Leadership : Diagnosing MBA Clones and Initiating a De-cloning Process

Dr. Dan Herman, a globally renowned strategy consultant, an author and a lecturer, is the author of "Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Strategy, Marketing, and Branding" (http://www.outsmart-mba-clones.com). He is the co-owner and CEO of Competitive Advantages, an international firm specializing in strategy consulting and the development and marketing of knowledge based products.


In our hyper-competitive markets, MBA clones pose an imminent and tangible threat to the competitiveness of the companies they work for. Many executives today attend the same MBA programs, study the same books, read the same newspapers and magazines, and go to the same conferences and workshops. Standardization in MBA programs results in a similarity in the professional approach and managerial thinking of their graduates. It also shapes the vocabulary and agenda of all the business media and training activities. Hence, many executives today turn into “MBA clones”.


What's wrong with MBA-graduate managers who apply the professional knowledge and skills they have learned? All those managers who are supposed to compete with one another and create that very differentiation which gives consumers a good reason to prefer one brand over another, eventually end up using the same data; they conduct the same types of consumer research and draw conclusions using same methods; they analyze the same information with the same tools, and use the same concepts and approaches in order to create products and brands.


The result? Inevitably, most products, and even most brands, evolve to appear as "same" to the consumer. These managers are not even playing me-too. Without consciously imitating each other, they achieve the same results, simply because they think and act the same way.


Not every MBA graduate necessarily becomes an MBA clone. But MBA graduates definitely constitute an at-high-risk population. So what about you? Are you an MBA graduate? Do you have the symptoms? Don't be frightened. Let me reassure you that being an MBA clone is not a condition beyond cure.


De-cloning is possible and rather painless. But first please take this short test to assess your situation.  All you have to do is answer with candor, courage and integrity the following 10 questions, with a "Yes" or a "No". I promise not to tell anyone if you won't…

Question 1:

Do you often use concepts such as "striving for a sustainable competitive advantage", "segmenting the market", "assuming a niche strategy", "fostering customer loyalty", "developing a corporate vision", "adopting brand values"?


Question 2:

Do you prefer courses of action that already worked for others?


Question 3:

Do you focus on blocking competitors from gaining an advantage more than on attempting to achieve one yourself?


Question 4:

Would you agree that both you and your competitors segment the market in a similar manner and then focus on the same attractive groups?


Question 5:

To gain a competitive advantage, do you strive to be better than your competitors in providing clients with benefits that are known to be important in your market?


Question 6:

Do you consider strategy to be an analytic process of research, analysis, setting objectives and planning?


Question 7:

Do you address mostly direct competitive threats, while disregarding other product categories in which future competition could emerge such as substitutes?


Question 8:

Do you try to think outside the box and consider out of the box thinking as an important capability for managers?


Question 9:

Do you think that customers generally know what they want and where their preferences lie, and consequently if you keep them satisfied (even delighted) they will remain loyal to you?


Question 10:

Do you believe that all brands are created for the long term and become stronger as they stand the test of time?

If you gave an affirmative answer to more than 5 of these questions, I am sorry to inform you that you are, at least to some extent, an MBA clone. I hope that it is of no consolation to you that many of your colleagues and competitors alike suffer the same condition. De-cloning yourself will not only set you free but also do wonders for your ability to thrive in competitive markets.


How do you go about de-cloning yourself, then?


The process entails full awareness of typical MBA thinking and subsequently realizing and accepting that is not the ultimate truth but just one way of interpreting business reality and operating in the marketplace. The popular "think outside the box" imperative (the 'box' being in fact typical MBA thinking) will not help you much. You will need to coach yourself in alternative concepts and tool up accordingly. Soon you will discover that your view has broadened and you managerial capabilities will have improved dramatically.


The following 10 tips are meant to be a first aid kit as well as a tasting from my alternative approach.


1.     The long-term, it's dead, caput, bygones. Deal with it.


In our accelerated and hypercompetitive world, there are no more long term strategies from which you may never digress. Most of the rules of strategy, marketing and branding that you learned are no longer relevant. They were created for the long term, but the long term has expired. The way to succeed over the long term is to succeed in the short term, time after time. For example: you do not "own" a market share, it is only an indication of your current situation.


2.     Feel the fear of strategy and strategize anyway


Research has shown unequivocally that the secret of companies who succeed is well differentiated strategy and uncompromising implementation. Yet, like most of your colleagues and competitors, chances are that strategy gives you the shivers. It's called "Strategephobia". Strategy has two terrifying characteristics. First strategy is a choice, which is terrifying because you will have to let go of all the "could-have-been"s first: "We are going to target customers X, and leave out the rest" or "The major benefit we will offer consumers is Z and leave out the rest." When you adopt a strategy, you have to "give up" stuff you don't actually have in order to formulate something tangible, something you can sink your teeth into. The second characteristic of strategy is differentiation from competitors, which is terrifying because most of the managers feel more comfortable being similar to their competitors; therefore they busy themselves on trying to block competition's attempts to create an advantage, rather than on striving to be different.


3.     Goals are goals, strategy is strategy – do not confuse


MBA clones often refer to their goals (e.g. "achieve a large market share") as "strategy". The guiding principle is: What you want to achieve is your goal. What you are doing to reach that goal is your strategy. From my experience, it's best to be very clear about the distinction between them.


4.     Your company does not need a vision


Establishing a company's vision is a very trendy process. But be aware that your vision is not remarkably similar to your competitors'. Personally, I don't think you need a vision at all, but if you must have one, you should place two qualifications on the process to make it effective. First, your vision must be differentiated, not only in your eyes but most especially in the eyes of your consumer. Second, your vision must offer consumers some important benefit that they can't get from the competitors. In other words, your vision has to be a differentiation-based competitive strategy.


5.     A satisfied customer is not necessarily a loyal customer


Customer satisfaction does not assure customer loyalty. Customers will move on to new products when turned on by a new and exciting benefit. Therefore, we must move from satisfying, subservient marketing - that gives consumers what they want and expect — to what I call Electrifying Marketing: dazzling them with what they never thought they wanted – until you offered it to them.

6.     Think of your strategy's success as an occurrence of consumer behaviors


The most essential insight to strategic business thinking is the fact that customer behavior is the reason for strategies' success or failure. Moreover, a deep understanding of consumer psychology is crucial to successful strategizing. I advise you, therefore, to think of your strategy's success in terms of the specific consumer behaviors that will bring it about.


7.     Market segmentation is a waste of time. Move on to Contextual


The traditional market segmentation doesn't work with today's consumer, who refuses almost completely to abide by segments that create homogeneous groups according to demographic, socio-economic variables, or even according to lifestyle. An alternative approach is "Contextual Segmentation", i.e. segmenting according to contexts of purchasing or using/consuming, in which consumers can participate from time to time (e.g. the "We celebrate grandpa's birthday" segment of the restaurant business)


8.   Remember "The Marketing Approach"? Forget it!


The "marketing approach", based on identification of unsatisfied needs and how to satisfy them, is no longer a key to success for two reasons: first, there are few unsatisfied needs left. Second, in a competitive market, it is undesirable that all marketers act in the same manner. The alternative "competitive approach", is based on creating new ways to satisfy needs that are already satisfied.


9.     Raise your prices – sell more

No market is price driven and neither are most consumers. It's the marketers who are price-driven. In practically all categories most consumers never buy the cheapest brand. The same consumer who in relation with your product is "price-driven" has no trouble spending high prices for other products and services. In many formerly "price-driven markets", a competitor came along who one day stopped talking about price and began offering an added value, the kind that turns consumers on.


10.  Do not expect "Branding" to build brands

Managers often believe that a good name, a logo, a professional "corporate identity" design and some positive brand values, will suffice for winning competitive advantages, and that any effort required in order to create real differentiation or to develop a valid competitive edge should be spared. Wrong! Your differentiation creates the anticipation of a unique benefit that your brand provides. This anticipation is your brand.

Did any of the above open a new perspective for you? If your answer is affirmative, then that means your de-cloning process is already underway. Now you must reinforce it. Perhaps you would like to consider reading my book: "Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Marketing, Strategy and Branding". The book brings into full light the biases and tendencies that result from the typical MBA thinking. It also provides a comprehensive set of new concepts and a toolkit alternative to those taught at MBA studies. 


The primary cunning intent of this book is to help the reader take advantage of MBA clones' biases. Its ambitious promise is to help managers create business strategies that will be immensely successful and yet amazingly will not be copied by the competition, resulting in an "Unfair Advantage" that leads to a private monopoly.


But the book also has a beneficial de-cloning effect on MBA clones. It can help you start practicing an alternative and more apt perspective in business, than that which is dictated by MBA thinking. From there, your road to success is paved.


Copyright 2008 Dan Herman

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