What Business Schools Could Learn From 'Ocean's Eleven'

Students need experience collaborating with people in other disciplines and fields.

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Brad Pitt and George Clooney in "Ocean's Twelve."
** ARCHIV ** In einer Szene des Film 'Ocean's Twelve' agieren die Schauspieler Brad Pitt, links, und George Clooney, auf einem undatierten, vom Verleih Warner herausgegeben Foto. Die Fortsetzung von 'Ocean's Eleven' kommt am Donnerstag, 16. Dez. 2004, in die deutschen Kinos.

Let's say you're planning to rob the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. Are you going to go in with a team of all safecrackers? Twelve pickpockets? A crew of explosives experts?

Not a chance. To get past the state-of-the-art security, you need a cast of characters of disparate disposition and ability. You need a team of opposites, each of whose skills and approach complements those of the others.

You need to take calculated risks. You must reach beyond what should be possible, but case out the joint carefully, with contingency plans in place, before you start. And you need to be prepared to act opportunistically, making the most of available resources when you run up against constraints or when events fail to proceed according to plan. If you want to rob three casinos at once, you need heterogeneous collaboration, calculated risk-taking and resourceful opportunism.

In my work with business owners, innovators and students of entrepreneurship, I call this the "Ocean's Eleven Principle." Our universities and corporations are very bad at applying it. We prepare most students and employees quite poorly for simultaneous casino heists. We group students and employees with peers steeped in the same training, thinking and reference points. Then we have them approach problems by competing against these peers, often in artificial exercises under controlled conditions.

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Individuals trained in this way lack experience collaborating with counterparts in other disciplines and fields. Yet that collaborative experience is often what they need, even if they have no plans for carrying off carefully orchestrated jewel heists. Robbing the Bellagio has more in common with the kinds of tasks we need to do beyond a certain level in most careers than does the bulk of the preparation we give students and employees along the way. Students and employees need practice accomplishing tasks that demand that they pull something off in collaboration with others. By this I mean endeavors that require solving novel problems in the face of multiple obstacles.

These kinds of endeavors are the stuff of films and stories for a reason. Heist movies and adventure stories resonate with us because when we face challenges in which the solution is not obvious, we need to be resourceful. We need to draw disparate talents together, take calculated risks and make the most out of limited resources.

The more outlandish the story, the more strongly it makes the point. Robbing three casinos at once – or stealing treasure back from a dragon under a mountain, for those who would prefer a more timely film reference – is ridiculous. Yet these stories appeal to us because we recognize the resourcefulness requisite for pulling off challenging feats.

There's an old expression, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." In other words, your results are limited in advance by the materials you have at your disposal. Successful entrepreneurs, the Darden School's Saras Sarasvathy has shown, typically refuse to accept this. They work with the sows' ears they have available, until they figure out how to make something better than silk purses from them. Sarasvathy calls this "effectuation."

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As I have argued in these pages, this is increasingly critical, not only for success as an entrepreneur, but for advancement in most careers. Daniel Pink, in his book "Drive," bears this out. Citing a McKinsey Quarterly article by Johnson, Manyika and Yee, he argues that activities that require working out new solutions (heuristic activities), as opposed to applying predetermined formulas (algorithmic activities), account for 70 percent of job growth in the US economy.

So learning to pull off feats that don't come with directions in the box – of the kind where there's often no pre-arranged way to win the game – is as essential in the real world as it is in stories about the big score. The Ocean's Eleven Principle comes into play when pulling off such feats requires collaboration between groups of unlike individuals, who, more often than not, need to engage still other strange and alien parties along the way. Knowing how to work alone is often critical, of course, in stories as in the real world. Still, when it comes to taking the fruits of their labors to market, even solitary thinkers and tinkerers need skills that complement their own.

Band together with characters of disparate skill and disposition, learn to work with them, bond with them and forge insight from your tension with them. Then, even if at some stage you're left to crack that safe alone, you might just pull off that big heist. Learn to work with people who seem to be different creatures entirely, and it will be this that gets you past seemingly impossible obstacles and into the heart of the mountain where you can (spoiler alert) steal the Arkenstone.

This is hardly a new idea of course; teams that feature disparate skills and dispositions have been essential to enterprising endeavors since the dawn of civilization, if not before, and such teams are a key component of most top MBA programs today. Yet at a time when what ambitious young people need most is to learn to apply the Ocean's Eleven Principle, many of our institutions are heading in the opposite direction. Disciplines from biotech engineering to software development become more complex every year. This drives us to emphasize high degrees of specialization. Any number of measures can be used to demonstrate this, from articles published, to patents issued, to sub-disciplines available for study.

Specialization is useful and appropriate in its place. Mathematicians need to work with other mathematicians, graphic designers with other graphic designers, students of political theory with other students of political theory. This allows them to go deep and attain mastery.

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Yet accelerating specialization serves to make the capacity to translate, integrate and collaborate even more indispensible. Where our system is currently failing is in preparing us to work with opposing types, and build bridges between the modes of thinking we have learned so well. Group projects notwithstanding, most of the time we still ask students to prove what they can accomplish through the solitary performance of algorithmic tasks. "Follow the directions." "Keep your eyes on your own paper." "These are the concepts that will be on the test."

What if you're brilliant at design, but useless when it comes to making spreadsheet models, or vice versa? Should you be sent down into a silo to do your thing? Or should your first order of business be to match yourself with others whose skills complement yours – to learn to work with them, and in so doing, dramatically increase your potential?

Our myopic emphasis on specialization reaches beyond the separation of majors and disciplines, to whole ways of using the brain. Very early on, we group the quant kids with the quant kids, the humanities kids with the other humanities kids and the designers with the designers, when what we should really be doing is setting the one to challenge the other to think in novel ways.

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Storing students safely in separate silos makes managing them easier, of course. The same applies to employees. The sad effect is that many of us are completely disoriented when asked to work with a heterogeneous group to derive superior solutions. I'm hardly indulging in idle speculation here. For years, drawing on my experience managing mixed teams of strategists, creatives and developers, I have taught strategy courses to computer science majors, marketing courses to engineers and entrepreneurship courses to product and fashion designers. Over and over I have seen that when challenged to do more than perform controlled exercises, it's the few who master the Ocean's Eleven Principle who succeed.

We are, in many ways, like those criminals, each one expert in his own type of crime, languishing until Danny Ocean brings them together to pull off that big heist. Perhaps it would be more proper to say that we're like the ones who hesitate after he makes the initial approach. Notwithstanding the important movements in education and management that incorporate the Ocean's Eleven Principle, in general we struggle against a powerful institutional undertow. Caught in the swirl of this undertow, we train ourselves for an unreal world. In an era when what's increasingly necessary is to listen to Ocean and join forces with disparate partners to pull off the next big heist, our institutions continue to reward teams of dedicated safe crackers for cracking safes so well.

And so (to switch, once more in closing, from Vegas to Middle Earth) Bilbo Baggins sits comfortably "under hill" in the Shire. Will it take a sign scratched by a wizard on our clean front door to make us become reluctant adventurers who band together with outlandish characters in search of adventure and wealth?

Alejandro Crawford is a senior consultant at Acceleration Group, where he develops strategy for leaders seeking to commercialize innovation and master change. He also teaches courses in entrepreneurship and growth strategy. He graduated from the Tuck School of Business in 2003.

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