‘GOOD STRATEGY DOESN’T PRETEND TO KNOW THE FUTURE’
Jeroen Swinkels, Paget professor of management policy in the Kellogg Strategy Department, taught in the new hybrid format over the summer. He called it “an interesting, and in the end, fun and liberating experience.” And he agrees with Mohan Sawhney that there’s no going back to the ways things were when the pandemic ends.
“What I think is interesting is even if we, in a year, are back to a fully physical classroom for the specific course that I just finished teaching, I will teach it differently, because of this experience in ways which I think strengthen us,” Swinkels tells P&Q. “As I’ve taught for years, I’ve gotten more and more into this notion that everything that I teach should be a perfect gem that is completely understood and figured out. And one of the things that was clear, as soon as we knew we were doing this hybrid, is that that was out the window — that there would be mistakes, there would be changes in schedule, for example.”
One of the most important things Swinkels did — something he will “do forever going forward” — was add a line to his syllabus: “This is an outline, not a contract.” It marked a departure from his past regimental approach.
“In the past, if I say we’re doing this on March the 23rd, then darn it, we’re doing this on March the 23rd,” he says. “And I told them upfront, no, I’ll tell you four days ahead of time where we are. And that allowed us to be wildly more flexible, because the pacing, for example, of hybrid is often very different than the pacing of non-hybrid. And I told them that, and I also told them that we would be adjusting as we went along.”
Flexibility was the most important thing, Swinkels says, but being upfront to students about expectations for interaction was also crucial.
“In my syllabus, I laid out what I thought were going to be good rules for how we would interact,” he says. “And I told them upfront, ‘This is our current understanding of best practice, but this will change as we go along.’ It really ties into how Kellogg teaches strategy, because one of the core principles of strategy as taught by Kellogg is that good strategy doesn’t pretend to know the future. It actually, rather, embraces the fact that it doesn’t. And so I teach all of this stuff about how you build flexibility into your strategy, how you truncate downsides, how you leverage upsides, how you deal with uncertainty in a way which is not just sort of negative — we’re going to avoid risk — but rather, ‘We’re going to embrace this.’
“And what was fun for me on a personal level was that I was forced into doing it, I was forced to walk the walk. And I had a great time doing it, and so I really want to do that going forward.”
KELLOGG STUDENTS HAVE ALWAYS HAD A HAND IN DESIGNING THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE
Swinkels says he particularly enjoyed working with students to figure things out — simple but important issues like how to raise your hand in class. What he found most interesting was not only that they were figuring things out as they went, but that they were candid about the mutual journey of discovery.
“There is a contract that basically the zoomies are fully included,” he says. “You have to arrive at a kind of an equilibrium with the students, where they trust that you’re going to work hard to include them, but then they trust that they don’t have to sort of have their hand up all the time. They can save it for when it really matters and know that they’ll be recognized. And so the students and I iterated on this, because we all wanted everyone to feel included, we all wanted the case discussions to be rich and interactive. And it took us a few tries, but we went back and forth — and here again, that’s something I really would like to do more going forward. I would like my students to be a little more involved on an ongoing basis on course, not quite design, but mechanism. ‘LVMH is in the middle of an interesting merger acquisition with Tiffany, and we’ve talked about related issues. Let’s just dig into this for a while.’
Swinkels, who appears in a short video that the school uses on engaging students in hybrid classes, says that one of the things that has always made Kellogg unique going back to the time of Don Jacobs, Kellogg’s dean from 1975 to 2001, was that the students have always been very involved in helping to design their own experience — “to help make Kellogg what they want it to be.” It’s not good enough, he says, to have faculty off in one place and students off in a room somewhere else. “Because it’s what happens also outside of the classroom that matters. And even though everyone is respectfully maintaining a distance and everyone is wearing a mask, it’s still the case that outside of the classroom setting, you are having conversations with the students about ‘oh, I had this great ongoing sequence.’
“I’m a Formula 1 fan, and a number of my students are also Formula 1 fans, and it turns out you could teach an entire strategy course based on Formula 1. Every possible example you need is buried somewhere in that sport. But we had this ongoing set of conversations about it. We had conversations about specific firms that students had worked for, and of course there were the ones I was involved in, but also there’s the hundreds of conversations that are taking place amongst our students that I’m not involved in. And that’s the thing which I think that some models of learning in the age of Covid are missing — that you learn as much from your classmates as you do from your professors.
“The outside of the classroom discussion is so critical and something which I think that we’ve so far managed to be able to facilitate. As Mohan said, so far so good.”
BUILDING RESILIENCE INTO EVERYTHING — INCLUDING 3RD, 4TH & 5TH PIVOTS
Mohan Sawhney says in the new world of graduate business education, faculty must embrace and practice greater agility. They must be prepared to mini-pivot.
“I teach product management, and how do you do product development in an agile way? And how do you embrace agile not only being a methodology but being a mindset of this data-driven experimentation, perfection being the enemy of progress, collaboration being really important, and building small work products that you iterate? So I was also forced to literally live that and practice the agility,” he says. “And I think this is becoming an institutional value for us, the idea that we need to build resilience into everything we do, because we are very happy with where we are at.
“I think we’re pioneering the way with hybrid and all, but you know what? Shit could hit the fan next week and we’ve got to pivot again. And I think we’re confident after having executed two or three pivots now — we have built the institutional infrastructure, the mindset, and the culture of saying, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s OK. We will pivot, we will learn, we will adapt, we will iterate.’ And we’ve also sort of inculcated that to some extent in the students, to say, ‘Listen, we’re all in this together. We’re going to figure it out, but what will never be compromised is our sort of commitment and the work ethic that we put into it.’ And I think that that is something perhaps that will also help us and our students as they go into a work life, because this is reality now.”