Category Archives: Methodology & Tools

Start with Geostrategy, or call it Tactics

Many business people seem to operate under the unconscious assumption that they’ll gain a competitive advantage through a careful daily reading of the business press.  They won’t.  The same goes for fund managers seeking to generate “alpha”:  the business press alone certainly won’t get you there.

They’re also unlikely to gain a decisive edge by combining the daily parade of conventional economic data with stale “strategic” frameworks like the BCG Matrix (which dates back to 1968), Porter’s Five Forces (created in 1979), or Value Chain Analysis (introduced in 1985).   Anyone who has studied business in the last 30 years – including your competition – uses these.   They also probably read the same newspapers and buy the same economic data.   In short, the old-school “Business Strategy 101” toolkit is like a white shirt in your closet:  always safe, sometimes useful, but not a decisive business edge.   Face it:  apart from their other limitations (see below), these old strategy models are fully depreciated.  How is the unconsidered imitation of commonplace ideas “strategic”?

Fully Depreciated Thinking

There is no clearer path towards creating a strategically autistic culture or organization than by mistaking the very definition of strategy.  That’s why to gain a competitive advantage in today’s world, you have to do more.  In my view, that “more” starts by gaining an understanding of what actually constitutes business strategy, i.e. understanding the deep, structural forces that bear on the long-term success of firms, and how these forces can be engaged and harnessed.  In the classes that I teach at IE, I argue that these deep forces are geopolitical.  The metaphor that I use to explain my approach is that geopolitics shapes the climate of business, whereas the daily news and conventional economics – even macroeconomics – simply address the weather of business.

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Why theory matters. Even to business and yes, even to you as well

It’s become commonplace to hear, including from my fellow academic colleagues, that we academics write articles in journals that nobody reads. Students and participants in executive programs, we are often told, want practical tools that they can apply immediately in their job, and they have no patience for theory. It often goes to the point where we are asked not so much to teach as to get participants to talk about their favorite topic, ie themselves, and lead a class discussion on this anecdotal basis supported by some multimedia slides while students are transfixed by their twitter account. Some schools have even acknowledged this and claim that they don’t teach, but develop what’s already inside participants. Put otherwise, bring your own food: we repackage what you know already and you pick up the bill. The idea that we as teachers may, at some point, introduce some theoretical content increasingly seems suspect and the sure sign of out of touch academia trying to influence a world they are said not to understand. What do eggheads know about business? The idea of teaching, that we could impart some knowledge, but also exert our professional judgment on what we should teach to whom seems preposterous and a sure sign of academic arrogance. I disagree. I teach, and I make no apologies for it.

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Four Tools for Managing Oneself – Staying on the High Wire

One of the things that I enjoy most about the summer break is a chance to reflect upon my goals, and how I’m doing on my path to achieving them.   Though sometimes mistaken for its superficial relative “self-help” literature (beset by fads and pop-psychology), the systematic study of self-management is important for any professional.  In fact, I wish I’d paid more attention to the topic during my MBA.  Anyway, in pursuit of both summer self-reflection and preparing to teach in the autumn, I thought I’d offer my four favourite tools for managing oneself.

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Three Videos on Forecasting and Strategic Surprise

Many people are either beginning their  holidays or are already in the midst of them.  If you’re the type of person who  reads a blog like this, you probably already know what you’re hoping to read on your break.

Therefore, I thought I’d try a different approach and offer a summer watching list rather than summer reading list.  This list recommends three videos that you might consider for your travels or during your “down time”.   All address different aspects forecasting, uncertainty, strategic surprises and decision-making.  When you feel like a break from reading, give them a try.

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Business and Intelligence Techniques: the Role of Competing Hypotheses

I get a lot of requests to discuss further the application of intelligence analysis to business, so today I’ll discuss the uses and limitations of a common analytic technique.

One tool that I teach at IE is the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH).  ACH is an analytic tool originally developed by Richards J. Heuer at the CIA, but it is remarkably useful in business as well.  ACH uses a deceptively simple framework to use ideas from the scientific method, cognitive psychology and decision analysis to overcome a common but immensely important bias:  the fact that we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive rather than what actually exists.  To illustrate this tendency, read the words in the three triangles below:

If you’re like most people, the phrases “written” in the triangles are familiar.  To find out what’s actually written in each triangle, refer to the bottom of this entry (or try the old proof-readers trick of reading them backwards).

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“Facts” Everybody Knows – Statistical Cautions about the BRICs (in honor of Igor Birman)

In business and finance, statistics and quantitative comparisons are daily companions.  Sometimes, however, key statistics can become too familiar, and reify, i.e. harden into “facts” that everybody knows.  In so doing, they play a large part in strategic surprises.

In the late 1980s, for example, the US Intelligence Community “knew” that Soviet GDP was $2.5 trillion, i.e. about 52 percent of the US GDP of $4.8 trillion.  How?  Their computer models told them so.  These models relied upon – among other things – assumptions about ruble-dollar Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

Western academic Sovietologists also “knew” the USSR’s economy was about $2.5 trillion.  How?  Mostly, they relied on an authoritative source:  the CIA.

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How to Think like an Intelligence Analyst

To follow up on Philippe’s post about Thinking in Time:  at IE I teach a course called “Geopolitics” to Masters in Advanced Finance students, and “The Multinational Firm and Geostrategy” to Masters in Management students.  Students in those classes sometimes ask me to recommend books to help them “think like an intelligence analyst” and apply intelligence methods to analyzing business decisions.

I provide extensive bibliographies as part of my course syllabi, but often students want me to boil my recommendations down to a few key texts.  Call it a “getting started in intelligence for businesspeople” reading list.

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The use of history for business decision makers: Neustadt and May’s analogs framework

One of the characteristics of a disruption is that one has to deal with a new situation for the first time. Hence, almost by definition, one doesn’t have any prior experience to draw upon, and often no existing framework to use.

Does that mean that radically new situations must be dealt with without referring to the past experience? In their book, “Thinking in time”, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May think not. They argue that there is always an analog, ie a past situation decision makers can refer to, but on the conditions that the similarities and differences with the present situation be clearly understood.

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