Saturday, October 11, 2008

Stanford Business, #9, I Have a Dream... of Approaching Midterms and Dysfunctional Study Groups

Time is flying fast, and we are almost to our midterms – only two weeks to go. This is no doubt raising some concerns and fears within the business school in general, and the Sloan program in particular (more on some of the rising tensions later).

So, what’s our week like?

Monday is our Excel day (we have two class-dose of financial modeling with Microsoft Excel). Tuesday is our “hard science day” – with Finance in the morning and Economics in the afternoon. I say hard science, but honestly I personally have some concerns about whether economics is such a hard science and not really a social science disguised as a hard science. Sometimes, when i'm not sure what direction the supply and demand curves should go, it kindof seems like a social science ("anthropology?") that's basically concerned with an imaginary tribe of people called “rational” people (rumored to exist?), an imaginary group of producers, called "profit-maximizing firms" (also rumored to exist) , and what these two groups might do in an imaginary place called "the free market".


On Wednesday we usually don’t have any official “classes”. You might think we have the “day off” – but not really. Usually there is a dizzying array of activities planned for us on Wednesdays – some of it by the Sloan GSB program itself, and some of it by our study groups (speaking of study groups, I think we are starting to see some real drama in the study group realm– see later in this post). Last Wednesday we had the lunch with the CEO of Skype. There is usually a Career Development Workshop on Wednesdays for self-funded Sloans, and those of us in study groups usually work on our finance assignments, which are due on Thursday. Next week we have our Silicon Valley Study trip on Wednesday.

On Thursday, it’s Finance and Economics again. And on Friday we have what I like to think of as our touchy feely day. On Friday, we have two doses of our OB class. I’m not even sure what the class is called in reality; we just refer to it as OB.

So, what is OB, really??

OB stands for Organizational Behavior. At Stanford, this seems to be the “discipline” (or rather, the umbrella) under which all so-called soft stuff – leadership, interpersonal dynamics, communication skills, teambuilding, HR – gets dumped. It's just OB.

I like to think of it as a way for academia to talk respectably about interpersonal dynamics and touchy-feely stuff without actually calling it that. By calling it “Organizational Behavior” instead, it lets Stanford GSB still maintain that everything is being researched rigorously and thoroughly as a “field of study” rather than a bunch of interesting ideas about how people behave in groups.

In some ways this has been the most “fun” class thus far. Last week, we watched video clips from the movie, 12 Angry Men (the old one, with Henry Fonda). We were discussing influence and how, in the movie, the jury starts out as 11-1 for a guilty verdict. He gets them, through many techniques, one by one to reconsider, and by the end it is 11-1 on his side for a non-guilty verdict. I won’t tell you what happens at the end (If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s a great one to watch). Basically the whole movie takes place in the jury deliberation room. Henry Fonda’s character is masterful in how he unfolds his doubts about the case to the rest of the group.

I Have a Dream … of an iMac?
This week our OB class sessions were about goal-setting and effective communication. On this second point, we watched the complete video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from 1963. It is interesting, says Professor F., who teaches the class, that many of us know the last few minutes of this speech, but few, if any of us, have watched the speech in its entirety. I don’t think there was anyone in the room who had read or seen the whole speech.

He gave us a transcript of the speech and we watched Martin Luther King deliver it. I don’t have to tell you that it was a masterful speech; but afterwards we analyzed it to see what techniques he used in his speech that made it very effective. Here’s some of what we found:

· Analogies. MLK used analogies and metaphors very effectively, talking about the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. He also spoke extensively about the metaphor of a check being given to the African American community when the Emancipation proclamation was issues in 1860’s by Abraham Lincoln, and how that check was bouncing. There were many, many more.

· Integrating the Setting. The speech was given in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC at a very large rally. MLK did a very good job of integrating this setting, starting by talking about Lincoln, alluding to the famous Gettysburg Address, and mentioning the Emancipation Proclamation (for our international readers, this was the proclamation at the end of the US Civil War made by President Lincoln which freed the slaves in the south). He also brought in the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution indirectly, quoting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, all the while with Washington DC as his backdrop.

· Identifying a Common Purpose. One of the things that MLK did in his speech was to talk about racism as not a problem just of the “south” (technically, southeast) but of all Americans. There were lots of references to the North and states which were not part of the south (California, Colorado, New Hampshire) in an effort to cast light on the speech as affecting an American issue and not just a regional issue.

· Repeating Key Concepts. MLK repeated certain phrases over and over again, which made them stick. In fact, Professor F. pointed out, that a few of his repeated lines basically captured the whole speech, including the progression of the speech: “100 years later”, “Now is the time”, “Never be satisfied until”, “I have a dream”, “Let Freedom Ring”.

· Building Momentum and Creating a Sense of Urgency. The speech started out very logically, and with MLK speaking softly and slowly. As the speech went on, as the metaphors became more colorful, we saw him speed up and start raising his voice.

After watching the MLK speech, we watched another example of effective communication, this time of Steve Jobs when he rejoined Apple computer. It was a precarious time for Apple, and as usual, Jobs did a masterful job of presenting the iMac as being better than most, if not all, computers out there.

He focused on the issue of speed. First he showed a chart comparing the speed of iMac vs. a Compaq PC. Then he presented a slide showing the speed of iMac in relation to other Pentium computers out there. Finally, to hammer the point home – he showed a demo of an animation running head to head on a Compaq PC and on an iMac. Let’s just say that the demonstration was pretty effective -- the Compaq computer was limping along with the animation barely moving, while on the iMac, the animation was blazing along.

Now as I said the demo was pretty effective communication, though perhaps a bit contrived. As a software guy, there could have been any number of reasons why a particular animation ran slowly on the PC rather than the Mac. If some of those conditions had been reversed, it could have been the Mac that was running painfully slow compared to the PC. That’s what marketing is all about, I guess.

Those of you NOT in business school will probably see right away the irony of showing and evaluating these two pieces of effective communication one after the other. One was about a social issue of staggering importance, while the other was pretty much only of staggering importance to the shareholders of a given corporation, albeit an iconic one. One was about social justice, while the other was about technological prowess.

Don’t worry, those of us in Business School see this irony too (at least I hope some of us do!) Or maybe we don’t. Maybe to b-school students, these are both, well, simply good examples of OB.

Midterms are Approaching

As the midterms are approaching very quickly, I can sense a general level of nervousness in the class rising, particularly as we struggle with finance, modeling, and even economics – have we learned enough to pass the midterms? Are our study groups being effective? What is a Net Present Value, anyways, and why do I care?

We’ve started having “Modeling for Poets” sessions (aka remedial modeling) and “Finance for Poets” (aka basic finance) sessions each week. The finance sessions are scheduled very conveniently at 8 am in the morning.

Inspired by our discussion of goal-setting in our OB class, I think I’ll set a goal related to these early morning sessions. I will set a goal to make it to at least one of these “Finance for Poets” sessions (yes, the 8 am ones) sometime this term.

Speaking of OB, my goal is what Professor F. would label as a SMART goal, a popular acronym for goals which are set in a “good” way. S is for Specific: one session of Finance for Poets is specific enough– nothing vague about it; M is for Measurable: Well, so far I’ve made it to zero sessions so this is easy to measure; A is for Achievable: Yes I have occasionally gotten out that early so it is possible; R is for Realistic: well, not sure about this one- we’ll see; T is for Timetable: I have a clear timetable in this goal, by the end of this term.

Study Group Drama

Yes, I think as mid-terms approach, tensions are definitely heating up, and not only in our study group, but others as well. Tensions between morning and evening, all of whom have to agree on a time to meet. Between married, married with kids, and single Sloans, all of whom have to pay the same class dues, and who often have radically different schedules trying to coordinate a time to meet. Between those who think finance (or economics, or modeling) is easy and those who think it (they) is black magic and extremely difficult. Even between those who think certain classes are not being well taught and those who don't.

I have also heard from several people that their study groups are not working well. I originally posted the specifics of an incident from my own study group.


-----Incident Transcript and Interpretation Deleted-------


I've taken it out because it proved too controversial since it involved my taking serious offense at comments directed to me personally from a member of my study group about why our study group wasn't functioning so well.

The reactions from my classmates to this blog entry were perhaps even more interesting than the incident itself - ranging from:


· encouragement ("a little dirty laundry can go a long way", "thanks for saying what some are thinking but not saying", RESPONSE: thanks)

· genuine concern about our relationship ("Hope you and this other guy are going to get along", RESPONSE: we're going to get along fine; we had a very heated discussion today that did a lot of good for us both and will hopefully lead to a productive relationship over the next eight months of the school year)

· logical admonishments ("you really should have discussed it with your classmate before putting it in your blog", RESPONSE: thanks, a very good point in general)

· offense ("I'm shocked. can't believe someone would say that to you!", RESPONSE: neither could I at the time)

· censorship ("Please don't put anything in your blog that might make the GSB look bad or hurt recruiting for the Sloan program or that those recruiting from the Sloan program might read online"), RESPONSE: Call me crazy, but I think Stanford GSB's reputation is strong enough to be able to handle it; if it can survive a book called "Snapshots from Hell", my little blog isn't certainly going to tip the scales...

· a serious case of cold-shouldering from some of my previously very friendly and warm GSB Sloan classmates ("If I don't look at Riz today and don't say hello to him, maybe he'll know that I don't approve of him putting stuff that happens between him and his classmates into the blog"). WARNING TO FUTURE BLOGGERS: yes, this is part of the joy of personal blogging, especially if, like me, you don't always follow the party-line that everything is always hunky dory... I read one blog that took place at a prominent business school (!) from a few years ago; the blogger quit in October, because "it was just too controversial" to continue. We'll see how long this one lasts - even this revised entry is likely to generate its share of controversy!

Interestingly, the most encouraging and helpful reaction was from our study group. The incident and our subsequent discussion led us to one of the more open and most productive study group sessions we've had in a while, with broad agreement about how to move forward.

So, ironically, our study group at least, is likely to be well prepared for the approaching mid-terms!

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1 Comments:

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9:44 PM  

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