“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it's about deliberately choosing to be different.” - Michael Porter, famous Harvard Business School professor
I think training in strategic thinking could be the glue that is missing for many students trying to improve performance at school. By thinking strategically and following a structured process for reaching specific goals, you are far more likely to actually succeed.
This article is all about bringing powerful principles of strategy development – principles the world’s most successful companies and best MBA programs have been discussing and refining for decades and which I learned both on the job as a strategy consultant for 6 years and in one of those top MBA programs – to the process of improving an individual student’s academic performance. As I researched and read about what truly drives academic performance, I realized this notion of employing strategies was extremely underrepresented, although Heidi Grant Halvorson, who is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School, in her book Nine Things Successful People do differently. does address head on the topic of employing strategies to reach goals.
Any successful business develops a unique system for serving its customers and making a profit for its owners. The create processes for developing and producing products, recruiting employees, marketing and selling to customers, setting goals and plans, etc. The CEO of a large corporation or the owner of a small business generally tend to understand that market trends or customer preferences impact their success, but they intuitively know that they are, to a very large extent, in complete control of the success of their business. If the choices they make are right and they put in the required effort, they business will thrive. Sometimes the right choices aren’t clear, but they are in control of making them. So, it’s natural for a business to be very deliberate about setting strategies and making plans. Students need to do the same.
How are good strategies developed?
Basic strategy development involves four steps: 1) set a goal, 2) gather facts about how to reach that goal 3) consider alternatives (i.e., different sets of choices) for getting to that goal and 4) make specific plans and assign accountabilities and rewards.
Without using too much unnecessary business jargon, let’s walk briefly through the process and point out what’s critical to get right when you’re developing a strategy. We’ll start by discussing these principles in the context of business strategy, and then I’ll use some personal examples to explain how these ideas can be applied in the context of academics.
1. Setting goals
First, business must have specific goals, and fewer is better than more. For example, if you are the CEO and you have one goal – double profits in three years – every decision you make can be linked back to that goal. I’m not saying having this one particular goal is appropriate, but surely it would make decision-making throughout the company clear. Should you close this plant? We’ll, if you’ll save a million dollars without losing any revenue and your only goal is to double profits in three years, you certainly should close the plant, even though that’s a very tough decision to make.
Another aspect of this goal is that it’s specific. After three years, the CEO of this business will either have doubled profits, or not. He or she will know if the goal was met without a doubt.
But, if your goals as the CEO are to “improve profits for the owners, treat employees well, serve your community, and delight customers,” as you might imagine, you really have no idea whether to close that plant. Closing the plant might improve profits, but it won’t make the employees that get laid off very happy, and it hurts the local community. And, if your goal is to “improve profits,” you can never really know if closing the plant was worth it, because the goal itself isn’t specific enough.
Here is an excellent, short blog article about goal setting as applied to individuals’ personal and career decisions.
2. Gathering Facts
Businesses pride themselves on being “fact-based,” which is definitely a good thing. They track the moves of competitors, conduct research on their customers’ preferences, and analyze their internal financial data for interesting trends in sales, etc. They then use all of this information to make decisions. Basically any reasonably run business does these things. The practice of fact gathering is something students need to be doing more often and better. Ask a high school student what it takes to get into a Ivy League school, and they’ll probably say a perfect SAT score, perfect grades, a resume chock full of activities, and the probability is extremely low. It is just so competitive. But is this general sentiment true?
Here are the facts.
Per the above table, the average admission rate, under regular admission timing, is 9%. If you can develop an “average” Ivy League quality application only (i.e., test score, GPA, activities, etc.), and you apply to all 8 Ivy League schools, your chances of getting denied are 91% * 91% * 91% * 91% * 91% * 91% * 91% * 91% = 47%. In other words, the facts actually suggest you have a greater than 50% probability of getting admitted if you can pull together an average Ivy League quality application.
Now, of course, the average Ivy League application is strong, but it’s within reach for many high school students to work towards an average Ivy League quality application and resume. Once that happens, the probabilities suggest you can get admitted, not that your chances are incredibly slim.
What other facts would you then want to gather in this case? You’d want to know about average test scores, GPA, activities, etc. for those that applied, and of course for those that were admitted, to these schools.
3. Consider Alternatives
I’ve consistently been surprised about the extent to which large business don’t effectively use alternatives when developing strategies. All too often, an opportunity arises (i.e., to develop a new product, enter a new country, or buy another company), and facts are gathered to determine whether to do it, or not. That’s it. Using alternatives releases the pressure of this binary decision, and tends to lead to even better options. The way new options are created is sometimes incredibly simple.
For example, say a business is considering acquiring a competitor. Everyone knows the competitor is for sale, and the CEO starts asking for as much information (i.e., facts) as possible about whether it’s a good deal or not. Soon, dozens of people are focused on analyzing this opportunity, and forming opinions about whether it’s a good one or not. Let’s assume it’s a really expensive company to buy.
All too often, the CEO forgets to step back and consider what other alternatives exists that might also accomplish many of the same objectives that an acquisition would accomplish. What about buying other, smaller, less expensive companies? What about a joint venture, instead of an acquisition?
The best alternative should then be chosen after being evaluated against criteria that everyone agrees on.
4. Make plans
Business tend to also do a very good job of making plans and assigning accountabilities. If the agreed alternatives is in fact to buy a company, there are many, many things that need to happen. Who is going to build a financial model to determine how much to pay? Who is going to organize the integration of the two facilities, etc.? The specific steps are typically written down, with accountabilities assigned to specific people.
Students, and people in general, tend not to make specific plans in this way. We tend to be along for the educational or corporate ride, following the instructions given to use by teachers, guidance counselors, bosses, etc. But, if we have a goals, and we’ve gathered information about how to reach them, and considered some different ways to get there, we can and should write out the specific lists of activities and steps we need to take, hold ourselves accountable for meeting specific deadlines.