Sharam Kohan

Strategy is empty…

I have come to this realization earnestly as one who for many years believed that strategy was a way of thinking, not a book of knowledge. But I must confess it has taken me these many years to make the shift from Cartesian a priori wisdom to a system that is built from the ground up. With hypothesis and evidence. Not theory and frameworks. I used to love those frameworks, stars, and dogs, SWOTs, five forces. But I became frustrated with these tools that provided nothing more than empty abstractions. I worked with business units with incredible diversity in their products and services that were tasked with completing the same strategic templates and, perhaps not surprisingly, getting the same answers. This abstraction was too far removed from actual customers and what influences how they actually behave.

I have been through so many brainstorming sessions with professional facilitators, strategists, and design thinkers. Please indulge my heresy, but I have played this role in major companies for many years. I can argue that many of these approaches lack scientific method or knowledge. There was no content from cognitive or social psychology, biology, or neuroscience being used to inform the teams on how people actually make decisions. There were no behavioral diagnostics and nudges and choice architecture and certainly no experimentation. There was no standing on the shoulders of Simon, or Allport, or Stanovich and West, or Kahneman and Tversky, or Thaler, or Ariely.

I have cast my net widely, working on many traditional behavioral economics topics such as racial discrimination, government, and corporate corruption, corporate governance (especially CEO salaries), labor markets, housing & homelessness, healthcare and much more. However, I have been very interested in such innovative topics as the interrelationship between poverty and psychological factors. For example, I have been studying how stresses associated with financial insecurity can measurably impair cognitive function. In another study, I found that giving workers more “self-control” in the form of voluntary contracts that penalize failure to meet production targets produces measurable increases not only in worker productivity but in worker satisfaction, as well — presumably, due to the pleasurable sense of having greater workplace autonomy. In addition, I have worked on the psychology of microeconomics, have also contributed more wide-ranging theoretical studies, such as a 2017 NBER Working Paper that provides an in-depth analysis of the very real strengths, but also the grave potential dangers, of incorporating machine learning technology into behavioral economics research.