Jack’s Turn

5 December 2014

“[In lecture courses, students] are waiting for you to give ‘the answer.’ There’s a built-in bias against action. What we say with the case method is: ‘Look, I know you don’t have enough information—but given the information you do have, what are you going to do?1

“OK, Jack, here you are at Mammoth Inc. What should the company do now?” The professor and eighty-seven of Jack’s classmates anxiously await his reply to the “cold call.” Jack is prepared; he has thought about this for a long time, ever since he was told that the case study method is intended to “challenge conventional thinking.” He has also been reminded repeatedly that since good managers are decisive, good MBA students have to take a stand. So Jack swallows hard and answers the question.

“How can I answer the question?” Jack begins. “I barely heard of Mammoth before yesterday. Yet today you want me to pronounce on its strategy.

“Last night, I had two other cases to prepare. So Mammoth, with its zillions of employees and all those products, got a couple of hours. I read the case over once quickly and again, ummm, less quickly. I never knowingly used any of Mammoth’s products. (I didn’t even know until yesterday that the company makes the rat poison I use in my basement.) I never went inside any of its factories. I’ve never even been to Come By Chance Newfoundland where it is headquartered. I spoke to none of its customers (except myself). I certainly never met any of the people mentioned in the case. Besides, this is a pretty high tech company and I’m a pretty low-tech guy. My work experience, such as it was, took place in a furniture factory. All I have to go by are these few pages. This is a superficial exercise. I refuse to answer your question.”

What happens to Jack? At the business school, I’ll let you guess. But from there, he goes back to the furniture business where he immerses himself in the products and the processes, the people and the industry. Gradually, with his courage to be decisive and challenge conventional thinking, Jack rises to become CEO. There, with hardly any industry analysis at all (that would have come in a later course), he and his people learn their way to a strategy that transforms the industry.

Meanwhile, Bill, sitting next to Jack, leaps in. He too has never had the chance to go to Come By Chance. But that doesn’t stop him. He makes a clever point or two and gets that MBA. This gets him into a prestigious consulting firm, where, as in those case study classes, he leaps from one situation to another, each time making a clever point or two, concerning issues he recently knew nothing about, always leaving before implementation begins.

As this kind of experience pours in, it is not long before Bill becomes chief executive of a major appliance company. (He never consulted for one, but it does get him thinking about that Mammoth case.) There, after downsizing a few thousand of those human resources, he himself formulates a glitzy high-tech strategy which is implemented through a dramatic program of acquisitions. What happens to that? Guess again. [Or see next week’s TWOG.]

“Readers [of the book What They Really Teach You at the Harvard Business School, written by two of its students] are probably asking, Read the case and do that analysis in two to four hours? Harvard’s answer is yes. Students need to prepare two to three cases each day. . . . So [they] must work toward getting their analysis done fast as well as done well.”2

This appeared more or less as above in a box in my book Managers not MBAs (2004).3 Recently Harvard has been running ads in The Economist for its executive education programs, showing an executive-looking lady who is saying: “We studied four companies a day. This isn’t theory. This is experience.”

This is nonsense.

Tune in to next week’s TWOG for some consequences of this kind of educating, and the week after about how real experience can be used in the education of practicing managers.

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg