The Reality of Strategy: The Case of London Business School

English: London Business School facade

English: London Business School facade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Laura d’Andrea Tyson was the Dean of London Business School – some years ago – she put together a committee to examine and reformulate the School’s strategy. Several professors sat on that committee. When I once asked her, having a drink at her home, why none of them were Strategy professors, she looked at me for about 5 seconds baffled. Eventually, she stammered, “yes, perhaps we could consider that in the future….”.

It was clear to me, from her stunned silence (and she wasn’t easily lost for words), that she had never even considered the thought before.

I, in contrast, thought it wasn’t such an alien idea; putting some strategy professors on the School’s strategy-making committee. We had – and still have – people in our Strategy department (e.g. Costas Markides, Sumantra Ghoshal) who not only had dozens of top academic publications behind their names but who also had an eager ear amongst strategy practitioners, through their Harvard Business Review publications and hundreds of thousands of business books sold (not to mention their fairly astronomical consulting fees).

 Today, our current Dean – Sir Andrew Likierman – is working with a group of people on a huge strategic growth decision for the School, namely the acquisition of a nearby building from the local government that would increase our capacity overnight with about 70 percent. Once more, strategy professors have no closer role in the process than others; their voice is as lost in the quackmire as anyone else’s.

If Sir Andrew had been an executive MBA student in my elective (“Strategies for Growth”) writing an essay about the situation, I would ask him for a justification of the need for growth given the characteristics of the market; I’d ask him about the various options for growth (geographic expansion, e.g. a campus abroad; related diversification, e.g. on-line space, etc.), and how an analysis of the organisation’s resources and capabilities is linked to these various options, and so on. But a systematic analysis based on what we teach in our own classrooms and publish in our books and journals has, it seems, not even be considered.

And I genuinely wonder why that is? Because it is not only strategy professors and it is not only deans. Whenever the topic of the School’s brand name comes up, no-one seems inclined to pay more attention to our Marketing professors (some of whom are heavyweights in the field branding) than to the layman’s remarks of Economics or Strategy folk. When the School’s culture and values are being assessed, Organizational Behaviour professors are conspicuously absent from the organising committee (ironically it was run by a Marketing guy); likewise for Economics and OB professors when we are discussing incentives and remuneration. So why is that?

Is it that deep down we don’t actually believe what we teach? Or is it that we just don’t believe what any of our colleagues in other departments teach…? And that it could be somehow relevant to practice – including our own? Why do we charge companies and students small – and not so small – fortunes to take our guidance on how to make strategy, brands, and remuneration systems only to see that when our own organisation is dealing with them it all goes out the door?

I guess I simply don’t understand the psychology behind this. Wait… perhaps I should go ask my Organizational Behaviour professors down the corridor!



Since writing the piece below – perhaps not surprisingly; although it took me a bit by surprise (I didn’t think anyone actually read that stuff) – Sir Andrew contacted me. One could say that he took the oral exam following his essay on the School’s growth plans and passed it (with a distinction!). 

In all seriousness, in hindsight, I think I was unfair to him – perhaps even presumptuous. I wrote “a systematic analysis based on what we teach in our own classrooms and publish in our books and journals has, it seems, not even be considered” and, now, I think I should not have written this. That I haven’t been involved in the process much and therefore have not seen the analysis of course does not mean it was never conducted. And it is a bit unfair, from the sidelines, to throw in a comment like that when someone has put in so much careful work. I apologise! 

In fact, although Sir Andrew never lost his British cool, charme and good sense of humour, I realise it must actually have been “ever so slightly annoying” for him to read that comment, especially from a colleague, and he doesn’t deserve that. So: regarding the specifics of this example: forget it! ban it from your minds, memory, bookmarks and favourites (how would this Vermeulen guy know?! he wasn’t even there!)!

That you should pay more attention to Marketing professors when considering your school’s brandname, more attention to your OB professors when considering your incentive systems and values, more attention to Finance professors when managing your endownment and, God forbid, sometimes even to some strategy professors when considering your school’s strategy, I feel, does stand – so don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater just yet. But, yes, do get rid of that stinky bathwater.

A Good Fight Clears the Mind: On the Value of Staging a Debate

I always enjoy witnessing a good debate. And I mean the type of debate where one person is given a thesis to defend, while the other person speaks in favour of the anti-thesis. Sometimes – when smart people really get into it – seeing two debaters line up the arguments and create the strongest possible defence can really clarify the pros and cons in my mind and hence make me understand the issue better. 

For example – be it one in a written format – recently my good friend and colleague at the London Business School, Costas Markides, was asked by Business Week to debate the thesis that “happy workers will produce more and do their jobs better”. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer had the (relatively easy) task of defending the “pro”. I say relatively easy, because the thesis seems intuitively appealing, it is what we’d all like to believe, and they have actually done ample research on the topic.

My poor London Business School colleague was given the hapless task to defend the “con”: “no, happy workers don’t do any better”. Hapless indeed.

In fact, in spite of receiving some hate mail in the process, I think he did a rather good job. I am giving him the assessment “good” because indeed he made me think. He argues that having happy, smiley employees all abound might not necessarily be a good sign, because it might be a signal that something is wrong in your organisation, and you’re perhaps not making the tough but necessary choices.

As said, it made me think, and that can’t be bad. Might we not be dealing with a reversal of cause and effect here? Meaning: well-managed companies will get happy employees, but that does not mean that choosing to make your employees happy as a goal in and of itself will get you a better organisation? At least, it is worth thinking about.

In spite that perhaps to you it might seem a natural thing to have in an academic institution – a good debate – it is actually not easy to organise one in business academia. Most people are simply reluctant to do it – as I found out organising our yearly Ghoshal Conference at the London Business School – and perhaps they are right, because even fewer people are any good at it.

I guess that is because, to a professor, it feels unnatural to adopt and defend just one side of the coin, because we are trained to be nuanced about stuff and examine and see all sides of the argument. It is also true that (the more naïve part of) the audience will start to associate you with that side of the argument, “as if you really meant it”. Many of the comments Costas received from the public were of that nature, i.e. “he is that moronic guy who thinks you should make your employees unhappy”. Which of course is not what he meant at all. Nor was it the purpose of the debate.

Yet, I also think it is difficult to find people willing to debate a business issue because academics are simply afraid to have an opinion. We are not only trained to examine and see all sides of an argument, we are also trained to not believe in something – let alone argue in favour of it – until there is research that produced supportive evidence for it. In fact, if in an academic article you would ever suggest the existence of a certain relationship without presenting evidence, you’d be in for a good bellowing and a firm rejection letter. And perhaps rightly so, because providing evidence and thus real understanding is what research is about.

But, at some point, you also have to take a stand. As a paediatric neurologist once told me, “what I do is part art, part science”. What he meant is that he knew all the research on all medications and treatments, but at the end of the day every patient is unique and he would have to make a judgement call on what exact treatment to prescribe. And doing that requires an opinion.

You don’t hear much opinion coming from the ivory tower in business academia. Which means that the average business school professor does not receive much hate mail. It also means he doesn’t have much of an audience outside of the ivory tower.