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?

    • Charles F. Scholhamer, Jr., M.D., M.B.A.
    • C.O.O., Connecticut Gastroenterology Consultants, P.C.

    There is no substitute for experience. Implementation of strategies requires having been there, done that, or better yet failed at that and learned from one's mistake. Being mentored by experienced folks is also crucial. In a service firm with "stars" such as in medicine it is even tougher to implement ideas, particularly new ones that require change. I initially thought that one was either a leader or a manager. I now believe that to lead you must be capable of managing people, a company's most valuable asset. To teach this in the classroom to young folks is difficult but not impossible. My suggestion would be to integrate older more seasoned veterans (volunteers, retired CEO's, etc.) into the classroom as mentors and coaches using a semester project requiring implementing a strategic concept important to the class material.

    • Jesus A. Ponce de Leon
    • President, JPdeL and Associates

    I taught strategy for twelve years in Indiana and Illinois at the undergraduate, graduate, and PhD level. This issue always frustrated me because classroom time is so limited. And textbooks get thicker and thicker by the year, attempting to cover more and more territory (and in great measure overlapping materials with marketing, operations, and other disciplines) that there is no time to balance theory, practice, and deep, enriched discussion on major topics nor, needless to say, include sufficient cases to illustrate execution.

    Now, moving on to business consulting, I find in practice that a great majority of high-level managers want a "system" a "mechanical solution" a "method" that removes their headaches of dealing with the issue of tracking, directing, and supervising execution. Their natural tendency is to avoid dealing with people or people processes and most try to avoid face-to-face discussions or supervision of people's actions. It may be a natural response to our business training and business educational emphasis on theory and crafted solutions (à la Porter). But then you find that classroom technologies (and time) are not amenable to move beyond the traditional teaching materials, textbooks, cases, etc.

    Fortunately from time to time you find CEOs, owners, and high-level managers who…understand the need for these processes and the need to have a method that will parallel during implementation, but most importantly that focus, perseverance, endurance and people process orientation will carry lots of weight for execution of strategy. Of course, the prescriptive, recipe-oriented strategy defenders will cry foul here. Execution without the right strategy is a sure formula for failure. Thus execution is secondary in this view. Yes, another angle of the same issue of this debate.

    • Rich Bubb
    • Manufacturing Engineer, CUNO INC., CWT

    I agree with author's assertions about execution. (I read Bossidy & Charan's book a few months ago, and highly recommend it to my engineering friends.) I would add that there is a tremendous difference between knowing how something should be done, and actually doing it.

    All too often I have been the recipient of "orders from on high" (i.e., the Ivory Tower, also referred to as Magic Wand management). And those giving the orders, who are typically schooled in the latest and greatest buzzword management techniques, rarely having little practical application experience among the lot of them. These managers are not stupid by any means. But I have seen there is little that business schools do to prepare production and operations management (POM) students in the hands-on world in any in-depth manner.

    There is no shortcut to experience. The best run companies pick their brightest and most motivated people and mentor them. That method at least gives the trainee insider knowledge on "How It's Done."

    • Anonymous

    I've found that "doing" needs more coaching than "planning." Planning days are excellent--however, everyone comes back to their desks and does what they have done before. While we continue to give incentives to the "planners" over the "doers," we are missing out on driving productivity. Senior managers are seen to be meeting attendees rather than leaders and [are] leading by instruction rather than example. Until it is clear through promotion/dismissals that inactivity at the senior level is not acceptable--this behavior will continue.

    • Bing Sherrill
    • VP-retired, Moog Inc.

    My observation is that managers get the most done at the extremes of the behavior continuum between autocrat and intense consensus builder. In the mid ranges, the execution falls off.

    • Anonymous

    The folks that are good at "getting things done" are not always the ones that are recognized as star performers by organizations. I've worked with several companies where implementation is downplayed, and viewed as decidedly unsexy, making resources hard to come by. Strategy and implementation must be deemed equally important to a company's success.

    • Jane Williamson
    • Principal Advisor (Strategic Planning), Queensland Department of Main Roads, Australia

    The authors are correct. I have an MBA and have worked in government strategy areas for a number of years. Both the theory of strategy and certainly government application of its use are based on the "plan." A great plan, derived from intense work shopping, analysis of information, and trends, etc., is praised.

    The problems occur because there is rarely good follow through on the execution. If all the MBAs delivered results and not merely plans, how successful most companies would be today! Luckily, I have had a lot of experience in business prior to my work now and, although I admire the quality of a good plan, I am more concerned with what changes flow as a result. As the authors in The Knowing-Doing Gap highlight, all our knowledge is only successful when it leads to action. And the same is true of strategic planning.

    • Mark Lang
    • Former Executive Director, Ben Franklin Technology Partners

    I have been at the locus between academia and entrepreneurs for many years at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a Pennsylvania-funded technology development initiative that supports business growth and development. I believe that, in today's fast paced world, the problems of applying knowledge (usually limited knowledge) to satisfy customers has become as challenging if not more challenging than strategy or discovery, and needs to become part of the academic curriculum.

    Even the best work I read from university researchers clearly exhibits a lack of practical perspective, as if viewing business from afar while being afraid to touch it. The analysis can be helpful, but often leaves out context that is critical to doing anything about the topic. I'm not sure universities can directly teach people to execute. However, at the very least, academic staff need to engage with businesses, particularly entrepreneurs, not as observers but as participants in regular interactions that expose each to the other's world -- as peers. That way, faculty begin to "feel" what it is like, not just observe it, and students can at least be exposed to the challenges and dynamics of today's world economy.

    There was a time when society worked well by giving people a broad, general formal education, followed by a practical one on the job. Companies expected new employees to take as much as two years to really become productive. Today, the practical challenges are even greater, and we cannot afford the luxury of non-productive time. That means students need to be given a practical perspective on issues like group dynamics, incentives, innovation, etc., in the real world. This will have to change the nature of academic instruction and related activities, but it should also help to create a stronger body of knowledge that better understands those practical dynamics and prepares people to recognize and deal with those practical issues when they occur.

    • John Dewdney
    • Visiting Fellow, School of Public Health,

    Seems pretty dreadful that after huge amounts of money have been spent on graduate management education programs over so many years that the question "Can Business Schools Teach the Craft of Getting Things Done" has to be asked!

    But in the course of health service development consulting assignments in more than thirty countries (mainly "developing" countries) I have repeatedly heard from top-level decision makers statements along the lines of "We have sent X number of people overseas for MPH training but when they come back they can't really do anything"--meaning they cannot run services.

    Responses to your five questions:

    1. As with all crafts, some basic principles and skills of "execution" can be taught in the classroom--the "nuts and bolts," "tricks of the trade," and "rules of thumb" are among the items to be mastered. Perhaps few academic teachers are appropriately equipped by formal training, field experience, and present orientation to teach them. Of course, as with all crafts, skills have to be further developed and honed by practice in the "real world," preferably with support from appropriate mentors.

    2. Levels of knowledge and skills acquired in the classroom can be measured there.

    3. See the basic literature relating to educational assessment.

    4. The "right teachers" will emit the "right messages"--but as I said 1 above, perhaps few academic teachers . . .

    5. For any craftsman, formal training is one element contributing to successful practice, so the question here should be, are graduate management programs providing sufficient formal training in execution? From what I have seen and heard, generally no.

    • Petter Östlund
    • Manager

    Yes, I think it would be key to have more real-work sessions included in the courses, such as projects with external companies. In addition, if you have more experienced class members (X years of work a prerequisite), there will be more experience to draw from doing than talking.

    • Tayyab Rashid
    • Assistant Professor, PIEAS – University

    The book is one in the long line of recent ones, which reflect a growing discontent with management. It is being said that management and misery have a correlation. The darling one way becomes an Enron the very next day.

    And then start the post mortem. Academics start explaining what went wrong. But it is prediction and not post mortem which has value.

    This is followed by a spate of new theories and books.

    What is being passed in the name of management will very soon lose its appeal--if it hasn't already.

    We are having trouble getting things done because we have removed organizations from what gets people going, what gets their juices flowing. We push customer and not our people (aka employees). We treat our people like sh*t, they treat our products/projects/customers/quality/us like sh*t."

    It is time for a major rethinking of management. Management academics are increasingly being acknowledged as con artists.

    • Eric le Roux
    • Strategist, Old Mutual

    It has been my experience over two decades of corporate strategic development that obstacles to effective implementation include the following:

    Lack of clarity: While the strategy may be sophisticated and eloquent, if the steps to implement it are not clear, nothing will happen.

    Lack of consistency: Furthermore, if the leaders do not stick to the journey, but change direction from year to year, very little will get implemented.

    Lack of continuity: A major problem is the "passing parade of leadership"--executives who get moved around the organization. Every new CEO wants to start with a clean slate!

    Lack of competence: Often the strategy calls for new things to be done in new ways. If you do not equip the people with new competencies, then you are actually planning for their (and your) failure.

    Lack of commitment: Those who develop the strategy often feel most committed to its achievement. But for the bulk of the people in the organization, they remain mildly bemused. Unless "superhuman" efforts are taken to win the commitment of the people, very little will happen. Leaders in particular grossly underestimate the amount of time and energy it will take to manage and lead the change.

    • Dr. B. V. Krishnamurthy
    • Executive Vice-President and Professor of Strategy, Alliance Business Academy

    Professor Henry Mintzberg has been arguing on this point for as long as I can remember. He contends that while the "business" part of an MBA can be taught, the "administration" part, namely, the leadership aspects, the craft of getting things done, cannot be taught. In other words, leadership is taken as an either/or phenomenon. One either has it or one does not.

    If we were to accept this position, what then are we doing in business schools?

    We choose students from heterogeneous backgrounds, but with certain common traits--analytical ability, logical reasoning, communication, self-confidence and so on. We then try to build on these very skills, in the fervent hope that it would stand them in good stead in the corporate world.

    My experience with students has been mixed. Many students who perform very well in the classroom fail to live up to their potential in the real world. On the other hand, average students, aware of their limitations, tend to strive that much harder and succeed as managers.

    In the final analysis, I believe that the quote: "Education is not a preparation for life; education should reflect life" is utopian. We may not be able to replicate real-life processes in the classroom. To that extent, 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 relating to values, ethics and judgment. Some students would superimpose this learning on to their inherent strengths and create value to society as well as to themselves. As for others, they would probably start off with high expectations but inevitably end up dissipating rather than creating value.

    • Bill Novak
    • Program Manager, Murray Ridge Community Employment

    I feel that accomplishing tasks, speed, efficiency, and lean operations are becoming more important. Project management needs to be emphasized more and should be incorporated into every management training curriculum. Strategy and planning for the future needs to be ongoing but I believe execution has been under-emphasized too much until recently.

    • Kent Byus
    • Professor of Marketing, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

    Much of what Mr. Heskett articulates is true. Unfortunately for young managers and their employers, much of the higher education process (where most managers receive their knowledge) is limited in its ability to teach such craft.

    The first set of limitations emerges from the reality that higher education is heavily populated by well-trained theoreticians and researchers lacking an "on-the-floor" understanding of how to get things done. Further, these brilliant thinkers are on the one hand responsible for moving the platforms of enterprise forward while on the other hand also responsible for the creation of the theory-based curriculum used in the classroom. A quick glance at the content of any principles text illustrates another limitation; time. It is virtually impossible to teach the theory and the implementation of such a vast amount of critical information in sixteen weeks or shorter. Theory is presented and implementation is left for the "road."

    Another set of limiting factors is the lack of standardization that exists in American enterprise. Such individuality of process from firm to firm presents the instructional dilemma of which implementation technique (craft) should be instructed and which will gain greatest acclaim by alumni in the field. There is a conspicuous absence of data regarding this relationship.

    Finally, there is the competitive relationship in higher education between the more vocational technical educators of community colleges and the managerial theoretical educators of business schools. Getting things done is more closely associated with vocational education while strategic thinking is the charge of managerial educators. Unfortunately, students of the vocational schools are not trained to get things done beyond the task, and managerial students are not trained to get things done below the strategy. This may be the reason why many strategic plans lack solid action components, and solidly executed tasks lack strategic discipline.

    I enjoyed the article and will work on solving the dilemma for my students.

    • Charles J. Cullinane

    Execution and implementation cannot be taught in the classroom but the tools needed can be. Because execution is such a personal and idiosyncratic practice, the manager has to develop his or her own style of executing strategy.

    The tools needed to develop this skill can be taught in the classroom by using the case study method. The case study would have to include the question "How would you implement this solution?"

    Having come from a manufacturing background I have seen many idea-men but very few implementers and managers with the ability to execute a strategy. The case study is the best tool I have seen to teach the various aspects of "execution" (such a cold sounding word).

    • Stever Robbins
    • President, Leadership Decisionworks, Inc.

    Execution can certainly be taught, though not necessarily using current business school methods.

    There's a world of difference between asking someone, "Tell me what you would do" and handing them a task and saying, "Go." First-person learning engages a learner in ways that produce behavior change. Third-person discussion teaches students to discuss (the activity they're "first-person" engaged in), but doesn't produce behavior change in the area being discussed. That may be one reason so many B-school grads are so like consultants--that's the first-person skill they've practiced for the last two years!

    Give student teams tasks to complete that require the kind of coordination and planning that they'll encounter on the job. Then, as they struggle to complete the tasks, drop in project management tools, interpersonal communalization tools, etc., so the learning becomes linked directly to context where it's most needed.

    • Mark Munley
    • Performance Design Lab

    I think your comment, "…linkages between three basic processes of people, strategy and operations…" points to a fundamental misunderstanding by managers of what they are actually managing. Aligning and linking strategies horizontally as well as vertically (value chain) and building goals and measurement data into the organization, processes, and people systems are critical to implementing any strategy.

    What managers manage is largely invisible—processes and handoffs between functions. They typically manage without data, so they're pretty "dumb" about what is happening and this causes them to focus too much on . . . their function and the people.

    • Nancy Pluzdrak
    • VP, Human Resources, Daymon Associates Inc.

    There is a delicate balance between learning how to get things done and actually getting things done. More and more business schools are using the art of simulation exercises to help students get "hands-on" experience with implementation while limiting their risk of implementation in a "live" situation. Textbooks and classrooms do not necessarily provide the experiential component of getting things done. Without practical experience, the classroom can create an altruistic approach that is not realistic when the student enters the real world. However, the advantage for the student is that he/she has a tendency to ask more stimulating and relevant questions and more importantly the question of "why are we doing it this way or that way." The long and short of it is that without some practical experience the challenges of implementation are not real for the student entering the work force. The classroom experience, alone, will continue to fall short on helping improve the implantation process until the students can more frequently test the theories in a real-world environment.

    • Adelle Popolo
    • VP, Production Management Division

    With few exceptions, most educational experiences use fictitious problems and problem solving. If you really want to teach execution, start with reality in the classroom. This is especially applicable in executive seminar programs. Further measures, scorecards, presentations, analysis, and never-ending meetings are the outcome of no visible execution. Few executives fool with success. If you are really delivering, you can avoid the "talk/show" mill.

    Unfortunately, what we teach today is how to manage up and not how to manage for success, which is focused on execution and managing well in a downward direction!

    • Trevor Rose
    • Director Consultec, Australia

    I work in the fields of strategy implementation, project development, and project management. I have recently spent six months working at the business school at Bath University in the U.K. and even more recently at the University of South Australia Division of Business and Enterprise. I have recently written a report for UNISA that advocates that firstly their MBA programs do not attempt to bridge the knowledge-doing gap, and secondly advocating that projects and skilled project managers deliver strategy to the enterprise. I have a big corporation background in Australia and the U.K. and can speak from both a corporate and academic perspective where top team managers have little training and even less interest in implementing strategy. It's not the sexy end of the business. My belief is that there is a big gray area between boardroom vision and strategy and those further down the organization that may end up being responsible for the delivery of the strategy. I maintain that in the end projects are the means of executing strategy, and senior executives are not adequately prepared with the competencies of developing or managing projects.

    • Frank Kirchhoff
    • Professor Strategic Formulation, University of Phoenix

    I have held high-level management positions at very successful companies for the last thirty years. I would sometimes marvel at the individuals who would come up with the Machiavellian strategies, but that is where it stopped. No execution! Give me a simple vision and a strategy to support it with a team of doers and I will beat your brains in every time. Onward and upward!

    • Audrey Hansen
    • Director of Clinical Initiatives, St. Paul Heart Clinic

    Having just finished my Master's in organizational leadership, I completely agree that most of the academic focus is on theory vs. practice. So, to compensate for the shortfall, I am now seeking certification in project management to build on existing implementation skills. Perhaps including more coursework in such areas as project management, would allow students to test their skills at action vs. theory before they hit the ground running.

    • Ben Pratt
    • Assoc. Manager, CBI, Edwards Lifesciences

    Efficient execution requires practice. Business school classes, like any other formal educational opportunity, will provide direction and important clues for achieving impactful execution. Nobody, without experience in executing a plan, will graduate from a business school as an expert in bringing strategic goals to fruition. However, as my guitar teacher in college used to tell me, "anybody could learn to play like Hendrix without guitar lessons. . . with eight times the practice."

    • John C. Kelleher
    • Harvard Business School, MBA Class of 2003

    For what it's worth, I think much of the writing and thinking about execution is overdone. I am writing this more to share a thought about the recent explosion of writing on execution, and not on your piece that, to me, doesn't fall into that category.

    I read the execution book and I really didn't think it was worth much. To me it seems another story of watching the herd run from idea to idea all the while missing the basic point that good management has always been good management and that inevitably includes having a good sense of what to do and actually implementing it effectively. It seems to my mind that this will always be the case.

    Yet the right ideas that are timeless don t necessarily sell books, which seems to me why so many books spring up with these ideas. Five years ago everything was strategy. Now it's execution. I'm sure the pendulum will swing back again. I can see the headlines now: It's all about strategy! Execution is nothing without the right idea. Three years ago we wanted lion-like outsiders with courage who could whip organizations into shape and be charismatic. Now we have the death of the charismatic CEO and the birth of quiet leadership. Believe me, I am a huge student of leadership but it seems that to be a serious leader you sometimes have to shun all of this faddish thinking. I plan to make a healthy practice of watching which way the herd is running and then promptly sprinting the other way.

    So my response to your question would be—yes execution can be taught but the story I think we should emphasize is: Guess what! It's nothing new. Good management has always been about one part good strategy and one part implementation.

    I may be seeing this wrong, but after I read that execution book these are the thoughts I had.