Apropos that one of my first blog posts is a book review, and a book review relevant to my finishing business school (ILLINOIS MBA 2011). The authors chose to write in a fable writing style like many authors choose to do these days (another good example is Patrick Lencioni and his leadership fable series).
What I didn’t Learn in Business School is a story about an engineer with a new MBA, working for a global consulting company. His first project is to help the fictitious company, HGS, find a strategic direction for a new technology. HGS is paralyzed, and the realization surfaces that this is an opportunity for HGS in terms of both a critical strategy for the technology and also the creation of a new HGS business core competency. There is a conflict at HGS between the personal interests of stakeholders and the commercial potential of its new product. More important, little in Justin’s (the main character) MBA training prepared him for the real world application of his new knowledge. This story is really about Justin’s frustration leading to revelation about how things really work, and how he must adapt to achieve results.
Published in October 2010, I felt it fitting to my earning my own MBA that following Spring. This is an easy read, around 250 pages and engaging – including end-of-chapter questions to think about and reference material for further reading. The main character, Justin is a bit wet behind the ears, and learns many lessons in terms of teamwork, research, ideation, consulting processes and organizational politics. Justin also learns in the process that being a consultant is not about being smarter than his client, but instead it is to ask questions and bring new and unbiased perspectives to the strategy process.
The book’s lessons are outside business school because it is meant to be a real-world example (not an HBR “case” to be cracked – a common phrase used in the book). Justin experiences real people acting irrationally, and changing their opinion over time. Business school (or school in general) teaches that there is a right answer. Justin learns there are shades of gray, and that decisions are not made and forced on an organization just because the answer is obvious. He learns that his team is working collaboratively with the CEO and HGS company leadership in order to communicate and evangelize strategic direction in the terms and interests of the key stakeholders involved as this strategic decision reshapes the future of HGS.
Justin also learns is that many of the concepts and tools he learned to use and apply in business school in Finance, Strategy, and Accounting, (e.g., net present value analysis, or Porter’s Five Forces) have ambiguous bearing on the viability of a strategic decision in any specific organization. He learns that interpretation is a function of the inputs, not the numeric inputs, but the strategic research inputs. We learn in the story that it’s easy to shut down an idea by using incorrect strategic inputs – often the case when analysis is done in-house. But the win in the story comes with outside, unbiased review of potential uses, channels and business models to create a new core competency for HGS.
There’s plenty more to the story, and the surprise ending shocks Justin too. It is a worthwhile read for newly minted MBAs, and for those considering a career in a consulting firm.