book review

Turbulent situations produce opportunities for victory, and agile competitors succeed by consistently identifying and exploiting opportunities more quickly and effectively than rivals. But how do they do so? If agility confers success, what confers agility? This was the question that US Air Force Colonel John Boyd tackled when he analyzed the surprising success of the American-made F-86 Sabre fighter against the MiG 15 in dogfights during the Korean War. Boyd discovered that the Sabre had two structural advantages–a bubble canopy and full hydraulics–that largely explained their success. Looking through the bubble canopy, pilots  could develop and maintain a fuller understanding of battle as it unfolded, and the plane’s full hydraulics allowed them to shift quickly from maneuver to maneuver to stay one step ahead of their adversaries.

If Boyd had ended his analysis here, he would have provided a compelling answer to a specific question. Instead Boyd generalized his findings by viewing the dogfights over the Korean peninsula as the distilled essence of a much more general phenomenon–competition to seize opportunities in any rapidly-changing, turbulent situation. Boyd’s breakthrough occurred when he conceptualized air battles as taking place in loops, where the pilots cycled through four steps–observe, orient, decide and act.

The cycle begins when a pilot observes the situation, including the hundreds of readings from the cockpit instruments and outside signals-the glint of sunlight from an upturned wing or an unexpected vibration. The bubble canopy expanded the Sabre pilots’ vista and allowed them to form a more expansive view of the unfolding situation. In the second step, the pilot oriented himself by forming

A few years ago, over lunch in an Indian restaurant near Harvard Square, I learned that one of the best examples of organizational agility was founded in 1540 through a papal bull issued by Pope Paul III. My lunch companion was Father John W. O’Malley, a leading historian of the Renaissance church, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Jesuit priest.

O’Malley spent years researching the early decades of the Society of Jesus, often refered to as the Jesuits, poring over the Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu, a 157 volume record of the early years of the Jesuit order including letters from the founding members, rules and directives, and quarterly reports on the state of the order. O’Malley’s research resulted in The First Jesuits, the definitive study of the first quarter century of the order, which won the American Philosophical Society’s prize for the best cultural history published that year. O’Malley’s book strips away many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that have surrounded the Jesuits over the centuries, and presents an unvarnished account of the foundation and early decades of the order.

And what a story it is. The Society originated at the University of Paris between 1528 and 1536 as a group of

Few institutions face greater turbulence than the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines’ missions include not only combat but also evacuations, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and counter-terrorism in some of the most unsettled spots on earth. The end of the Cold War made the world more turbulent for the Marines, which deployed every five weeks on average during the 1990s, a threefold increase in deployment frequency.

When General Alfred M. Gray became Commandant of the US Marine Corps in 1987, he began a series of far-reaching changes to the Marines. Gray had served in Vietnam, a war in which the Marines’ deaths exceeded the Corps’ combined fatalities in in seventeen of the eighteen

While trying to understand the sources of economic profit, the economist Frank Knight introduced a powerful distinction between risk and uncertainty. Knight’s distinction is more nuanced and interesting than the caricature view that his critics dismiss. In my view, the difference between risk and uncertainty hinges on the range of possible actions an investor, manager, or entrepreneur can take to achieve their desired result.

Clear choices and risk

People encounter risk when they face what I call a “clear choice,”  where an agent can specify, in advance the possible outcomes relevant to their actions. A gambler, for instance, knows that there are precisely 38 possible pockets where the roulette ball could land, and where the ball lands will influence whether his bet pays off or

Market volatility has undermined the credibility of models in macro-economics and finance. Lacking accurate maps to navigate the current turbulence, investors, scholars, and managers are spending more time pondering uncertainty and risk. These topics can lure even hard-nosed thinkers into fuzzy rumination–recall Donald Rumsfeld’s distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. In these unsettled times, it worthwhile revisiting the contribution of Frank Knight, an economist who was among the earliest and most penetrating analysts of what uncertainty and risk meant, and how they influenced a firm’s ability to make a profit.

Although few people recognize his name today, Frank Knight was one of the most influential economists of the last century. Knight joined the economics faculty of the University of Chicago full-time in 1928, and remained there until his retirement in 1972. In his forty four years, he co-founded and shaped the “Chicago School” of economics that produced many of the Twentieth Century’s giants of economics, including Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, and Gary

My last post recommended three books on action under uncertainty, including The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. This book traces the origins of pragmatism, a philosophy that believes “ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools–like forks and knives and microchips–that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (xi). By interweaving the stories of four leading pragmatists along with their influences, opponents, and related ideas, Menand creates a rich tapestry to illuminate the rise of pragmatism.

Pragmatism aspires to link ideas and action. “We don’t act because we have ideas;” Menand summarizes, “we have ideas because we must act” (364). But pragmatism contains a fatal flaw as a guide action in the real

Business leaders must act decisively without knowing what the future holds. Action despite uncertainty is not unique to business. Generals wage war, politicians make policy, and coaches draft game plans without knowing how events will unfold. Action absent certainty is a universal challenge. “Life can only be understood backwards,” as Søren Kierkegaard noted, “but must be lived forwards.”

This summer I read several books describing how soldiers, coaches, philosophers, scientists, and politicians grapple with action under uncertainty. Three stood out as quite interesting. (Note to English readers: When

Much has been written about enhancing co-ordination across organisational silos, a topic that sits near the top of most executives’ to-do list. A search of business and investing books on for the keyword “collaboration” turns up nearly 37,000 books. Do we really need another one?

Leading in turbulent times

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.