It's not hard. It's simple. And that's why it's hard

7 minute read
Girl in a water shower

Day one. 9am. One objective.

How one might prepare for, participate in, and use the diploma in the real world: what is it like to study strategy and innovation at the School? What did I get out of it? Was it worth it?

'I want you leaving awake and with new ideas in your field', said Teppo Felin, the engaging Programme Director and Professor of Strategy, as he gestured towards the image. This introduction set the tone for the days ahead, the modules ahead, and the reason we were all there; to learn, grow, and consider ideas from alternate points of view.

While the pre-reading was thorough, the lectures were rich and vibrant. They were deliberately designed to create ‘hooks’ to multiple perspectives in one’s mind. This design strategy was not immediately obvious; it occurred to me in module 3 as themes of strategy, innovation, and globalisation came together.

‘Should this company go global?’ [hmm]

‘But how does the example of what not to do when designing organisational ambidexterity [from module 2], contrast with an example of what a company should do when “coherently” managing trade-offs in our digital world? [from module 1]’.

‘Wait, back to basics. What is strategy really about?’

If you hadn’t read the material prior to each module, you will certainly have read it before each exam – and you will certainly have read it again before the final written assignment, each time gaining something new.

'Oh I see', I continually muttered to myself. 'I didn't see that before', typically triggered by these hooks displayed in class, which included counting beans, building castles, sitting in a race car, and tapping a pencil (or your feet) as the case may be when debating in the Oxford Town Hall.

Diploma class in progress

These ‘hooks’ consisted of rich content with a meaningful purpose, each designed to highlight the simplicity and interdependency of key concepts upon the basis of a comprehensive, theoretical understanding gained from the pre-reading. It occurred to me that the four days during each module were not designed to ‘build the foundation of knowledge’ (that’s the job of pre-reading and discussing with fellow students), rather to synthesise the reading in such a way to inspire insight via vivid examples, class debate, and questions that renowned professors have pondered for years. They were designed to throw spaghetti at the wall and humour diverse perspectives across a multitude of disciplines not typically associated with strategy and innovation.

Diploma students with a Formula 1 car

What do ice mining, a cure for diabetes, Adobe Acrobat, art in India, Valve’s VR, and a formula one car have in common? What happens when you combine Felin on dynamic capabilities, Ventresca on system building, and Szepan on non-market factors? Then consider those ideas in the context of cultural difference (Sako) and execution (Lawrence). And just when you’re at the edge, Ellis enters with views on dimensions of consciousness, followed by Felin, asking, 'what do you believe that few others believe and how do you process such change?'

The answers are simple. And that’s why they are hard; a certain preparedness is needed to engage with ideas in a meaningful way. Such preparedness includes completing the pre-reading at pace, testing understanding with others, and using a little Google-fu to read around topics – all before stepping into the lecture theatre. After all, it is upon the basis of a foundational understanding that new connections are formed and one can choose to step back and see the forest for the trees.


Chance favours only the prepared mind.

Louis Pasteur, 1854

While the diploma had busy, experienced professionals in mind, preparing in this way can be tough amongst competing priorities. Having started a new senior role in an industry experiencing significant change, I traded preparedness to meet work commitments more than once. But all was not lost, the ‘hooks’ were there to connect the dots. And there was always an opportunity to burn the midnight oil between modules. Soon enough, I began to see the four days during each module as a knowledge economy, eager to capitalise on the learning opportunities introduced by my professors, my cohort, facilities, clubs, societies, and university affiliations.

For instance, long after the degree, an acquaintance and now friend from the cohort asked:

'Ricky, I know it is bold, but I’m thinking about the ‘system’ in my country, and the small part I can play in delivering value inside and outside the system.'

I was glad he brought this up because I framed this very topic in my final assignment (a strategy analysis that tested your ability to synthesise and analyse a strategy problem of your choosing). I chose the topic of 'Product-(Nascent) Market Fit'. Prior to using the frameworks and tools applied to Harvard case studies during the modules, I had a simple proposition in mind. However, during my strategy analysis, I found myself following a process that didn’t pre-empt the conclusion. Instead, I trusted the few (relevant) frameworks I chose to work with.

'Let’s see where this goes', I told myself.

'But you’ve only got 48 hours to draw a conclusion before moving on' (a principle adapted from Seidel’s teaching on ‘design thinking’ from module 2).

The initial, simple, proposition evolved, remarkably quite quickly, into one that tested the basis of value across value chains, industry structure, and a variety of actors, spanning a confluence of industries. It needled through inchoate demand, markets of tomorrow, and ecosystems. It challenged traditional paradigms of value proposition design, choosing ‘shared value’ opposed to the more common ‘only-for-profit value’ (my initial knee-jerk reaction). So, in response to my friend, I replied:

'Here’s an idea...'

And we debated for an hour in the tongue of a common language gained from the modules, sharing geographical contexts and contrarian beliefs.

It was shortly after this debate that I revisited my initial reservations prior to starting the diploma:

'Should I do this now, so soon after starting a new role (which takes priority), or wait?'

'Is this going to translate to a real world, practical, benefit?'

'Is this going to further my career?'

And during my retrospective introspection, the meditations of a prolific Greek philosopher, Seneca, came to mind:

'You must match time's swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.'

Having deferred the diploma by a year, I was very conscious of the rapid stream, questioning my ‘swiftness’. I recalled Sanna’s The River, drawing parallels with my own, ‘Journeys’. I assessed the diploma’s value; is it a catalyst in my life? Will I be drinking any quicker from the stream that will not always flow?

Marc Ventresca

So, what is worth it?

I do not yet have all the answers I seek but I have certainly learnt a more thoughtful way of structuring uncertainly. I have also found a sounding board in new friendships, often reconnecting via Slack, WhatsApp or Zoom, especially during these extraordinary times.

I don’t know if one must attend Saïd Business School to have a similar experience. But I do know that a sense of ‘place’ seeps into the professors who teach, the bricks that accompany you as you ponder ideas (as they did the great thinkers that came before you), and the personal ‘bias’ you develop over time from just being there. This is a bias towards asking piercing questions, multi-disciplinary analysis, designing thoughtful experiments, and action. And it is with these tools and connections that I continue to think about the future, provide value to those customers my employer serves, and continue the journey along my winding river.

Returning to the title, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise then that a strong foundation of knowledge is the basis upon which new connections are formed and complex problems become simpler. It is common sense. But it is how those connections are formed, the willingness to form them, and the commitment to build on them that is hard. 

The diploma is structured with this in mind and, in turn, makes studying at Oxford enjoyable and supportive. However, it is the personal choice to commit and continue a journey of cognitive growth (in all its forms), a decision to ‘swiftly’ drink from the stream that will not always flow if you like, that is hard in adult life. It is supposed to be as all one ever possesses is ‘time’ and it can’t be spent on everything (suggestion: spend lavishly on the pre-reading and Google-fu to prime your brain for the connections that await you – and you too will ‘leave with new ideas in your field' ).


It's not hard to spend time. It's simple. It is spending it well that is hard.

Diploma class in Strategy and Innovation

Having chosen to spend a portion of my time on the Oxford diploma, I am grateful for the experience. I feel that it has deepened my comprehension of the world and, in turn, my perception of the ways I may interact with it – ‘my perceived options of how I may spend my remaining time’ if you like – as I journey on, swiftly, uncertainly, and mindfully.

If you enjoyed this blog or you have any questions about the diploma, feel free to reach out via Linkedin.