The Art of Strategic Management

A professor challenges students to recreate fine art as an exercise in strategy coordination.

Stuart Read with students

When it comes to teaching strategy to business students and executives, paintbrushes and smocks might not be the first images to come to mind. But an exercise developed by a Willamette University MBA faculty member is a true workout of both sides of the brain, merging the artistic and the operational in order to learn the importance of coordination.

Through his work as an executive educator, Willamette MBA Professor of Strategic Management Stuart Read kept encountering what he came to call “the flash of genius problem.” Read and his former colleagues at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) would host week-long strategy trainings for executives, who would leave the training so charged up and eager that “they’d want to just go back [to their organizations] and announce they were changing everything,” Read says.

Some of these executives had tens of thousands of people reporting to them, Read points out – and therefore, when it comes to announcing and implementing any sort of large scale change in strategy or operations, “You’ve got to deliver this in a way you’re going to be able to coordinate,” Read says.

In 2009, Read and his IMD colleagues developed an exercise to tackle this “flash of genius” inclination that involves replicating and assembling a work of art piece by piece, and is meant to stress the importance of “the coordinated efforts” that are necessary to execute strategy and enact organizational change.

Read has facilitated the exercise with executive groups between 20 and 30 times, but for the past three years he’s brought it to his “Strategy” course at Willamette MBA, which he notes is the last core class of the program that cohorts are required to take.

The premise of the exercise is simple: Students are divided into roughly 20 to 25 groups, who are each assigned a different section of a work of art. Each group must replicate their given section using paint, brushes and paper, and then the various groups must work together to coordinate the assembly of their pieces to recreate the overall painting. For the most recent exercise in mid-April, Willamette MBA Dean Debra Ringold picked the 1898 Paul Cezanne post-impressionist painting “Chrysanthemums” as the image to be recreated by the group.

Stuart Read with students

Though the instructions stay the same with each group, Read says there’s a lot of variation in how students try to tackle the project, from the traditional managerial approach of telling people what to do (which “has its difficulties,” Read notes), to trying to coordinate the project up front before starting, to diving right into the work and then worrying about organization later.

More than anything, Read says, this exercise helps students realize “the power of leading by example,” and that the most successful strategy implementers are “the people who figure out what it looks like and they simply start doing it, and they do it in a way that everyone else can see what they’re doing, but they’re not yelling at everyone to do it. They just slowly start, and finally someone else looks at it and adopts it.”

When completing this exercise with MBA candidates as opposed to executives, he’s found that younger students have a huge advantage.

“They’re much more cooperative and bring much less ego to the whole thing, where the execs are much more inclined to argue or even fight during the activity,” Read says of the students.

When the students complete the exercise, the final products are saved and displayed as a fun memento of the experience.

The activity, Read says, is an excellent example of the Willamette MBA program’s commitment to providing hands-on experiential learning to its students, and “fits in with what the school works toward.”

Check out this time-lapse video of the project:

Strategic Management - The Artist's Approach To Management! from Willamette University MBA on Vimeo.