• 03 Feb 2003
  • What Do You Think?

Can Business Schools Teach the Craft of Getting Things Done?

No one doubts business schools are expert at teaching management theory. But what about teaching real-world basics? In short, can students be taught execution?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

Implementation or "execution" can be taught. Whether business schools are the best places to do it remains a question with the readers responding to this month's column. For many, the requirements for teaching the craft of getting things done—the need for coaches (and perhaps students) with real-world experience, one-on-one coaching relationships, a project-oriented curriculum, and time—appear to make it much less economically practical and effective to do it outside the job. Given the natural allure and accessibility of topics in strategic planning, both faculties and their students may devote most of their study of management to them, relegating the less-accessible matters of getting things done to the back burner—and, in the view of some, rightly so. As one respondent put it, "'doing' needs more coaching than 'planning.'"

Charles Scholhamer, Jr. commented that, in teaching implementation, "There is no substitute for experience...[implying the need to] integrate older more seasoned...mentors and coaches...into the classroom." Jesus A. Ponce de Leon reminds us "classroom time is so limited." Mark Munley suggests, presumably in contrast to planning and planners, "What managers manage is largely invisible—processes and handoffs between functions...typically without data." Trevor Rose says that there is "less interest in implementing strategy. It's not the sexy end of the business."

Nevertheless, many thought that there was a place in the business school curriculum for the teaching of topics that provide a context for subsequent action. Dr. B. V. Krishnamurthy summed up this view by saying, "...whether we can 'teach' the craft of getting things done is very much in doubt. What we may be able to do, by precept and practice, is to show several paths, including those related to values, ethics, and judgment." Others, more hopeful, suggested a number of ways in which matters of implementation could be approached in a more formal educational setting. These include Stever Robbins' support for more "first-person learning...[as opposed to]...third-person discussion [that] doesn't produce behavior change," Audrey Hansen's argument for "more coursework in such areas as project management," Nancy Pluzdrak's suggestion that more "simulation exercises" be employed, and Petter Östlund's advocacy of "more experienced class members."

This leaves us with the question of not whether, but how much of the groundwork for preparing effective doers can be provided in the classroom. Is the business school setting the most effective way of doing this? Is it practical to think so? Do the economics of education for management even permit it? What do you think?

Original Article

Strategy and implementation, two sides of the same coin, are often juxtaposed. How often have you heard someone say, "I'll take a mediocre strategy excellently implemented over the reverse any day?" The implication, of course, is that the study and practice of the art or craft of getting things done takes precedence over that of the near-science of strategic planning. And yet business schools have proven much more adept at teaching the latter than the former, as witnessed by enrollments. The issue arises again with a seeming upsurge of interest in implementation.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton describe what they call this "knowing-doing gap" in their in-depth study of a number of companies. They maintain that important barriers between knowing what is right and being able to put it into practice in organizations include: (1) the use of memory and custom as a substitute for thinking, (2) fear of making a mistake which prevents employees from acting on knowledge, (3) measurements, including misused balanced scorecard methods, which obstruct good judgement, and (4) internal competition that turns friends into enemies. A fifth item on their list is the substitution of several activities—talk, making presentations, preparing documents, developing mission statements, and planning—for action in the minds of managers. They suggest that the very case discussion methods employed by many business schools may exacerbate the problem by their frequent reliance on heavy class participation, conveying subtle messages that those who sound smart and speak a lot "have more stature" and, by extension, more influence, whether they can get things done in real life or not.

The authors of a recently published book, Execution, perhaps unintentionally suggest the nature of the challenge. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan converse about a treatise based on their many years of management-based experience regarding "the discipline of getting things done." Starting with the building blocks of leadership, a framework for cultural change, and having the right people in the right place, they maintain that getting things done is based on the linkages between three basic processes of people, strategy, and operations, roughly in that order of importance. They point out that "a good strategic planning process also requires the utmost attention to the hows of executing the strategy," thus suggesting a marriage between strategy and implementation. But in spite of their goal of providing a roadmap, their conversation reminds us just how personal and idiosyncratic the process of execution really is.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of coming to our questions of the month: Can "execution" be taught in the classroom? Can its skills be measured and judged in such a setting? If so, how? Given the more extensive development of theory regarding strategic planning coupled with the proliferation of courses on the subject, are we sending the right signals to managers in training? Or should we just admit that formal training only begins to prepare managers for the real course in getting things done through others, one that is taught in the real world? What do you think?