Strategize to find the right strategy: Prof. Tejpavan Gandhok

Prof. (Dr.) Tejpavan Gandhok, a serial entrepreneur has headed startups in F&B, Education, and Non-profit sectors. 

Prof. Pavan was Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at Indian School of Business before he joined Jindal Global Business School as Professor of Practice. 

Pavan graduated from the University of Melbourne, following which he did an MBA from UCLA, and a Ph.D. from Singapore Management University. 

Pavan’s applied research interests include: 

  • learning innovations
  • leveraging immersive engagement, and biofeedback based objective measures for better strategic thinking 
  • better appreciating the role of subconscious cognitive processes for Adaptive Strategic decisions under high flux and uncertainty.


Published work:

Pavan has published articles in journals and newspapers. 

An excerpt from one of his articles: 

Do we conduct businesses today in a dog-eat-dog world? If your chips are down, chances are it is your own doing. Your nemesis is less your competitor and more your approach.

We work in complex scenarios across a wide spectrum of circumstances facing a mélange of situations. Applying off-the-shelf resolutions to different problems lands us in the pickle jar. We need customized approaches to individual situations. 

The first step is to identify the problem and classify it so that you know what you are dealing with and what is resolution you seek. 

Which is your fit?

The Boston Consulting Group research: Your strategy needs a strategy has come up with five business situations that each calls for different strategies. 

  • The classical strategy works in predictable markets. You must inspect the factors driving the market, devise your schemes, and carry out plans for successful operation. 
  • The adaptive strategy works in volatile markets. You must weigh in the bets, chose the propitious schemes, and cash in on emerging opportunities.
  • The visionary strategy works in sure-fire and well-cast markets. You must anticipate what is coming and create an enterprise that has the insight to realize the vision. 
  • The shaping strategy works in markets that are cast but not foreseen. You must employ extensive collaborators, machinate their activities, and synchronize with them to emerge successful. 
  • The renewal strategy works in inclement markets. You work proactively, keep a tight fist on assets, and evolve successfully. 

Once you have identified the right conceptual approach to strategy, you grasp the clear-cut approach to the situation at hand. 

Gaming and AI

The BCG research suggests capitalizing on the edge gaming brings to calibrate and augment the necessary know-how consistently and cost-effectively. Organizations can benefit by leveraging games with Artificial Intelligence, and based on neuroscience theories, the right leader emerges for each strategy. 

To understand the power of a games-driven approach and identify the traits that best predict success in different environments, Prof. Pavan collaborated with the BCG Henderson Institute and pymetrics to study the strategy skills and neuroscience profiles of ~360 strategists with diverse backgrounds across different locations. 

The study found that different cognitive and emotional attributes prognosticate success in different simulated business environments. Few people could function well across all environments. 

A person shows traits as a good strategist in a context-driven scenario. Organizations must discern the exclusive competence each environment calls for and make strategic decisions based on data analysis to whet talent. 

Different games for different measures

The BCG Henderson Institute undertook the use of strategy games. They gave players a virtual “lemonade stand” while facing conditions that simulate one of the five different types of business environments. They scored players on how well they could deploy the right skills for each environment. 

Pymetrics undertook games to study cognitive neuroscience measures. They made the players undertake challenges that test their underlying cognitive or emotional traits.  For example, attempting to fill a virtual balloon up to just before its breaking point as a test of risk aversion. They assessed players across 91 cognitive neuroscience measures based on their actions in each game. 

The study collected each player’s scores across both sets of games. They built a distinctive dataset combining strategists’ cognitive neuroscience measures and strategy skills. They identified the cognitive neuroscience measures that were most correlated with success in each type of strategy environment using more than one variate.

The study found that:

  • certain cognitive neuroscience measures were decisive indications of strategy skills
  • the attributes required to succeed were different across environments. 

The study came up with some of the marked aspects that manifest how they reinforce success in the different strategic environments. 

In classical environments:

  • Detail-oriented: proficient in collecting, gathering, visualizing, and analyzing information in detail.
  • Good at planning: competent in developing a structured plan; marking specific steps to go after what they must accomplish.
  • Focused: can winnow noise and uphold scrutiny on specific tasks.

In predictable and stable environments:

  • Drivers of the performance: execute a plan to fruition
  • Thorough: conduct detailed analysis, create logical plans, and remain focused 

The most important traits in adaptive environments include:

  • Good at multi-tasking: can handle various tasks simultaneously.
  • Quick to evaluate opportunities: can gauge situations quickly.
  • Open to trial and error: try different actions with the knowledge of chances of failure. 

The most important traits in unpredictable environments include:

  • Multivariate: can manage a “portfolio of bets”. With new opportunities and new information, they promptly select and scale the successful ones in a process of trial and error. 

The most important traits in Visionary environments include:

  • Good memory: can recall details of past experiences.
  • Self-assured: confident in one’s statements and actions.
  • Self-critical: frequently questioning and re-evaluating one’s behavior. 

The most important traits in predictable and malleable environments include:

  • Quick-thinking: anticipate opportunities that could build upon past experiences. They steer the organization to realize the vision.  They are self-assured, persist with the vision, and indulge in self-criticism, are quick to act when a change of strategy calls for achieving it.

The most important traits in shaping environments include:

  • Reciprocal:  give and take.
  • Deliberate: are conscious and deliberate in their actions.
  • At ease with ambiguity: can both act and make decisions on partial data.

The most important traits in unpredictable and malleable environments include:

  • Open to partial control: comfortable with the uncertainty that comes without complete control.

The most important traits in Renewal environments include:

  • Resilient:  endure well in difficult conditions.
  • Quick to execute: nimble in executing decisions into actions.
  •  Motivated by larger rewards: eliminate low-value opportunities.

The most important traits in harsh environments and circumstances include: 

  • Resilient: maintain their focus in a crisis. 
  • Bold: can take risks
  • Pragmatic:  restore viability, and speed of action; make the difference between success and failure.

The ideal set of skills for strategists differ considerably across each environment.

Does the perfect strategist exist?

The world of business is manifold. Situations organizations need to work in are not constant. Strategists must rise to the occasion when companies face the wall. The model strategist can excel in multiple environments. 

Finding the perfect strategist is not an easy task. BCG research found that the ideal candidate was just about two percent of the people they studied. 

Ambidextrous strategists do not come from a single block. They have disparate skill sets that make them excel in divergent strategic contexts.

The study analyzed the cognitive neuroscience measures that ambidextrous strategists shared. The ideal strategist has the perfect mix of attributes necessary in each environment – good at planning, open to trial and error, self-critical, deliberate, and self-assured. 

How predictive are personality tests?

Companies subject employees to evaluate performances, preferences, characteristics, and behaviors using personality tests to assess their suitability in the organization. Companies might use the test results to gauge employees’ skills to match their roles in the organization. 

The findings rubbish conventional personality tests. Traditional personality tests neither measure cognitive neuroscientific traits accurately nor do they use the right method of measurement. Cognitive neuroscience instruments calibrate objective behavior while conventional personality tests gauge self-report of higher-level phenomena. 

The study assessed participants on two prominent personality profiles — the Big 5 and the Rational Experiential Inventory test. They used regression analysis to determine the correlation of each personality trait to scores in the five environments of the strategy game. The result: the personality traits of the Big 5 and REI did not consistently predict strategy skills. The in-depth structure of the cognitive neuroscience canon is germane in composing strategic decisions pivotal for success in each of the five canonical environments.

Can strategists learn more skills?

Organizations can train their strategists in any area. The study assessed the rate at which participants’ scores improved on repeated iterations of the strategy game in each environment. The amount each individual grasps may vary, and imparting the skillsets may depend on individual acumen in discerning the lessons. 

Participants were quick to grasp the strategy skills required to succeed in Classical and Renewal environments. In those environments, players’ scores increased by an average of 15% and 13%, respectively, each time they repeated the strategy game.

Participants found the skills required to succeed in Visionary, Adaptive, and Shaping environments formidable. Participants struggled with learning the ropes of Ambidexterity onerous, with a learning rate of roughly one percent, which was the average score improvement between two consecutive games during the first ten games played in each environment.

The difference in grasping the skills expose the underlying difficulty of decision making in each environment. 

Classical and Renewal environments have a clear-cut set of levers to drive strategy and execution. Classical environments are stable. One can predict the levers required for future use and determine the ones that worked previously. To master the Renewal environment, one must focus conscientiously on reinforcing feasibility with augmented efficiency.

The Adaptive, Visionary, and Shaping environments are open-ended.

Activities in Adaptive environments breed erratic fallouts. 

The market in Visionary environments is malleable with little or no precedents. 

Shaping environments combine attributes of both Adaptive and Visionary environments, making learning required for the environment challenging. 

Ambidexterity calls for the ability to endure all these types of environments.

What must companies do t maximize talent?

To revitalize their strategy and execution for employees to perform in a variety of business environments, it is critical that companies procure, evolve, and apportion the appurtenant skill sets. Organizations must keep in mind that learning some skills is much harder than others. They must make allowances for difficult-to- master environments like Shaping when while hiring people. Companies could follow elemental means approach for environments that need easy-to-grasp skills like Classical. 

The BCG Henderson Institute suggests a five-step approach for managing strategic talent:

  • Identify the environment. 

In deciding upon the manner of working, companies must first comprehend the makeup of the environments they operate and compete. The volatility, pliability, and severity of the environment have broad implications for the relevant approach to strategy and the skills required to succeed. In the capricious business scenario today, companies can ill afford to base decisions on precedents. They must continually audit and analyze the changing environments they work. 

Microsoft gained ground by using flexibility in the cloud computing market. They started in an unpredictable environment. They initially operated an Adaptive approach. Once they captured their share in the maturing cloud market, they assumed a Shaping approach. They got a win-win by widening their ecosystem into collaborating with competitors.

  1. Utilize the right talent for each strategic challenge in different parts of the business. 
  2. Companies work in diverse circumstances at different times. One division of a company may require a completely different approach from another. Organizations must comprehend the different approaches needed to tackle individual situations. The wise organization hires, engages, and homes in on their strategists according to the skills required in each part of the business.

Organizations must start by evaluating and auditing their talent pool. A panoramic view of the company’s kitty of its talent gives them the direction it needs to anchor workers in the relevant strategic environment. 

Amazon bought Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer for $1.2 billion in 2009. Zappos has a committed group to bestow awards in the form of badges to employees predicated on their proven skills. John Bunch, their lead Organization Designer, says that the exercise leads to unleashing each employee’s skills. 

Zappos had developed a “Role Marketplace” where employees seeking a project can apply to join teams that need people. The ‘Design’ steps up with the badges to identify the employees best fitted to the job. 

Zappos played the game effectively in an ever-fluctuating market by utilizing employees’ skills across various projects. The company achieved a seventy-five percent year-on-year increase in operating profits in the first year of implementing the model.

  1. Sustain a medley of skills across the organization. 

Finding many ambidextrous leaders who can succeed in any strategic environment in one company is out of the question. To establish a company’s success in heterogeneous strategic environments, companies require a balanced pool of individuals with distinct skill-profiles.

When Steve Jobs headed Apple, Tim Cook, then the COO, spearheaded Classical parts of the business by maneuvering classical strategy skills. Cook calls himself “an engineer and an analytical person at heart.” Eddie Cue, then head of internet software and services, was adept at persevering amidst setbacks, a mandatory trait to thrive in Adaptive environments. Apple drove efficiently by nurturing fresh talent and positioning the right people at the right places. 

  • Augment people’s skills towards other environments. 

The ever-evolving business world mandates companies to nurture a sufficient supply of strategists who could lead and perform in an assortment of environments. 

The pace of learning may vary, but companies can imbibe new skillsets in employees. Career development programs to foster employees’ skillsets pay the company dividends where ambidextrous leaders evolve. Companies gain by investing in training employees to perform across a spectrum of environments. Companies must employ rotational programs where future leaders don the mantle in diverse business units that require different strategic approaches. 

Alibaba engaged in regular changes at the level of business unit leadership that helped in 

  • developing the skills of top talent 
  • establishing the leadership’s commitment to organizational flexibility throughout the entire organization.
  1. Surpass data-driven skill testing and development. 

Companies must assess employees’ talents and skills equitably. The exercise could unfurl latent talent the employee might not be aware of. Using data and a technology-driven approach to talent management comes with a vantage point. 

  • It perks up the company’s progress in placing the people with the right skills in relevant places for success in each part of the business.
  • It expedites the company’s skill-matching exercise. The exercise is pivotal since business situations change drastically. 
  • It brings an extensible evaluation of the entire talent pool.  Leaders can identify relevant talent from the company’s periphery to address skill gaps. 
  • The concept of using strategy games and cognitive neuroscience measures is accurate compared with subjective HR assessments or personality testing.

Skip off-the-shelf approaches

Companies must invest in customized approaches to business strategies. They should appraise, foster, and set up different skillsets to maneuver different environments. A combination of neuroscience and strategy games is precise, extensible, expeditious, and viable.

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