Jeremy Ghez wrote Architects of Change: Designing Strategies for a Turbulent Business Environment in what many considered the most turbulent environment imaginable: England voted to leave the European Union via Brexit, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and populist movements were shaking the political and economic bedrock of an already shaky Europe. Then, things got even crazier.
Ghez, an associate professor of economics and decision sciences at HEC Paris and co-director of the school’s Center for Geopolitics, says he wrote Architects of Change as a “toolbox for managers” in a disruptive, world-changing time. Released in October, the book is a series of essays based on conversations with CEOs, thought leaders, experts, and political leaders, offset every other chapter by business school case studies that Ghez has taught to his MBA students. Among the cases: Founding a Popular Pizza Place in Paris; Strategizing at Amazon When Globalization Comes Under Pressure; Looking for Talent in a Chaotic World.
The thrust of the book: that great business leaders use an entrepreneurial mindset to transform how businesses and industries operate. Architects of Change is predicated on the expectation that a tsunami of change is headed our way, and the successful will weather the storm with strategies for sustainable profitability. It’s about “how you strive for impact,” Ghez says. “A toolbox on how to strive for impact in a world that is increasingly hot, increasingly crowded, and increasingly angry.”
A CHANGED WORLD IN A FEW SHORT MONTHS
Thanks to coronavirus, the tsunami has arrived.
“The world has indeed changed. But how much did it change?” says Ghez, 39. “Before this crisis, I was struck by the number of people expecting a tsunami to happen. Some said it would technological, others argued it would be social, others still thought it would be environmental. Well, is this the tsunami? In any case, architects of change are those who will be able to surf on this wave of transformation and try to reinvent their business environment in order to strive. This requires analysis, agility, and imagination. The health crisis is an explanation as to why they need to do that. It’s maybe a perfect illustration of how ‘turbulent’ — the key word in the subtitle of the book everyone, including me, seems to forget about — this business environment can get.
“And if it wasn’t the pandemic, it would have been something else. Unless you accept the need for constant evolution (we need to re-read the sequel of Alice in Wonderland, and remember the Red Queen’s Race) and even reinvention, you’re unlikely to do well.”
Poets&Quants named Ghez one of our 40-Under-40 Best Business School Professors in 2019. This year, as we selected a new group of peerless B-school profs, we caught up with Ghez from Paris just before the start of the event that would define the year as the most turbulent in memory: the global pandemic that could easily be a chapter in Architects of Change. (Perhaps it will be the sequel.)
Poets&Quants: How long have you been working on this book, and how have world events changed as you were writing it? It almost feels like in the last few years, political, economic, and cultural events are escalating.
Jeremy Ghez: It felt, and it still feels, like we live in a world that constantly defies what we used to think as the laws of gravity, the laws that would never be denied by anything. We also live in a business environment in which our intuition that we need to constantly, constantly adapt, constantly change and even constantly transform, is widely shared and widely verified in practice.
I wanted to put together a toolbox for managers, business executives who understood that this business environment was profoundly changing, but who always thought to themselves, “I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the resources. I don’t have the skills. I don’t have the competence, and I don’t have the luxury to worry about these things.”
And this was meant to basically bridge what’s happening in a business environment, what happens around you with, basically, what you can do about it as an individual, a decision-maker, the head of a business unit, or a senior executive. I think that the methodology is pretty straightforward, but it requires a little bit of gymnastics to get used to it. The better you understand your business environment, the better you are at formulating the problem that you’re trying to tackle, because you never make a decision in a political, geopolitical, technological, environmental, social vacuum.
The better you formulate the problem that you’re trying to solve, the more conscious you are of the transformation you must go through. Who are “you”? So it’s you as an individual, or you as a business, or even you as an industry. The transformation you must go through in order to be in a better position to reach that objective.
This is what an architect of change is to me. It’s accepting that the status quo will never last, accepting that business as usual will always get challenged, but rather than when you’re stuck and hoping for the best, instead trying to be proactive about it and trying to manage your own destiny, rather than letting others do that for you. This is the story I developed, over the past 10 years. It took me 10 years to get to that point.
How much of Architects of Change comes from the classroom, and how much is in your current instruction? Are the case studies in the book things that have been a part of your MBA classroom?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s absolutely true. I guess the oddity in my profile is that I come from a background of policy analysis at the Rand Corporation. This is, I think, the beginning of the story. I had four years of experience of dealing with public sector actors: talking, exploring, and doing research on questions related to geopolitics and business environment and international relations. I guess that coincidence led me to HEC, and this is where I needed to do the bridge between what I knew about and why I thought a lot of business executives needed to care about this.
I’ve been writing this book for about 10 years, but maybe it took a little bit more than 10 years — before that, I didn’t even know I wanted to write about this, I guess.
Of all the experts you talked to, did anyone surprise you with their views?
I think that the most striking part in the conversations is how straightforward this is to the many people I’ve talked to. I thought that I might need to convince people we needed to do this bridge, but I think people were already convinced that we needed to do this bridge. They weren’t just sure that everyone was listening. So it’s kind of this consensus that everyone shares but is either too afraid or too busy to actually share with your neighbor. As a result of that, no one really talks about this. Or you do this on-the-side, as a hobby, or as the mental gymnastics you do when you read Foreign Affairs or The Financial Times or whatever else.
But there wasn’t a really systemic effort to put this together. And this is what maybe surprised me most, is that everyone agreed. But I wasn’t entirely sure I had seen this before somewhere else, with this real intention of bridging the analysis of what’s happening around you with your strategy, per se.
I wonder if we can apply the bridge metaphor to the current state of business schools. What’s on the far side of the bridge from now to say a year, two years, five years from now?
I hope I’m going to address the question. My thinking is, it revolves around the skillset that we need to give our students, our participants. It seems to me that 20 years back, when you were teaching in an MBA program, it was pretty straightforward. It was kind of like a checklist. You checked the boxes and that would be straightforward and everyone would be happy. What I find striking about this generation is that they’re far more anxious, and truth be told, I understand why and I share their anxiety on many points.
That means that the checklist approach isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. I am lucky to basically interact with a lot of people, senior executives, for the research and for training purposes. They seem to all agree that the tsunami’s coming, so they might disagree on what that tsunami is about. Some say it’s technological. The robots are going to steal our jobs, and we’re all going to be out of a job. Others claim, “No, it’s social. It’s anger. It’s Brexit. It’s the yellow vest. It’s Donald Trump.” Basically, business is going to be put in a very bad place, because the backlash has hit politics, but it’s going to hit businesses next. Others still say, “No, it’s not technological. No, it’s not social. It’s environmental and it’s climate change.” So clear enough.
But then I see two schools of thought. They all agree that the tsunami’s coming. Some of them say, “Okay. Well, maybe I’ll just stand here and in a Moses-like miracle, this tsunami is going to ignore me,” and it will be business as usual for them. That’s school of thought number one.
School of thought number two is that you’re going to say, “Look, I need to reinvent whatever I have in my hands,” and maybe it’s just your desk. “I need to transform it into a surfboard,” because what’s better to have than a surfboard when the tsunami’s coming? Rather than drowning in the tsunami, let’s actually surf on that wave.
I guess my point, to go back to your question of what’s on the other side of the bridge for business schools: To me, it’s the ability to give a set of tools to help them develop a toolbox that will help them surf on that wave. The problem is, I don’t know exactly what should be in that toolbox. Well, I think I know. I hope I know the state of mind they must be in, in order to continue surfing on that wave, rather than drowning in it.
This book seems like the sort of thing that every MBA would want to read.
I can’t disagree with that. I would hope so. I am way too aware of how complex this business environment I’m trying to describe is. I think of this book more as an unfinished symphony, in the sense that I also hope that I get a lot of feedback and views of people who are on the other side of the Atlantic and Asia and so on, or they develop their own views as well. Because I think that we’re going to need to show a lot of openness and a lot of empathy as well.
It’s certainly one effort to help the MBAs on how you do business, how you innovate, how you make decisions, and how you stay in touch with reality in a period that has, I think, never been this dogmatic and never been this ideological or polarized.
Listen to a Soundcloud interview with Jeremy Ghez here.