Halfway through the MBA

A few short weeks ago, the MBA class of 2016 breathed a collective sigh of relief as the last final was turned in, we had our end of year celebrations, and said our farewells to the graduating class of 2015. The class of 2015 is now transitioning into their post-MBA careers, and the class of 2016 is already starting their summer internships. We are now officially “second-years.”

For anyone looking to embark on their own MBA journey, here are my thoughts on the first year:

New Careers

As a career changer, this last year has been huge. This experience has opened up new opportunities that were previously closed when I left the Air Force. Part of this is because of the networking opportunities from alumni, peers, and the MBA program’s career management office…but the other reason is because the MBA is an inflection point in your career and an opportunity to gain new skills. These new skills and new ways of thinking allow you to know more about business challenges and find ways to overcome them. This also helps you look back at your career and gives you deeper insight into your past successes and failures, which in turn helps you tell your story and learn from your past.

In other words, the MBA program helps open new doors through the network, and the knowledge you gain helps you walk through them.

New Challenges

This year was incredibly intense from a time management standpoint. We were warned that the first quarter would be the most intense, but I would say that each quarter had its own unique challenges. Fall quarter was rough because of the number of team assignments in the core curriculum, and because of all the extracurricular activities. Winter quarter was tough because you needed to balance the internship search on top of the core curriculum and team assignments. However, Spring quarter was the most time-intensive. In addition to the coursework and team assignments, we also had to juggle multiple long-term commitments, like club leadership, entrepreneurship competitions, paid work, and independent study (consulting) projects.

The lesson I learned out of all of this is that you will always be busy during every waking hour. Everyone gets the same 24-hour day, so have a strategy on how you’re going to spend it. You’ll have to make tradeoffs. You could spend all your time focusing on your career, but suffer academically or neglect your club leadership position. Or you could spend every waking hour on writing the perfect essay, and skip out on peer networking events or neglect your family. You want to do everything equally well, but it’s just not possible. You gotta make tradeoffs!

New Friends

There’s nothing like a shared experience or challenge to bring people together. This MBA class has people from all over the world, from a diverse set of backgrounds and histories. We’re all here to get an MBA together, and it’s not hard to find a group of people that you connect with. I love connecting with people through the outdoors, and there are so many destinations and miniature adventures within driving distance of campus…and after a year, we’ve been yearning to leave our little MBA universe in PACCAR Hall for a spell.

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hiking to the top of Mount St. Helens with a small group of friends, and got to peer inside an active volcano. The hike wasn’t easy, but the view was amazing. These are good moments. We are living in the good old days.

The summit is just the halfway point, but it’s a great spot to take a breather and admire the view. We’re halfway through this MBA program, and it’s remarkable to see how far we’ve come in such a short time. Congratulations to the Class of 2015 on your graduation, cheers to the Class of 2016 at the halfway point, and bring on the incoming Class of 2017!

Compete the Air Force Way – by outdeciding your opponent

This is the meeting you’ve been dreading. Every week, you meet as part of a committee to decide on next steps for this inconsequential project. However, the team spends the entire time debating on the best course of action. They evaluate data, argue about pros and cons, and try to weigh costs and benefits. But there just isn’t enough information, so the team agrees to do more research, and the decision gets pushed out yet another week.

MBAs love frameworks. We have a framework to learn about marketing, with varying numbers of C’s and P’s to memorize. We have frameworks for strategy, with varying numbers of external and internal forces to consider. We are given plenty of tools for analysis, but when it comes to decision-making, we have a tendency to revert back to analysis when confronted with a lack of information.

Paralysis by Analysis

Basic military officer training introduces you to a lot of frameworks as well, including ones for decision-making. I still remember having to memorize a 12-step problem solving process which we had to follow during leadership training exercises. This literally required saying things like “Step 1: identify the problem. The problem is…” as part of the team brief. We spent precious time on the process that could have been better spent on execution. Thankfully, these were only training exercises, and we ditched the process as soon as we got into the real world.

However, once I got into the real world, we ran into a similar problem, but not as overt. You might have had a similar experience in your work – where you spent a huge chunk of your time trying to figure out the ultimate course of action, and then by the time you’ve made the decision, there’s hardly any time to actually do the work. Classic “paralysis by analysis.” Intuitively, we all knew that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Mike Tyson said it better: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

There’s a better way to make decisions and think about how your decisions play out in your larger strategy.

The OODA Loop

The OODA loop (short for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is an idea that is beloved within the Air Force community. It was originally invented by a fighter pilot named John Boyd, one of the most famous military tacticians in the Air Force. He created the OODA loop from his observations of aerial combat in the Korean War, and it was one of the concepts that he used to revolutionize air combat instruction. He used to boast that he could defeat any other pilot in an engagement, from a position of disadvantage, in 40 seconds. He never lost.

The OODA loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The basic premise of this theory is that you need to make decisions more quickly than your competition. You need to quickly analyze a limited amount of information, and then decide and act on that information as soon as possible. You’ll then get feedback form your actions, and the process repeats itself. The faster you can iterate, the more you’ll learn relative to your competition. In other words, you’re getting inside your competitor’s OODA loop and disrupting their processes.

Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology takes this principle and applies it to startups. In theory, by focusing on a minimum viable product, gathering feedback, and developing quick iterations of products and the lessons learned from each iteration, you can out-execute the competition. You can also ultimately conserve your resources by failing fast and early, and failing cheaply.

Why use it?

The OODA loop encourages experimentation and proceeding with the 80% solution now rather than waiting for a 100% solution. In the famous ‘marshmallow challenge,’ teams assemble a contraption of spaghetti and tape to see which team can create the tallest free-standing structure. They found that teams of children outperformed adults (including MBA students and engineers) because rather than argue about the course of action, they play with the materials and come to the best conclusion through trial and error, rather than through rigorous analysis and debate.

There appears to be evidence to back up the theory that faster decision-making leads to better results. Faster strategic decision-making has been tied to better firm performance in various contexts, especially in high-velocity environments. Counter-intuitively, the research also found that the fast (and successful) decision makers seem use more information, not less, in their analysis and reasoning.

However, speed isn’t everything – you need to make sure you are doing enough in each step and not focusing so much on speed that the decision quality goes down. A 2002 study in the Academy of Management Journal cautioned that organizations can fall into a ‘Speed Trap’ – where the focus is so much on speed that the quality of decision-making suffers.

Conclusion

Next time you go into that unending meeting or committee, think about what would happen if the group just made a decision and experimented with it. What would be the consequence of failure? Would you learn more by trying a solution rather than another week of debate or research? It might just be better to make a decision and get feedback, knowing that your first decision is going to be wrong anyway.

How to Improve your Teamwork and have Better Meetings with Gratitude

What are you grateful for? Can you name three things you are grateful for right now?

Last quarter, we started every team meeting (every full-time MBA experience is punctuated by many, many team meetings) by going around the table and naming three things that we were grateful for that day. The most common answer was that we were grateful for free food at a lunch event, but you’d also get a lot of insight into your teammates’ lives.

We’d hear about how our Mongolian teammate was grateful for being able to Skype to his wife and daughter. They’ve been away from each other for half a year now. We’d learn about the stress that we were each having in the internship search and see the gratitude in each incremental success. We’d come to understand that the reason that one team member was struggling in class was because they were secretly preparing for 6 internship interviews a week. We’d hear about the minutia of day to day life, and how the little things made each other grateful.

Through the lens of gratitude, we were able to put a positive spin on our thoughts and problems during the dark Seattle winter. We got to know each other on a deeper level, beyond the occasional ‘how are you’ or ‘how is the internship search going’ in between classes. But most importantly, it was insight into the ‘why’ of each team member: you find out what’s important to them, and what motivates them.

By being vulnerable to each other and learning about each other’s motivations, we started to trust each other. We were more efficient in our team meetings and in our team projects because we were able to delegate effectively. When one person was having a rough week or preparing for a major interview, the rest of the team would step up and shoulder the burden on team projects. While we would spend at least 15 minutes on gratitude at the beginning of every meeting, our meetings typically ended early. We trusted each other’s opinions while still having really honest debates on the right course of action.

Dominic Orr, CEO of Aruba Networks called this having “Brutal Intellectual Honesty,” (see a short 3-minute video on “Working With and Making Decisions with Great People”) where you have intelligent (and possibly heated) debate among great peers, but you also have to have thick skin. This simple exercise in gratitude developed comfort and trust in each other, which is a requirement for becoming more brutally intellectually honest with each other. This resulted in faster/better decisions, but ultimately did not result in resentment because we spent the time in the beginning of each meeting to ground ourselves, and to think positively about our day and learn about each other.

While the most common answer was that we were grateful for free food, the second most common answer was that we were grateful for each other and for having a supportive team. We ended the quarter with great grades (personally, a significant improvement over the first quarter), a happy consulting project client, and lifelong friends. This is the Foster that I am proud to be a part of, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

Today, the three things I’m grateful for are: getting to spend the summer as a MBA intern at Nike, having the opportunity to climb with some amazing classmates yesterday at the local crag, and my wife (for making tons of steak tacos this weekend).