Toward Reality TV MBAs

The quality of firm managers matters enormously for firm productivity. How can we get better managers? We already select the best people in terms of simple features like intelligence, conscientiousness, etc. But apparently there is still huge variation in quality, even after controlling for such things. Typical MBA programs teach people some business basics, but don’t seem to help much; they mainly serve to select elites and connect them to each other.

I recently had dinner with a few San Francisco tech startup CEOs, who were worth high sums. They weren’t obviously that much smarter etc. than others. Their high value came from having actually navigated difficult business waters, successfully enough. That sort of experience and track record is gold. Some said that business success came from making the right decision at a half dozen key points; any wrong move would have killed them.

Some had first gained experience via being a personal assistant to someone else in such a role. Such an assistant goes to all meetings and sees pretty much everything that manager does, over a several year period. Apparently children learn similar things via parents dinner conversations:

The majority of male entrepreneurs in Norway start a firm in an industry closely related to the one in which their father is employed. These entrepreneurs outperform others in the same industry. … ‘Dinner table human capital’ – that is, industry knowledge learned through their parents – is an important factor.… the effect of parents helping out, although possibly quite important, is smaller. (more; HT Alex T)

If one can learn much from just watching the inside story of real firms over several years, that suggests a big win: record the full lives of many rising managers over several years, and show a mildly compressed and annotated selection of such recordings to aspiring managers. Such recordings could be compressed by deleting sleep and non-social periods. They could be annotated to identify key decisions and ask viewers to make their own choices, before they see actual choices. Recordings might be selected 2/3 from the most successful, and 1/3 from a sampling of others.

Yes, there are issues of privacy and business secrets. But these are already issues for personal assistants and others who attend key business meetings. Waiting five years could take away many business secret concerns. And we don’t have to make these videos available to the world; making manager experiences visible to only 100 times more people might increase our pool of good manager candidates by a factor of 100. And that could be worth trillions to the world economy.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Mars

    I would be a bit concerned the managers might act differently knowing they are being watched. Curious if that would improve or hinder the likelihood of their success as well.

  • Joshua Brulé

    > Yes, there are issues of privacy and business secrets. But these are already issues for personal assistants and others who attend key business meetings.

    I think the important difference is that they’re all plausibly deniable. If a manager makes a morally ambiguous / legally questionable decision, then personal assistant and others who attend the meeting may know, but they have no way of convincing anyone else; it’s one person’s word against the others and a lot of secrets will probably never come out.

    If they’re recorded, then anyone with access to the recording can reliably convince anyone else of what happened. Knowing this, I’d expect everyone’s behavior to change.

    • If you believe that most business success results from “morally ambiguous / legally questionable decisions” you may expect my proposal to be infeasible. I believe otherwise.

  • There is a weaker variety of business secrets that is just insider knowledge that could help competitors even if dated such as learning from mistakes or knowing private costs and profit margins. A substantial part of this would be zero sum within industries and not likely to be shared.

  • Ronfar

    Have you seen the movie “The Founder”? It covers this kind of thing, in as much as a standard feature length movie can tell the story of the founding and growth of a company. I wonder how long and how detailed a movie like that would have to be in order for it to actually teach management, though.

  • AJ Li

    We already use a form of this in business school, abet usually in textual form rather than video. They’re known as business case studies, which are used in exactly the manner you described. There’s even business case competitions, to select the most successful “viewers”.

    Switching from text to video may net some gains to the process. But even assuming you can bypass the privacy and business secrets issue, you’ll still have to deal with the logistical nightmare of filming someone 24/7.

    • I’m proposing to offer FAR more detail that in most case studies.

      • AJ Li

        Then why not just make it a more detailed case study? I’m not seeing what’s the big advantage of it being a video rather than text.

        If you want, you could include exact timeline, meeting minutes, negotiation transcriptions, etc. into a case study, which would give it about the same amount of detail as a video.

      • Ronfar

        You lose the body language of the meeting participants. Remember the story of the Nixon/Kennedy debates, where people who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy did better, and people who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon did better?

        (The downside is that video takes longer to watch than text does to read.)

      • Yes, but if the body language is essential doesn’t that suggest it’s as much a matter of personal charisma or persuasion as a genuine instance of skillful business decision making? I would expect things that depend on body language like that to be less teachable and less universal.

      • Petar Ivanovic

        Actually that stuff is pretty teachable, but one would actually have to take it seriously and practice it which isn’t common.

      • Isn’t that a disadvantage in that it adds noise to the lesson that is being learned?

        If you can’t reliably pick out the important factors from the unimportant factors in running a business then the video won’t be particularly useful in the first place. If you can then why not pair it down to the bare essentials rather than pad it with irrelevant details like what the people look like, sound like and the chit-chat they have?

  • Michael Merchant

    A few commented on how managers would behave differently with the knowledge of being recorded. We do have a single example of a firm that does this: Bridgewater. Without reveling secrets that were shared with me, I would say they have overcome the challenges that are being brought up here and have established their own status quo with the recordings that seems to be working for them. I’d love to see more experiments in this direction.

    Also, we tend to have very strong survival bias regarding businesses (fixation on the largest & most outperforming organizations). Mor video detailed case studies (ideally reviewed by some standard methodology rather than a producers sense of where they can build narrativesery) seems valuable in understanding the distribution space of key business levers & decisions for most firms.

    I also expect we’ll find this notion of “12 or so business decisions somewhat debunked for clarity that executives look at 1000s of decisions and need the capability of priotizing effectively. Many poor managers (and arguably most of society) may never focus properly on a key decision and spend much of their time bike shedding.

  • Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917()

  • Of course good fortune is irrelevant, right?

  • The Big Red Scary

    “Some said that business success came from making the right decision at a half dozen key points; any wrong move would have killed them.”

    What evidence is there that these people aren’t just on a lucky winning streak? Don’t successful managers eventually regress to the mean?

  • Since it would have to be after the fact it’s not so much Reality MBA as MBA documentary but aside from this nitpick I see a couple big issues.

    First, it’s likely that business talent consists as much in being able to identify what decisions are key as it is in making the right choices at those decision points. If so, simply watching video of a CEO won’t necessarily help those who don’t themselves have that CEO’s skill at identifying what choices really matter. Of course, one might annotate the video with such identifications but that only works to the extent you can convince someone who is believed to have this incredibly valuable ability to put in time annotating rather than being paid the big bucks to actually work as an executive.

    Second, what if executive talent doesn’t come down to a few high stakes choices but in performing well at many differing tasks. In other words, what if (like the famous model for academic productivity) there are 300 choices a month which could cause the company to do badly and the good executive is the one who avoids the bad choice with p=.99 rather than p=.95 like your average MBA recipient. In such a context we might expect someone who spent 7 years at every meeting and seeing every little call (or 15 years trying to be like dad) to do well but no real way to get anyone to usefully absorb that skill by watching 40 hours of video a week for 2 years straight even if you could convince them to do so.

    Third, it could very well be that the right calls to make very much depend on your personality and strengths. So the same choices that might work for a Bill Gates aren’t necessarily the right ones for a Steve Jobs. Given heredity dinner table capital would still make sense.

    This isn’t to say its not worth trying. It very well may be. I’m just pointing out just a few of the many ways it might not work so we probably shouldn’t bet too much on its success.

    • You could annotate to identify a great many decisions, then ask watchers to rate the importance of each decision.

      • Yes, but the very skill we want to teach may be the skill that allows one to annotate the decisions correctly. If so why would we expect this to be any more effective than having a bunch of students who don’t know calculus watch videos of people trying to work out integrals and voting on when they get it right?