one while experiencing the realities of stiff competition.

Imagine getting 100% on your ground school exam or getting full marks on your written driving test and believing you have the skills to fly an airplane or maneuver a transport truck over an icy mountain pass. The consequences of the first flight or first drive would likely be a disaster. Add in that someone is trying to shoot your plane down and its clear why such a skill can’t be learned by talking or reading about it. The same is true for business strategy. It must be practiced.

Practicing strategy in business, however, is problematic. As human beings we learn through feedback. We have an experience, see a result, process it, learn from it and try to make a better decision next time. This is why sports teams practice, militaries hold war games and actors rehearse. But here’s the rub; in business the feedback cycle is too long for learning to take place. This is why we develop and use business simulations – to overcome this obstacle by compressing time and shortening the feedback loop so business people can see immediately the outcomes of their decisions.

Too many professors teach business strategy as an exact formula that can be followed. But business opportunities don’t arrive pre-packaged and neatly wrapped. Simply imitating others offers no guarantee of obtaining the same desired result. As William James, the great Harvard educator, asserted “the answers are not in the book!” As stated earlier a successful business strategy is always situation specific! Six Sigma, Balance Score Card, Good to Great, 7 Habits of Successful People are all great tools of management – not Strategy!! Strategy is about doing the right things at the right time; developing the right products and attacking the right segments. It’s about creating a sustainable competitive advantage and obliterating the competition. Good management in contrast is about doing things effectively. It’s useless without a good strategy. Even the best managed companies without a strategy will be crushed by businesses led by strategic thinkers.

As businesses generate more data and market complexity increases, the more we’ll need strategic thinkers. You have all the managers you need. Isn’t it time start developing them into strategic thinkers and into true business leaders? A good business simulation will put your people at the head of the class.

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