Sunday, July 10, 2011

What I Didn't Learn in Business School: How Strategy Works in the Real World - A Review

In What I Didn't Learn in Business School, Justin Campbell, with a brand new MBA degree, is hired on by a business consulting firm and sent off to Chicago to help an old and established company decide what to do with a new technology they have accidentally discovered. It isn't a smooth ride as Justin finds there are nuances in the corporate world that aren't always taught in school.

Although this is one of the many business books available today, it is also one of the few written in this genre; the business text thinly disguised as a novel. There are probably so few business novels that clearly teach specific points because writing such a creation is difficult. Jay Barney and Trish Gorman Clifford have pulled it off well.

Justin, the protagonist, is a well educated and very naive business school graduate. In fact, his naivete is a bit obvious. Justin's gullibility is necessary though to provide the canvas on which the authors can illustrate the pitfalls of relying only on academic learning without considering the human element that is always involved in business situations. Justin, the intrepid hero of the story again and again approaches each situation as a school case study, missing the influence of the other character's motives. He does eventually come around, after some mentoring from the boss, and by the end of the story he...well I won't spoil the ending for you.

Barney and Clifford have added an element that is somewhat novel for a novel. Each chapter ends with a series of questions. These aren't easy Management 101 questions, but thought provoking questions with no simple answers. In fact, they look a lot like the essay questions on a test! In fact, I suggest reading this book all the way through; then, for the serious student, returning to the questions. That's probably not what the authors had in mind, as some of the questions are at least partially answered in later chapters, but I don't think such an approach would diminish the learning opportunity.

Another great resource provided by the authors is a reading list for the main subject of each chapter. Again, for the serious student, this list transforms the novel into a very comprehensive source for learning about making strategic decisions.

There is a sub plot that plays out in this novel; group dynamics and team management. Both the management of the company and the team of consultants that includes Justin have some problems and could be run better. For instance, the consulting team seems to rely very heavily on virtual communication, which, as it turns out, has varying effectiveness with different team members. Likewise, the subject company's leadership team seems to lack a company-wide single focus.

What I Didn't Learn in Business School is a good read. If you're looking for an easy to read text on strategy development and execution, this is it. I really appreciate the author's emphasis that academic education is useful, but the real world also requires concentration on people and how they act and interact.

Bob Mason is a speaker, trainer, and author of "Planning to Excel: Strategic Planning That Works." After 30 years of leadership experience he founded RLM Planning and Leadership to transform leadership by developing great leaders. Bob works with organizations that want to excel by training managers to lead and creating great strategic plans to keep leaders focused. See what he can do for you at

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