Management Communcation, Management Education, Uncategorized

The Value of Stories and Rehearsal

By Bob Bruner-

… the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

This is an apparent contradiction that is relevant to all students: if the future is unknowable, why should we plan or train? Navy SEALS are renowned for relentless training. Yesterday, I asked a SEAL who just enrolled at Darden, “given that there is so much uncertainty in special operations, why do you go through drills, scenarios, and exercises of all kinds? Critics suppose that such training just teaches you how to handle those specific situations. Are they right?” One critic I had in mind is Peter Thiel, a big private equity guy, who is telling 19-year olds that more training isn’t worth it. I’ve already blogged about the objection that “Steve Jobs didn’t go to b-school!” But a SEAL who was signing up for more training (21 months at one of the more demanding MBA programs) piqued my interest: SEAL vs. Thiel.

So the SEAL responded, “Actually, the training we do helps us anticipate and deal with uncertainty, surprises, and clever adversaries; it helps us deal with all situations.” Like Dwight Eisenhower’s view (“planning is everything”), it isn’t the specific plan or scenario that matters in training SEALS, but rather it is the discipline and capacity for response that training and planning create.

We see countless examples of this in professional life: business negotiators and trial lawyers who rehearse through scenarios before going in to meet their counterparties; consultants and sales professionals who rehearse presentations and practice responding to objections; general managers rehearse giving difficult feedback before meeting with an employee.

The 2012 Olympics offered relentless reminders that training pays. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success devotes a chapter to the “10,000-Hour Rule.” He quotes a neurologist Daniel Levitin, “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.”

Rehearsals, stories, and simulations are good for us. In his review of the interesting book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, David Eagleman wrote, “Neuroscience has long recognized that emulation of the future is one of the main businesses intelligent brains invest in. By learning the rules of the world and simulating outcomes in the service of decision making, brains can play out events without the risk and expense of attempting them physically. As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, simulation of the future allows “our hypotheses to die in our stead.” Clever animals don’t want to engage in the expensive and potentially fatal game of physically testing every action to discover its consequences. That’s what story is good for. The production and scrutiny of counterfactuals (colloquially known as “what ifs”) is an optimal way to test and refine one’s behavior.”

Darden’s developmental approach relies on rehearsals, stories, and simulations probably more than any other business school. Occasionally I’m challenged to justify what we do. After all, wouldn’t a lecture-based curriculum be more efficient in time and effort? Perhaps. But as the SEALS, Olympians, and many business professionals demonstrate, mere lecturing is not as effective as a developmental approach based on rehearsals, stories, and simulations.

In the course of our MBA program, our students will wrestle with several hundred business situations. Each case will seem to be unique, but when combined with hundreds of others, will form a truly impressive mosaic of risk, opportunity, and most importantly, of wise action. Rarely will there be a “right” or correct answer to a case study—but there are many wrong ones. Repeated practice helps one to anticipate error. Wrestling with the case studies helps you grow in wisdom.

But there is more. Simply putting in the time (be it 10,000 hours to get to the Olympics or 2 years to get an MBA) is no guarantee of mastery. More work is not the answer; the right kind of learning is what’s important. Simply reading cases and offering one casual comment per class won’t get you where you need to go. Each case offers a rehearsal or practice session. If you practice deliberately you will accelerate your development.

The concept of deliberate practice is discussed in two good books: Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else and David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us: Why everything You’ve Been Told about Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong. As Colvin writes, “Deliberate practice…is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business related activities or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.” (p. 66)

A program such as Darden’s has all of these attributes; and it can be fun, though the rigor feels pretty demanding. Colvin says, “If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: it must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest. The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.” (p. 72)

Here’s my take on Thiel vs. SEAL. Thiel’s skepticism is worth pondering. Not all MBA (or other degree) programs are created equal. You need to be a careful consumer and weigh the pros and cons of each. Getting a degree is no guarantee of reaching your life’s goals. If you simply can’t wait to start a business, then any kind of formal training will be a tremendous bore. As I have said in this blog in numerous ways, you must listen to your head and your heart—when called seriously, follow.

But if forced to bet on Thiel or the SEAL, I would put all my chips on the SEAL. Training pays. Indeed, research [1] suggests that the return on education is very high, perhaps the highest available to most consumers. The correlation between years in school and earning power is strong and positive. But I would add that some kinds of training are bound to have higher returns than others. Your return will be higher if you, the student, bring great commitment and energy to the enterprise. And like Darden’s learning experiences, the training you choose should harness insights of extensive research on high performers:

  • Stories, rehearsals, and simulations are not mere entertainment or illustrations of lofty concepts, they are likely to be the main arena of your development.
  • Your development consists of growth in knowledge, skills, and attributes of character. Too often, students focus on the knowledge stuff (facts, formulas, names, dates), which are easily transmitted in lectures, textbooks, and MOOCs. It is much harder to acquire the skills and attributes of character—gaining these is where the rehearsals, stories, and simulations have great impact. Also, skills and attributes will distinguish you more than knowledge.
  • Practice deliberately, not passively. Set goals: where do you want to develop? In setting goals, focus on the process of reaching an outcome, not just the outcome itself. Put in plenty of dedicated time. Consider possible alternative scenarios, not just the focal scenario of the case story, rehearsal, or simulation. While you are studying a case or are in a discussion, think not only about the immediate problem, but also try to step outside of the immediate issues and monitor the larger processes or concepts prevailing in the situation—this is called, “metacognition,” and will help you derive principles from specific situations. Ask for feedback regularly and often, from professors, friends, classmates, anyone who seems willing to speak candidly. And when you ask for feedback be as specific as you can: not, “how am I doing?” but “Did I respond effectively to your question?” or “Was my presentation clear and concise?” When you get feedback, reflect on it and change as you believe change is warranted. Remember that one way to gain helpful feedback is to be a helpful coach to others; so often, what you receive from others is related to what you give. If you get downright lost (it happens to us all sooner or later), ask for help forthrightly. Ultimately, you must believe in your own ability to perform at a high level; deliberate practice requires high motivation; you must be your own best friend.

It’s not the arrival, but the journey that matters said the philosopher, Montaigne. In graduate school more than anywhere else, how you learn is what you learn. Focus efforts on the process and you will grow.

  1. See four studies: Card, D., 2001. “Estimating the Returns to Schooling: Progress and Some Persistent Problems”, Econometrica, 69(5), 1127-1160. Palacios-Huerta, I., 2003. “An Empirical Analysis of the Risk Properties of Human Capital Returns”, American Economic Review, 93(3), 948-964. Psacharopoulos, G. and H. Patrinos, 2002. “Returns to Investments in Education: A Further Update”, World Bank discussion papers 2881. Heckman, J, Lockner, and P. Todd, 2003 “Fifty Years of Mincer Earnings Regressions”. []