The Most Important Thing I Didn’t Learn In Business School

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Remember how you felt about an episode of The Facts of Life? Or how about when you watched A Different World?  Some of the most memorable TV shows are set during the school years, a formative period fully of funny moments, life lessons and heart-tugging memories.Well, for business, it seems compelling TV consists of situations outside of school — for instance, “The Apprentice,” CNBC originals, and even a little small business drama from Bravo’s “Flipping Out.”  Instead of viewing middling TV fare for real-world lessons, I suggest you turn to a business novel, and a compelling one at that.

What I Didn’t Learn In Business School: How Strategy Works In The Real World follows Justin Campbell, an MBA grad who must diagnose the launch decision for a client’s new product.  The book is the creation of Dr. Jay Barney, Chase Chair in Strategic Management at the Fisher College of Business in Ohio State University, and Trish Gorman Clifford, a consultant and an adjunct professor at Columbia University.  I learned about the book while browsing a Barnes & Noble, and requested a review copy to see what I could learn.

Our story begins …

Fresh from the University of Texas and starting his first assignment, Justin Campbell must help HGS, a specialty chemicals firm, decide what to do about Plastiwear, a new textile technology that can make shirts look expensive yet manufactured at a lower cost. For over 18 months the company sat on defining a strategy decision for Plastiwear.

Managers voiced varying views — some practical, some political.   The cast of characters includes managers with different agendas.  Justin is reminded along the way about balancing biases in what he is told.  Justin’s consultancy team must also balance the interests of a private equity firm that is looking to invest in HGS and has differing plans.

What I learned about What I Didn’t Learn

Each chapter has reflection questions.  I admit seeing the questions made me feel as if a spiral notebook and No. 2 pencil should be at my side. But the reflection questions do permit readers who are trying to learn a thing or two to really learn a thing or two.  Among the interesting ideas that emerge from reading:

  • Focusing on having the answer and “cracking the case” is less optimal than working with a team
  • Finance models that lack professional judgment overlook the real value of a project and the likelihood of what happen at launch.

It’s this second aspect that small business owners will appreciate. Finance is about a snapshot of an enterprise — and a financial projections are coloured by the assumptions.  We follow the characters’ reactions to Justin’s discovery of these points.  For example, Ken McCombs speaks to Justin on the merits of developing one’s own opinion:

“When you don’t know what you don’t know, you often end up relying on other people’s ideas.”

Throughout the book some characters pick at Justin’s MBA experience, a nod to MBA programs that hew so closely to classroom theory that students graduate with no practical experience to offer.  The fact that a professor from a highly regarded business school wrote this book does not escape me.  But a classroom setting is one of the few places where one can develop skills and allow for mistakes in the way a zero-failure situation would not.  The book showcases the balance between study and the importance of not allowing tools to replace sound reasoning (or even tacit knowledge, like that applied in Strategic Speed). When Justin meets the CFO, he gets a lesson on the limits of net present value:

“The thing to remember is that present value technique – even when you are evaluating relatively straightforward investment – is just a way of keeping track of the financial implications of a strategy.  NPV is one way to keep score in the game, but it’s not the game. NPV is no substitute for having a strategy.”

This book reads pretty well, despite occasional narrative which fits the book’s intentions but features unconvincing conversations or flat actions. For example, Justin’s need to find a replacement shirt slowed the story, but did reinforce an earlier character comment on how a Plastiwear shirt would benefit HGS.

A small business owner looking for a book that’s lighter than a textbook but deeper than a trashy gossip novel will enjoy What I Didn’t Learn In Business School.  The book references familiar business school tools but explains the challenges of applying these tools as the key factor in decision making.  The approach the authors take is flexible so that any analytic practitioner can see him or herself in a given situation.

For analytics practitioners, this book is a reminder of ways to share insights from data within an organisation or for a financial analyst to examine how a cost-cutting decision may hurt a long-term strategy.  It’s also a great reminder to young team members to assess the company politics, not just the financial snapshots, of a project.

Read What I Didn’t Learn In Business School and learn the politics of strategy considerations.

From Small Business TrendsWhat I Didn’t Learn in Business School: Teaching a Lot About Business Strategy

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