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Student Experiences

Tinkering Around

Bruce Hymas and his teammates had sixteen connectors, fifty-four sticks, and three minutes. The task: build a tower that holds up a golf ball—and make the tower taller than everyone else’s.

Kids tinker toys

As part of their strategy implementation class, a capstone course for business management majors, Hymas and his classmates were challenged to apply the principles they had learned throughout the semester to successfully build a tower. 

The scenario is fairly simple. Groups of five or six students are given a building set, usually Tinkertoys. The teams begin with fifteen minutes to plan their designs. Then a randomly selected team is given three minutes to assemble the tower in front of the class. After the time is up, the tower is measured and disassembled. The next team goes and so on, until all teams have gone.

The exercise, which is commonly used in the fields of organizational behavior and strategy, can be used to teach a variety of principles. Most often, it is used to illustrate the principle of second-mover advantage, says Lee Perry, professor of organizational leadership and strategy, who has been using the tower-building exercise for more than a decade. In many cases, he says, there is a first-mover advantage, which means that the first entrant into a market can gain market share and control of resources. Sometimes, however, a second mover can benefit by following the already-blazed trail, improving on the first mover’s developments and potentially capturing greater market share.

In his classes, Perry says, the teams that build later almost always perform better.

“If you can watch somebody else do it, you’re probably going to learn something,” he notes.

Hymas, who graduated from the Marriott School with a BS in entrepreneurship in 2009, says he has been able to directly apply what he learned in his strategic management class to his current work as CEO and co-founder of Zachary Douglass, a software development company.

Hymas and his colleagues realized that publishing and photo-editing software for funeral directors was anything but user-friendly, and they capitalized on the opportunity to improve. Experiences like the tower-building exercise helped him think outside of the box, Hymas says, and appreciate the value of second-mover advantage.

“We have been building our ‘tower’ against companies with decades of experience and millions of dollars,” he says. “Now we have some of the largest companies in our industry interested in what we’re doing.”

Many students who major or minor in strategy go on to start their own companies as Hymas did, says Paul Godfrey, professor of strategy. But there are plenty who are recruited to join the corporate world as well; in fact, in 2009 the Marriott School’s strategy program had 75 percent placement within three months of graduation.
“The feedback we get from graduates is very good,” Godfrey says. “And consulting firms are realizing that BYU is a great place to find exceptional talent.”

Mike Hendron, assistant professor of organizational leadership and strategy, says it’s often difficult to teach how to translate theories and plans into action, but the toy-turned-teaching-tool helps students make that connection.

“The activity creates learning opportunities you just can’t plan for,” Hendron says. “I think every possible mistake gets made—which is a good thing, because it gives us a lot to talk about. It’s a more meaningful experience than a typical lecture, so the lesson really sticks.”