In a delightful – and unexpected – turn of events, I’m going to be traveling to London to receive the Strategic Management Society’s CK Prahalad Award for scholarly impact on practice on September 17. These are responses I gave to some written questions which you can also find at their website.
- How does your interaction with practitioners inform your research and shape your understanding of strategic leadership?
The late Ned Bowman had a great way of talking about how ideas and practice intersect. He said theories could be used to describe, explain, predict and eventually control, phenomena as understanding progressed. His view colors how I think about the work that we do and how it has an impact. Good theories often start with rich, qualitative descriptions. Where better to find this raw material than in interactions with practitioners? As descriptions build up, one can discern patterns which explain what might be going on. As the patterns become more robust and fine-grained, it becomes possible to use them as leading indicators that will suggest what will happen next. And, of course, once a theory is perfected into cause-and-effect understanding, it can be used to control what happens in the real world.
An example of this progression can be seen in how the work of Frederic Winslow Taylor came to affect almost every aspect of commerce today. Taylor, the man, was described by Peter Drucker as having ideas that were singularly responsible for the rise of affluence in developed countries. The theory of scientific management was the first systematic study of work. Initially, Taylor’s inspiration was his own workplace. Surrounded daily by the messy reality of a manufacturing shop, he observed that different workers doing the same job produced different results (description). Then he started digging into why there was so much systematic variation, concluding eventually that there must be ‘one best way’ to do specific tasks and if this could be understood, each task could be optimized (explanation). This led to his famous time-and-motion studies (prediction). And today, Taylorist principles are everywhere, from the algorithms that tweak the routes of food delivery trucks to those that coordinate global supply chains (control).
- What is the added value that an academic scholar can bring to companies as a consultant, beyond what consulting companies bring?
Academic training teaches you to be structured in your thought process. Establishing boundary conditions, figuring out causal connections and being clear about the “why” are all skills that rigorous academic training brings to the table. There are also business model advantages. Most academics don’t work on a leverage model (in which more junior people are billed out to the client to do the legwork of a consulting study). That means we can engage in work that is more about solving wicked, new-to-the-world kinds of problems than the more repetitive work that is the bread and butter of a leverage-oriented consultancy. Academics are also potentially able to work on topics that could be disruptive to the status quo, which consultancies depend on to stay in business. They are less likely to propose such shifts.
A brilliant example of this is how the theory of disruptive innovation eventually took hold. Developed by Clayton Christensen and Joe Bower (co-authors of the original HBR article), the theory kind of limped along for a bit. Some years later, Andy Grove, then the CEO of Intel, came across it and realized that Intel was facing exactly the overshooting and competitive criteria shift the theory would predict. He connected with Clay, sought his advice on what would be an existential decision, and the result was a strategy that flew in the face of everything Intel believed in. This was to fund the development of – gasp – slower, but more energy-efficient chips for fast-growth markets that didn’t depend so much on speed. I don’t believe that a strategy that radically different would have been proposed by a typical consultancy.
- How can management scholars change the business world and help improve people’s lives?
To do this we have to go all the way through the four stages I’ve described above. Most management scholars are quite happy to do the description and explanation phases of theory development, leaving the prediction and control elements to the consultants and practitioners (who are unlikely to be incented to spark change in a model that works very well for them).
A great place to start would be to get us focused on important questions. This is where our academic incentive system and the goal of having an impact can come into conflict. Just as with innovation in real life, studying hard-to-study or novel phenomena is unpredictable in terms of what one is going to find and how long it is going to take. That’s incompatible with a 7-year tenure clock. As Rich Bettis has pointed out, this can lead to “hunting for asterisks” rather than finding out the answers to significant questions.
Nonetheless, there is wonderful research that could and does make a difference in the real world. Here are a few examples. Bent Flyvbjerg’s work on why mega-projects so often go wrong and what to do about it. Wren Montgomery and Tina Dacin took on the huge task of exploring institutional decline in the Detroit water treatment system and outlined how different constituencies need to invest in renewing neglected institutions. Amy Edmondson’s work on the importance of psychological safety to the effective functioning of complex systems has forever changed how we think about the importance of speaking up. Zeynep Ton’s Good Jobs Strategy and resulting efforts to bring awareness of the issue and the resolve among leaders to do something about it is brilliant.
- Why is it important for management scholars to actively engage with executives?
Management scholars are blessed with an extremely rare resource, which is time to think. At our best, we are reading, reflecting, understanding patterns and helping others benefit from what we have learned. Executives simply don’t have the luxury of time. Some, such as Bill Gates, take a “think week” to read and reflect deeply, but that is rare. More often, they are responding to emergencies or wrestling with operational challenges.
In my view, the gift we have been given of time to think and learn also creates a responsibility to engage with those who could benefit from our insights. When leaders are introduced to effective new ideas, they can put those to work to create opportunity, increase productivity and see to the health of the organizations they are shepherding. That’s better for the organizations, better for their employees and better, in the long run for the communities they serve. As C. K. Prahalad himself said, “Executives are constrained, not by their resources, but by their imagination.” We have the privilege of dreaming, asking “what if?” and learning across the experiences of many organizations. At our best, fostering imagination is our calling.