Nicolaj Siggelkow is a David M. Knott Professor and Co-Director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at Wharton. His research and teaching focuses on competitive strategy, evolution of fit, and firms as systems of interconnected choices.
I walk into Professor Siggelkow’s office and he immediately apologizes for the mess. He’s in the middle of moving offices; mountains of strategy books surround us. How did he become so interested in studying strategy?
“As an undergrad at Stanford, I worked with Paul Milgrom and John Roberts when they were first starting to think about issues of complementarity of affectivities. And so my undergraduate honors thesis was with Paul on how Japanese automobile suppliers restructure their supply relationships very differently from the ones in the US.”
He then worked with them to create the teacher’s manual for their new textbook, which furthered his interest in strategy and relationships between firms. Afterwards, he joined the Business Economics PhD joint program at Harvard (Section E, class of ’96, in case you’re curious).
“After the 2nd year I started working with Mike Porter. I found this working paper he had at the time talking about interdependencies and connections between activities and thought ‘Wow, that’s sort of cool.’ So my thesis focused on those issues, as well of how firms construct positionings and systems of activities that interconnect.”
Throughout his career, the common thread in Professor Siggelkow’s research has been about firms as systems of interconnected choices, how firms evolve over time to create competitive advantage and how to sustain it as the environment changes.
“In the last couple of years my research has been around organizational design. What role does design play in an organization’s ability to find a coherent set of activities? How do these various organization design elements interact? How do I design my firm to have high performance?”
Professor Siggelkow conducts his research using computer simulations, coding specific organizational design attributes into “firms” and evaluating how they perform relative to others.
“What are some of the more interesting findings you’ve uncovered?”
“It’s fascinating to see how many of the core choices, culture, or strategy of a firm can be tracked back to relatively early in the firm’s history by the founder or first management team.”
Good tip for those with entrepreneurial ambitions. Be sure you understand where core elements of strategy come from, or you won’t be successful in implementing change.
“On the organizational design side there are some cute little findings here and there. For example, do you want to have more decentralized organizations or more centralized organizations? What we’ve found in our research is that sequences of different organizational structures might actually outperform firms that have the same organizational structure throughout their history.”
Did he just call a research finding “cute”?
“Another finding I’m somewhat fond of because it’s so counterintuitive is the notion that if we want to increase exploration or innovation, push more authority down to the lower levels of the organization. That, intriguingly, can backfire. At the lower level people might not actually know what’s the best combination of ideas across divisions. So they screen out a lot of ideas at their level. If I have them send up their ideas, we now decide what’s the best combination of these lesser suggestions. That’s a case where multi-layered organizations can have interesting counter-intuitive effects and exploration backfires.”
“Shifting gears slightly, I googled you and you’ve been described as Michael Porter’s protégé, of Porter’s 5 Forces fame. What was it like working with him?”
“Very exciting. Particularly as a PhD student, you go through these phases of your work that are really hard and you ask yourself, why am I doing this? Part of the job of professors at that level is to make you feel stupid and push you hard. But Mike was really inspirational in that, after a meeting with Mike you’d come out, charged up and saying “This is important! This really makes a difference!” Clearly he’s not a guy you can just knock on the door and talk to you, but he was always available for me. Mike is amazing at pattern recognition, able to distill down patterns and derive insights. So it was really fun to be part of his team.”
“Finally, I’ve polled students in your classes and they say you seem really serious all the time. What do you do for fun?”
“That’s a good reputation to have in class. But I read, play badminton, cycle, cook, and I like to dance.”
“Dance! What kind of dance?”
“Classical style dancing and salsa.”
“Are you sure you want me to put this in the newspaper? This might ruin your reputation.”
With a rare laugh, he waves me off.
1. What is your favorite word? Happiness
2. What is your least favorite word? Fear
3. What makes you happy? Laughter
4. What makes you unhappy? Stupidity
5. What sound do you love? Laughter of my daughter
6. What sound do you hate? Crying of my daughter
7. What is your favorite curse word? Shit
8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt? Elementary particle physicist
9. What profession would you not like to do? Working in a submarine
10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? I’m surprised to see you.