Professor Freek Vermeulen of London Business School tracks down the unexpected consequences of some firm’s business decisions, with an eye on eliminating detrimental practices.
What area of research are you currently working on?
I work in the broad domain of “Strategic Management”, but specifically I focus on the unexpected consequences of business practices that firms adopt, and how certain detrimental practices continue to persist. I am also working on the non-rational determinants of markets and strategic decision-making.
A case study that you think is important. Why?
I myself have written up some great stories on Hornby and Sadler’s Wells theatre, which both offer fascinating insights. However, if I have to mention two more generally known ones, it would be Intel and Southwest Airlines. All these companies include great examples of the role of (carefully managed) serendipity in strategic decision-making.
A management book you think highly of (written by someone else). Why?
I love books like “Freakonomics”, “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion” and “Competing on the edge: Strategy as structured chaos” because they offer genuine, practical insight but based on solid academic research.
A very recent business or management title you read, and its significant lessons.
I have been reading Dan Ariely’s work lately, such as “The upside of irrationality”, which I think is superb. However, I will mention Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” because I think it has brilliant strategy and leadership lessons, and I keep going back to it for my teaching.
What is one of your well-liked teaching moments (case, discussion topic, …)?
I teach students about things such as the role of serendipity in strategy, the danger of managing by numbers and the importance of soft factors in management. I love it when I subsequently bring in a high-profile CEO as a guest speaker – such as Mothercare’s Ben Gordon, Fremantle’s Tony Cohen, or Trinity Mirror’s Sly Bailey – who subsequently make the exact same points. Studens often almost believe it is a set-up, and that I instructed them to say those things.
What was your most interesting consulting assignment? Why?
I have witnessed quite a few fascinating moments working with a variety of companies, and seeing what really influeced their strategic decision making. A very interesting period was working with a large national newspaper around the time that they shifted to “tabloid size” and had to respond to the emergence of on-line publishing. However, let me put down as my most interesting experience giving a keynote speech at the annual conference of the tobacco company Altadis: there were about 800 people in the room and at least 95% of them were smoking heavily… I am not sure they could see me on the stage.
If tomorrow you could occupy an executive function in any company, what function and company? Why?
I would decline. I study managers like a criminologist studies criminals: I find managers fascinating to study but, like the criminologist might have no aspirations to stab anyone or go shoplifting, I have no desire to be one. It is just not what I am and do.