Running a busy London agency means you’re always up for a bit of a challenge, so I was pleased to get onto the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School last year.
That was until I got the course acceptance letter – along with a couple of heavyweight finance books and an online accountancy module demanding a 70% pass mark. Now I got the picture. Still I figured the hard work would be a fair trade – for the chance to experience HBS for 2 months and "re-equip" for the next 10 years.
They weren’t taking just anyone at Harvard this year – our intake in September featured 160 of some of the world’s top CEOs, CFOs and general managers - from over 40 different countries and 17 different industries. Would we have a lot in common? That’s what we set out to discover as we worked together for up to 14 hours a day - played together, lived together and, very occasionally, partied together – over eight gruelling weeks. How did Harvard describe it? "Like drinking from a fire hydrant." Good job we all had a healthy thirst on.
But you can easily drown in all the material Harvard Business School generates, so I decided to get smart from the start and aim for a single take-out from each of the 150 "cases" (business case histories) we studied. I’ve picked out my top eight to share with you here. I’m already putting many of these ideas into practice in my own company (though that’s not to say they’ll all work in every business)
1. What used to be motivating factors have become hygiene factors today
Companies forget this and concentrate on baking "hygiene" factors into their operations at great cost and little benefit. Hygiene factors are worth keeping – but not sweating over. Look at your business proposition – which factors are motivational and which are simply hygiene? And if your proposition isn’t motivating could this be because your company has stopped innovating or as they say in Harvard "is your organisation’s delivery muscle being exercised at the expense of its discovery muscle?"
2. Mediocre strategy and excellent execution always beat excellent strategy and mediocre execution
Always! This one takes a little time to sink in but once the penny drops there’s no other way to think. Strategy is about setting the agenda but it’s also about developing an organisation or a structure to deliver that agenda. This is where the magic happens. WalMart’s "everyday low prices" sets the direction but the execution of it is what really sets them apart. Everything from finding the right store locations to fuel efficiency measures on their trucks.
3. Simplicity is the highest form of sophistication
Everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Steve Jobs seems to want a credit for this one. But regardless of who said it first, as the world grows more complex and consolidation creates bigger organisations, simplicity becomes ever more desirable for global business leaders. On our programme Jeff Immelt said "size is a bad thing, every process in a company should lead to speed and simplicity".
4. What is the parenting advantage?
In advertising, I’m in the talent business. People are my greatest asset – yet the parenting advantage reminds us that our net assets are people plus the resources we provide (reputation, brand, systems, culture, process etc) that empower them do their jobs better with us than they could elsewhere.
In a world where employee performance has been increasingly under scrutiny this concept neatly turns the spotlight back onto the leaders and owners of the companies they work for. "Ask not what your employees are doing for you but what you are doing for your employees." (Yep, JFK went to Harvard too).
It’s also a great question for any organisation to ask its parent group. What’s the network coming up with to help our companies perform better than competitors in other networks? And are those advantages worth the "corporate overhead" (you’re not going to win any popularity contests asking this question by the way)?
5. Big data equals small effects
Is big data any more than just a buzz word for 2013? As the data haystack grows, the needles inside are tougher than ever to find. OK, so maybe big data lets us deliver powerful experiences to individual customers. The $64,000 question (sorry, we were in America) is whether we can reach enough individuals with great experiences to create sufficient value. Even if some customers do get a real buzz, the overall impact or value creation from big data can be small. So running the ROI rule over your big data investment might be a good way to start the New Year.
6. Make problems visible
Harvard used the famous "Toyota Production System" (TPS) to remind us that western business culture typically focusses on talking up successes and burying failure.
Out East, the Japanese make failure visible to keep the organisation improving. They seek to develop a culture that encourages intelligent failure - where problems are seen as opportunities to change things for the better. I know how important feedback loops are to behavioural science – it was great to see Toyota employing them too.
7. Feedback is the breakfast of champions
Lots of case studies made the point that failing to give individual feedback is not just lazy, it’s cruel!
Even when we do give feedback psychologists show we think "we are much more transparent than is actually the case". So it’s not just about giving feedback (good and bad) it’s about being clear and explicit.
Feedback works both ways and finding a secure framework to receive upward feedback is also vital. According to a Two Star US Marine General who happened to be one of our classmates "talking truth to power" is a key part of US Marine culture – and nobody was about to argue with him.
8. Leading versus lag indicators
The Global Financial Crisis produced an understandable focus on figures and financial results. Yet financial results are "lag" rather than "leading" indicators of performance. A leading indicator in my business could be how often the agency cracks a campaign idea and gets it approved first time round. Retailers and retail analysts know that when "inventories grow faster than sales, it’s a red flag". That’s their leading indicator. So what are the leading indicators in your business?
If I learned a lot from Harvard, what did it get from me? Well I soon figured out that if me and my little study group of 8 were to stand any chance of coping with the massive workload we’d have to divide and conquer – so we were soon divvying up the homework between us (I knew all those resource allocation meetings would come in handy one day).
I learnt a lot from my fellow students individually – and the diversity of their backgrounds made the point, more forcefully than ever, that the global centre of economic gravity has shifted and expanded. If companies, and individuals, are to stay competitive we have to constantly re-invent ourselves – and ask the kind of tough questions that Harvard Business School specialise in and graduates like me have now learnt to ask.