Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Naked War Room

Greetings from the IDEAcorps Challenge 2009. Like all of our friends from University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, Yale University, Google, and, the Kellstadt GSB / DePaul U. MBA team is incurring fantastic experiences this week in New Orleans as its members work with New Orleans entrepreneurial ventures. Our team is very enthused and fortunate to be consulting to Jeff Leach, Randy Crochet, and their entrepreneurial venture: Naked Pizza.

Naked Pizza is going to create an upheaval in the pizza and wellness industry sectors. Whereas the pizza industry is big and moving but not growing much, the wellness industry is growing fast over short and long stretches of time. By integrating the best from both spaces (pizza & prebiotics) in a delicious twist to an offering that many people already love, our client's venture promises to introduce a novel wellness delivery system, from plow to plate, that will generate loads of social value (in the form of healthy eating and awareness) for the people of New Orleans and beyond.

Behind the scenes, the DePaul U. team has turned a Tulane U. classroom into a Naked War Room. The white boards are covered in multi-colored scribbling. Spaghetti platters of cords are snaking along the floor and tables. There are more computers than people, and all of those machines are being used to develop creative graphics content or generate results based on data. Team members are running about the room, clustering in corners, shouting loudly, interrupting one another, making telephone calls, and eating. The large trash can keeps overfilling. Sometimes people are digging in the trash to find something that has regained its value. I have seen lots of teams and supervised many outreach consulting projects. But none of them have been this intense.

As faculty advisor, my job is to observe and coach the team as necessary regarding what is "known" about entrepreneurial action and how they can use that knowledge to guide their work. They ask me questions about linkages between venture strategy and structure, the environment and a venture's culture, or how management decisions can be formulated in order to drive the growth of a venture in a particular scenario. These kinds of questions are not just about specific concepts, but have a lot to do with the integration of concepts. As such, declarative knowledge is rarely enough to answer them. Only a procedural knowledge of how concepts change in the presence of other concepts allows a team to resolve them. Thus, working with the Naked Pizza venture is forcing the team members not to think about entrepreneurship concepts in an absolute sense, as they are commonly grasped in lectures and case studies, but in the real-world sense of how those concepts rebound and move against one another as the environment shifts. The members need each other, and sometimes they need me, to apply those concepts to the challenging project at hand.

It's an exceedingly unique and valuable position for a faculty member to occupy. I am watching what happens when MBA education meets the imposing rigor of the myriad challenges facing a promising new business venture. The results are instructive, to be sure, but they are also surprising.

Why are the results surprising? Because the MBA degree has received a raw deal in the court of public opinion over the past several years (witness the reader comments on today's USA Today article about the IDEAcorps Challenge). For researchers, the content of an MBA is all too easy to examine in a way that allows one to level criticisms. It has been done in large-scale research that identifies managerial performance dimensions, then identifies the dimensions of MBA student academic performance, and just correlates them (cross-sectionally or longitudinally). It makes a great story. The findings of some of these studies have made the pages of the Wall Street Journal because they are so shocking. Indeed, they show a disconnect between what students are taught and what businesses need in their managers. The events in New Orleans this week are showing more about what is wrong with studies of the MBA than what is wrong with the MBA itself.

The poverty of studies that are highly critical of the MBA is that their method is under-specified and contaminated. They do not capture what I am observing right now in a Tulane U. classroom. There is no question that these students are putting their MBA training to good use in a stunning fashion. And there is no question that they are learning much. The IDEAcorps Challenge may reveal the glimpses of a new paradigm in MBA education.

A static examination of underlying competency dimensions (e.g., creativity, sociability, communication skill, organizational skill) does not capture this dynamic process of how great MBA educations are put to great use. Why? The studies are snapshots. As with new venture team members, no MBA student performs or acts in a vacuum. The diversity in competence required to resolve knotty problems begins to emerge when MBA students interface closely with each other to solve complex problems facing all of them. Just like in a real business venture. One's business competence does not generate rich, broad value until it is integrated with compatible competencies in a team setting. Competencies transcend people in complex performance situations.

For instance, if Lucas lacks information about organizational structure as he thinks about how our client's venture can to be optimally responsive to customers, he calls on Steve, who is a whiz at it. Together they develop something that works. When Justin doesn't consider the financial aspects of marketing activity on the internet, he talks to Poonam, who can calculate net present value on a napkin. If Tina is unclear about which venture form is more amenable to a particular growth strategy in a particular environment, she calls Malado. Together they generate a solution that matches the complexity of the problem facing them. Just as our client's venture is organic (in the metaphorical sense) and holistic, so is an MBA student team. Parsing and analyzing either one, without a sense of the whole, runs the risk of losing sight of what is important because the rich benefits of complementarity are lost. Indeed, teams are the #1 reason why most ventures either win or never finish the race.

All participants in the IDEAcorps 2009 Challenge are going to be changed indelibly by their experiences in New Orleans. Some members of our team have already made decisions in New Orleans that will guide them for the rest of their lives. Some have made new friends. I have a clearer sense of why students and business people must interact.

We all know that the complex challenges, false starts, and dead ends of entrepreneurship are more multidimensional than one person, or one inefficient team, can preempt. Yet, we are learning a bit more, thanks to the Idea Village's IDEAcorps Challenge, about how the competencies required to perform in these wild spaces can be harnessed at the team level to generate value through competence diversity in a venture growth context.

Even though there are lots of competing ideas in our Naked War Room, our team fully agrees that the most important aspect of what the Idea Village has created is New Orleans, where the culture and people are magical.

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