Startup Lessons From The MIT and Harvard Strategy War Game

Written By: Dharmesh Shah April 5, 2006

Recently, I led a team from MIT in the second annual “strategy war game” with Harvard Business School organized by Fuld and Company.  The event was held on Thursday, March 30th in Cambridge, MA.  I was a participant in last year’s battle (MIT won).  This year, the battle was even more competitive.  The judges were more critical in their assessment and opposing teams more “aggressive” in their questioning.  However, much fun was had by all.  MIT won again this year (makes two years in a row for both MIT and me).

This year’s topic was “The Battle For Digital Entertainment Supremacy”.  Basically each team had to devise strategies for a randomly assigned company (the companies possible were NewsCorp, Microsoft, Apple and Verizon).  These strategies were then presented, while opposing teams asked questions, objected and otherwise critiqued the strategy.  Judges chimed in as well with thoughtful (but pointed) questions to the presenting team.  The judges were all “neutral” (no school affiliation) and from industry (IDC, Gartner, Yankee Group, etc.).  After initial presentations, the organizers provided a “random but plausible” external event.  This year, the event was:  “Dell and Wal-Mart have announced a partnership whereby they will jointly develop and offer a fully integrated entertainment system with Internet connectivity”.  The task in Round 2 was then to respond to this event.

Enough by way of background.  What does any of this have to do with startups (which is the topic of this blog)?  Why is this article nothing more than an ego trip for me because MIT just happened to win both years?  I’m glad you asked…

Strategy Battles And The Startup Game

  1. Even In Academia, Winning Strategies Don’t Always Win:  Looking at the war game objectively, most people could have argued that Harvard’s presentations and strategies were just as cogent and defensible as MIT’s.  Many would argue that they were even better in some cases than those of MIT (though I personally wouldn’t argue this).  However, I would posit that strategies don’t win competitions (neither in war games or in real life), teams win.
  1. Think Co-opetition:  In the digital entertainment industry (and in many other industries), winning is not always about taking market share away from your competitors.  Strategy in today’s world is much more nuanced.  From a startup’s perspective, success can often be built on picking the right partners and platforms.  This is a case of competition and cooperation (hence the best selling book “Co-opetition” – which is well worth the read, if you haven’t picked it up yet).  Partnerships for startups are very, very hard (I’ll be writing about this in an article next week), but often a great way to overcome early obstacles.  For startups, its critical to really look at each of the players in the industry (big and small) and figure out on what points you really compete – and on what points you can collaborate.  I would further argue that almost nobody is just a “pure” competitor.  There are always opportunities for collaboration (though, admittedly, they may not be the most strategy in all cases).
  1. Don’t Deliver A Presentation, Have A Conversation:  Too many people feel like they need to get up in front of a room and “deliver” a presentation.  Selling a strategy (to judges) is not unlike selling a product (to a customer).  There are a few things to remember:  Customers are people too.  Success is often a function of how much the audience/customer is “engaged”.  And, its hard to engage if you’re doing most of the talking, and your PowerPoint slides are doing the rest.  Pitches (sales, investment, strategy, whatever) are all about “telling a story”.  MIT took a big risk in Round 2, and actually used no PowerPoint slides.  Practically unheard of in this kind of setting (particularly since the task assigned was to “build a strategy presentation and deliver/defend it”).  We ignored the task and focused on the goal.  We had a conversation.  (For the record, MIT scored the highest points of all teams on that particular round).  Conversations win.  [Editor’s Note:  I have a forthcoming article titled “PowerPoint Presenters Anonymous – Breaking the Dependency”]
  1. It’s Hard To Fake Preparedness:  Quite simply, the MIT team was by far much better prepared than the Harvard team.  Everyone on the team knew everyone else.  We had talked about the topic before “game day”, and discussed/debated the salient points.  In our minds, we had already won before we even walked in the room.  Winning was not about winning the battle (though that was certainly important to us), winning was about learning about the topic, using our new-found “MBA skills” and most importantly, learning about each other.  So, in this case, as is the case with startup management teams, preparing is as much about knowing your team as it is about knowing your industry, products and competitors.  And, much like startups, its important that you focus on the ultimate objective.  Its not about “equal stage time” for all the participants.  Its not about “fostering and growing” each of the employees.  That’s a luxury that’s earned and must come later.  In the early stages, you’re leveraging your team strengths to survive.  Having this team chemistry is about trust.  Individual team members must trust each other to do “the right thing”.  
  1. Nothing Motivates Like Winning:  This is going to seem obvious, because it is.  Nothing motivates a team like winning (except perhaps losing, with a chance to come back).  Once you have a win, it can bring the team together in unparalleled ways.  It validates things you thought you knew.  It encourages risk-taking (because most wins involve some risk-taking).  And, it just feels good.  Incidentally, the MIT team actually talked about what it meant (for us) to win.  We didn’t just want to “beat Harvard”.  We wanted to represent MIT admirably and “create value for the participants”.  We wanted to be creative.  We wanted to say something meaningful for everyone in the room (including representatives from Microsoft and Verizon).  As Seth Godin would say, “We wanted to do something remarkable”.

With that, we’ll bring this to a wrap.  My compliments to the smart people from Harvard – you played an exceptionally good game.  I was worried the whole time.  Just like being a CEO, credit for winning goes to the team, responsibility for failure goes to the leader.  J  I’m just glad I’m graduating and hence won’t be participating in next year’s game.  I’m sure Harvard will be coming back with a vengeance.  I know I would.  Thanks also to Fuld and Company for organizing the event.  It was another great event.

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