The Deep Flaw in MBB Strategic Planning

When I first started recruiting for consulting jobs, an interviewer at Bain shared a story (arguably a legend at this point) about how Bain (or it might have been McKinsey) was asked to advise Motorola on whether or not they should enter the mobile phone market.

As you might know, Motorola eventually dominated the pre-smartphone mobile phone market with close to $10 billion in annual sales.

As the legend goes, the consulting firm advising Motorola recommended that Motorola not enter the mobile phone market. Obviously, that recommendation was dead wrong and thankfully for Motorola, they ignored the recommendation.

I heard similar stories at McKinsey as well, all revolving around a central theme — McKinsey consultants hate to be wrong, and they hate to have conclusions they can’t support with quantitative data.

This is one of the main reasons McKinsey and the other top consulting firms so rigorously test for logical analysis in the case interview.

However, anytime anyone is over wedded to a particular approach, it leaves them prone to vulnerability. In this case, McKinsey and the other top firms are vulnerable to missing conclusions that are correct but cannot be supported well with hard data.

In the case of the supposed Motorola engagement, which I believe took place in the 1970s, there was so little data available that there was not much to analyze. While there were some clever ways to forecast technology adoption, none of the data or methodologies were 100% accurate or reliable.

(MBB now often uses “real options” analysis to value multiple uncertain scenarios in a more accurate way, but the fact remains that in many of these situations, a high degree of uncertainty exists and that drives MBB consultants absolutely crazy.)

A similar bias exists within corporations as well as most white-collar professionals (especially the well-educated ones). In the Global 500, there’s an enormous bias to create a strategic plan and stick to it — no matter what. Under many circumstances, this degree of focus serves as a sound management principle.

But like anything overdone, it creates vulnerabilities. Anytime one is over wedded to “the plan,” it leaves one exposed to missing emergent opportunities that weren’t obvious at the time the plan was being created.

Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, legendary in technology circles, calls this the difference between the “planned strategy” vs. the “emergent strategy.” He argues, and I agree, that when it comes to strategically planning one’s career, many people overlook the emergent strategy approach.

The classic strategic planning approach is to gather all data, analyze, identify your optimal opportunity and focus your plan on it.

For large corporations, this would typically involve segmenting the market and looking at the size of each segment and its growth rate. Then it would involve analyzing the company’s capabilities vs. the competitors vs. what each customer segment wanted.

Ideally, you look for a segment that's growing fast, overlooked by competitors, and one where your company has a competitive advantage in serving.

This would be a textbook strategy created by McKinsey, Bain or BCG.

This approach works incredibly well in more established industries where there’s ample data available on the market, customer segments and competitors.

But what happens in smaller markets or with smaller clients?

In my consulting practice today, I exclusively serve small businesses — some as small as $500,000 a year in sales up to $15 million typically (sometimes up to $300 million). With these clients, they often operate in very small industries and there’s just no data available (or affordably available) to analyze.

In classic case study analysis, you’d ask them, "What are the market segments?" They’d say, "I don’t know." "How large is each segment?" "I’m not sure." "How fast is each growing?" "I don’t know."

In these situations, the classic strategic planning process doesn’t work very well.

Over the years, I’ve gravitated towards the emergent strategy approach. Here’s how it works.

You take your best guess at what you think is the right strategic approach and then you try it (preferably cheaply and quickly) and see what happens.

If it works, you keep doing it. If it doesn’t, you analyze the data you uncovered in the attempt to find some new insight not previously available and revise the strategic focus.

Seventy percent of my client work these days is emergent strategy oriented.

Let me give you an example.

I was recently asked by a client whether they should introduce a new offer to a particular customer segment. If this were a Fortune 500 client, I would commission a market research project, focus groups or analyze prior research. In my client's case, none of that was available.

So, my suggestion was to target 100 prospective clients by sending them direct mail and cold calling them and see what happens. It’s market research via taking marketplace action.

In general, one of two things happens. The market test 1) works brilliantly, or 2) it fails spectacularly. I instruct clients that in both situations they need to get direct feedback from prospective clients as to WHY they value or absolutely hate a particular proposed product offering.

The purpose of the test, in these cases, is not to succeed or to fail. It is to learn.

It’s not a particularly elegant approach, but if you have access to very limited information and there’s a high degree of uncertainty, it’s an approach that works.

In this way, emergent strategic planning is a bit of an iterative approach.

Now, let me connect this planned vs. emergent strategy distinction to career plans.

I have found, especially for ivy-caliber, white-collar professionals, that there’s an overwhelming bias to using the “planned strategy” approach.

The plan looks something like this:

I will graduate from college, get a job at MBB, get a Harvard MBA, go back to MBB, make partner, retire.

This plan is often devised when the person is in the middle of college — typically 19 or 20 years of age and is laying out a rough plan for the next 4 decades.

(There are similar career plans for those in pre-med, pre-law, and those pursuing a PhD and career in academia.)

While this approach does work out for some, for many it ends up being problematic.

Here’s my theory as to why.

Let's take a variant of my business situation framework for analyzing business opportunities and adapt it for analyzing career opportunities.

So instead of:

1) Customer
2) Competitor
3) Company

Let’s replace that with:

1) Employers (those who “buy” my labor)
2) Competitors (other prospective employees vying for the job)
3) Self

When you use this adapted framework for analyzing career opportunities, there are two components of the framework where there is very little data for the 20-year-old college student laying out her long-term career plan.

The first is employers. By and large, most people only research a few employers in a few select fields. For example, out of a global economy with 100,000 industries and 100 million employers, I personally only did research on two industries for future employment (investment banking and management consulting). Within those two fields, I only researched 10 prospective employers.

So out of a universe of 100 million potential employers, I analyzed only 20.

As a result, that which is unknown is infinitely larger than that which is known (or that for which research has been attempted).

In addition, you can research all you want about what it is like to work for a particular company, but you often do not know what the actual experience will be like until you actually show up for work. It’s only then that you discover the clients you will serve, who you will be working alongside in your project teams, and learn the identity of your “boss” (in consulting firms, the partners you work for often are not known in advance or are rotated by project).

Again, things become known with greater accuracy only after the decision to accept an offer has been made.

The second area of vulnerability is in the “self” aspect of the framework.

In my experience, most 20-year-olds do not know themselves very well. Twenty-somethings coming out of the Ivies are incredibly smart but rarely wise.

Wisdom comes from being tested in the real world, falling flat on your face repeatedly and learning who you are in the process. In my opinion, the extremely sheltered environment of a university campus develops intelligence to its greatest potential, but not so much for wisdom. It’s too structured, too protected, too predictable… a massive oversimplification of how the rest of the world lives.

So, what commonly happens is the 20-something college graduate pursues her career “plan” and, once the real world is confronted, she realizes that many assumptions she made in her original plan were not true in reality.

Working at XYZ organization wasn’t exactly as she thought. She thought doing XYZ professionally would be a lot more enjoyable than reality.

This happens when the rising star pre-med student enters medical school only to discover she hates seeing patients and doesn’t like research.

It’s the pre-law student who goes to law school in hopes of being a fearsome courtroom litigator (that’s often glamorized on TV), only to discover that being a young lawyer is spending 100 hours a week reading paper documents and creating new paper documents for other people to read.

This is not at all to pass judgment on these people. It’s just a reflection of the reality that many things are not knowable at the outset of creating a career plan. Some things just aren’t knowable until after you actually try it.

(Though things like informational interviewing do help quite a bit in narrowing down the discrepancy between expectations and reality.)

When assumed expectations don’t match reality, that’s when there’s an opportunity to shift from pursuing planned career opportunities to emergent career opportunities.

In many cases, people find it troubling when they discover the career path they’re on is not the right fit for them but an opportunity with a better fit is not yet obvious.

In these situations, people take one of two paths. They either stay on the current known wrong career path until something better comes along (it rarely does, or the wait is excruciatingly long). Or they exit the known wrong opportunity to deliberately seek out the right opportunity.

It’s my belief that the former is what leads to the “mid-life crisis” — doing what you hate for 10 or 20 years and ending up successful and miserable... or as I like to call it, "successfully miserable."

The latter has a lot of uncertainty (which again drives MBB consultants and those cut from the same cloth absolutely crazy). The key distinction is that the uncertainty is often temporary.

If you pursue emergent opportunities as a “market test” (such as the ones I advocate my small business clients take), then you discover more information about the market and yourself much more quickly.

Sometimes to find out what is definitely right for you, you have to attempt pursuing things that seem potentially right for you (often repeatedly) until the definitely right opportunity becomes clear.

What makes this journey especially disconcerting, especially for those successful in school, is the final destination is often not known (and not knowable) until AFTER you’ve departed for the trip.

(Just remember that clarity increases and uncertainty decreases once the journey is underway.)

The alternative is to follow a career path that you know is wrong and passively wait for something better to come along. This is the path to being successful (if you force yourself to do what you hate) and miserable, or successfully miserable.

That’s my thought for today.

What are your thoughts?

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43 comments… add one
  • Jason H Mar 20, 2014, 4:42 pm

    Interesting perspective from the career side, Thanks for the read.

    To further Victor’s discussion from the consulting angle, I recommend reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which focuses on developing a Minimal Viable Product and then testing customer reaction to it to understand what the customer wants.

  • Katie Mar 20, 2014, 4:50 pm

    Wow, this is interesting. I’ve been reading your posts for quite a while now, and this one really pushed me to comment, because it seems to be a good life lesson. I hope I’ll be able to make the leap if the time ever comes. On an semi-unrelated tangent, is there anything in consulting in particular that might lead to the feeling of expectations and reality being quite different?

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 12:48 pm


      The difference between reality and expectations is largely subjective and varies based on the individual. A few common threads include:

      1) Pace — some find consulting way too slow, many go to investment banking especially with more of a transactional focus

      2) Sense of Purpose – some find the work unfulfilling at a personal level — many will go to work for NGOs, non profits or the public sector.

      3) Competent but without Joy – Some find they are able to force themselves to do the work, but don’t enjoy it. (This describes what my career would have been like as an engineer. I excelled in math and science in school, but I did not enjoy it. I’m certain I could have forced myself to be an engineer, but I’m equally certain I would not have enjoyed it). This is particularly true for those with a creative or intuitive bent (that also happen to be capable of being logical and analytical). These people will either go into a more creative field or into industry. One very smart consultant a year behind me at McKinsey ended up being a film producer.


  • Tobi Mar 20, 2014, 4:54 pm

    This ’emergent strategy’ sounds very much like Eric Ries’ lean startup methodology.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 12:49 pm

      I’ve only heard of Ries’ work indirectly through others, but from what I know I would agree.


  • Adeyinka isioye Mar 20, 2014, 5:04 pm

    Well written and energizing.


  • Nilesh Mistry Mar 20, 2014, 5:07 pm

    Hi Victor,

    It was a pleasure to read this, especially since I have just recently embarked on the unknown journey myself.

    I graduated with a PhD from Duke and followed the traditional path of post-doc research and then an academic appointment, where I met with reasonable success in funding, collaborating, coming up with new technology. But during all this time, I realized that what I enjoyed doing the most was connecting with people and helping them on their research problems.

    I took the decision last year to search for opportunities outside of academia, and started looking at industry (pharma / medical devices) for different career options. I was lucky to have landed 2 offers just last month. One that paid significantly more (its probably easy to guess the industry), but would lead me into more of the academic research career in an industry setting. The other that paid less than the first offer, but put me on a different career trajectory.

    I have made the decision to take the the 2nd offer, as I know .. that from the outside I feel like I will enjoy that more. Now begins my “market test”.. in the next few weeks when I embark on that journey.

    – Nilesh

    • Preeti Mar 21, 2014, 8:05 am

      all the best Nilesh
      It does take courage to do this.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 12:50 pm


      Good luck. Sounds exciting.


  • Krish Mar 20, 2014, 5:51 pm

    The quote
    “What makes this journey especially disconcerting, especially for those successful in school, is the final destination is often not known (and not knowable) until after you’ve departed for the trip.”

    The same aspect is applicable to one’s life even spiritually! Ironically, most of us are afraid to exit the known wrong opportunity to deliberately seek out the right opportunity.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 12:54 pm


      Yes, yes, yes.

      I will save this for another day. I see my clients deal with the exact same dynamic with problematic employees. The employee is lousy and / or literally stealing. In my mind, that person is the wrong person and you want to remove the wrong person immediately.

      There’s an enormous, mostly emotional tendency, to want to hang on to the wrong employee mostly because the right employee has not yet been identified.

      When there’s no employee, there is enormous urgency to find the right one as quickly as possible. When the bad one remains, the pressure is perceived to be off and there’s no rush to find the right employee. When a bad employee is left in place, two things happen: 1) the situation ALWAYS gets worse over time, and 2) they do more damage (some of which is often not visible while the bad employee is still left in place).

      It is not necessary to wait to find what is right, before getting rid of what is known to be wrong.


  • Mat Mar 20, 2014, 5:52 pm

    Great piece and so true. I’m 34, have an Engineering Masters degree, a PhD and an MBA and I’m still trying to find the right path. I’ve been on the “known” wrong career path since I was 15 but stuck it out (because I was good at it).
    Now I’m going to take the plunge on the “uncertain” route and head into Consulting. One of the more disconcerting aspects you don’t mention that certainly raises the stakes is the potential fallout from going down the uncertain career path – no job. It kind of matters when you’ve got kids to feed and water!

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 12:58 pm


      I empathize. I have kids and it definitely makes taking some risks much more stressful. It is also why I tend to encourage many of my readers to make such transition early in their careers. The switching costs only seem to get higher as one gets older.

      In terms of financial risk management, one option is to stay in the wrong career path VERY temporarily with a specific exit deadline in place. Then cut back aggressively on personal expenses and save a ton of cash. The cash buys you time to figure out the right path.

      In my experience talented people with driven work ethics are never unemployed permanently. The key is making sure you have ample time to figure things out.

      If my business ever got wiped out, I have no doubt I could get a job somewhere eventually. But I have very little confidence I could get a job within 15 days — its just not enough time. If I had 6 months or a year of cash, it would be so much less stressful.


  • Derek Mar 20, 2014, 7:30 pm

    Emergent business strategy, Jim Collins had been researching and writing about this for many, many years, those interested should have a read.

  • L G Swan Mar 20, 2014, 9:45 pm

    This article resonated with me in a way that surprised me. You described precisely the trajectory of my career. Having earned an MBA, I took a position with a pharmacy wholesaler that seemed like the perfect fit. I hated it. Insert familial illnesses requiring a 2-year absence, I opted out. Now I’m seeking a valid re-entry point.

    I, like Nilesh, also realized that I prefer working with people, helping them solve problems, rather than crunching numbers in a cube farm all day.

    Presently I’m exploring options in healthcare, outside of the pharmacy industry; where, at this point, the positions I prefer require a PharmD.

  • Reyna Mar 20, 2014, 11:28 pm

    Well said article, and well interpret of “mid-life crisis.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 1:02 pm


      Thanks. What I’ve noticed is that the mid-life crisis often has roots in “earlier” life.

      I spend my personal life around my young kids and their friends. I spend my professional life around college grads and CEO’s in their 40’s and 50’s. My close friend and colleague has an entire executive coaching practice based around advising the successful and miserable (basically partners in consulting firms, banks, law firms, accounting firms) who don’t like what they do.

      It has been interesting to notice the interrelationship across all of these seemingly disparate audiences.

      The outcomes late in life and surprisingly predictable based on decisions taken (or more commonly not taken) earlier in life. I never realized that in my 20’s, but see it now from my vantage point.


  • Jennifer Mar 21, 2014, 12:57 am

    I think this is a great post that so many young people reading your site need to see.
    My one concern with the emergent path (which we in Silicon Valley call testing, iterating and/or pivoting), is this: What do you do if you try 1 career path and you know it’s not right so you leave, then you try another career and it’s not right either, and then suddenly you have a resume full of < 2 year stints and future employers/people label you as a "job hopper"?

    All just because you were trying to find your way

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 7:01 pm


      One way to mitigate the risk is to invest in informational interviewing and networking to meet people in the fields you have an interest in before committing to work in the field. It doesn’t necessarily help you figure out what you will like, but it definitely helps you figure out what you will not like.

      Assuming one has done that I think the job hopping label is slightly overblown, especially if one is in his or her 20’s. The idea is you spend your 20’s figuring out what you like, then you spend your 30’s getting really good, and then spend your 40’s and 50’s earning high income from being exceptional at something valued by others that you like a lot.

      The job hopper issue is really an issue if you’re still doing it in your 30’s and 40’s. Once you find your sweet spot, it is SO much easier to excel. This is why I encourage those earlier in their careers to make big switches if current career choices aren’t working out for them. The stakes get higher as you get older (both personally (e.g., mortgage, kids, etc..) and professionally).


  • Vinay Mar 21, 2014, 4:49 am

    Hi Victor : enjoyed reading this article. As a PhD with numerous patents and publications and now a FT management consultant with my own practice, I would add that “one learns more from his/her failures than successes.” When you “dont know what you don’t know,” setting up parameters to test with specific hypothesis and analyzing failure(s) is very insightful. Another suggestion, which is hard in the business world is about persistence. When one has a string of failures, it is easy to give up. While one cannot work on failed projects forever, being impatient too early can often be the difference between an Apple Newton vs Apple iPad. A structured approach such as this or as you highlighted for “emergent” strategies indeed is very powerful and how successful scientists /engineers have prevailed.

  • hansika malik Mar 21, 2014, 6:47 am

    Very inspiring!

  • Dim Mar 21, 2014, 7:18 am

    Dear Victor,

    The article is very interesting and I really enjoyed reading it. I have been stuck in the last 8 years in banking and just finished the MBA. Definitely second (uncertain) path is worth taking rather than playing safe. My comment is that such career change journey involves two parties: Self (The employee) and Employers. My perception is that Employers are rarely taking the same risks as career changers. Straight career path is considered more appealing. That said, it seems that stability in choosing the “right” job at the beginning is more valued than the personal interest you could have. It would be good to know what percentage of people are career changers like me.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 21, 2014, 7:03 pm


      I don’t have the latest career changer stats but the last set I saw several years ago compared # of career changes in a lifetime vs similar aged people 50 years ago was dramatically different.

      The MBA in particular is an especially nice, very socially acceptable, career changing pivot point. It is perceived to be totally ok to change career direction after an mba – especially a well recognized one.


  • Manik Mar 21, 2014, 10:45 am

    Hi Victor

    I’m also one from the legion of long & ardent followers of your mailers & consulting prep material, but this article pushed me to comment. I agree with your “emergent” career strategy principle but challenge the approach.

    About me: I belong to the “planned” career path types you mention – engineer – consulting – MBA – consulting again…& am happy with where I am now. But I often wonder if I wanted to move out, where & what would I like to do. So I’m investing time to volunteer in spaces that seem interesting to me. For example, investing in SME companies seemed interesting so I got involved with a trade body and consulted for a few. The experience was interesting but I learnt that it was not what I wanted as my next career.

    The bridge between a planned & an emergent career move needn’t be quitting one to explore the other. One could try to sail in two boats together. Of course it will be tricky, but one with lesser opportunity cost.

    Your thoughts?

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 12:18 pm


      I totally agree with you. The planned vs emergent opportunity need not be mutually exclusive. It’s lower risk if some aspect of the emergent opportunity can be explored with low cost. These approaches include: reading trade publications, conducting informational interviews with people in the emergent field, attending industry events, volunteering, and numerous other ways.

      This is especially true if one likes the planned career path but wonders if an even better one exists. For those who definitively know they hate the current career path and are working 100 hours a week such that it precludes researching other opportunities, my argument is the risk of leaving a known bad opportunity it relatively low compared with the uncertainty of a better opportunity.

      When you hate what you’re doing, the bar for finding a better opportunity is not very high — though it has some uncertainty and does take some time.

      Having sufficient savings also helps provide the time to transition career paths, so that isn’t a require prerequisite but it certainly helps a lot with reducing risk and stress in a more aggressively structured switch toward an emergent career path.


  • Cissoko Mamady Mar 21, 2014, 11:54 am

    Interesting analogy with great insight!

    Thanks Victor!

  • Ayush Agrawal Mar 21, 2014, 12:57 pm


    As people above have said, its very similar to Minimum Viable Product model of Eric Ries, but the thing that’s of interest is your suggestion of its application to one’s career. As they say its one thing to know something but applying it is what makes all the difference. It also reminds of your mail in which you talked about spotting patterns from other industry (Startup in this case) and using it in some different industry (One’s career in this case).

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 12:24 pm


      Thanks for pointing out the connection and sources of the two ideas. You’re right it is a mashup of the two and I wasn’t consciously aware that I was doing it.

      Also Rie’s minimum viable product concept is actually a 30-50 year old concept from the direct mail industry. Direct mailers used to send promotions for people to buy products that did not yet exist. In the extreme case, they would take the money and run which was blatantly illegal.

      Some direct marketers would take orders, and the rush to create the product after the fact. This is when the US Federal Trade Commission instituted laws about products purchase must be delivered within 30 days of purchase or something like that.

      The above is called “dry testing” because it was a way to test for market demand and test for the effectiveness of the advertisement copy before and R&D dollars were expended.

      The underlying principle is the same… Though in direct mail, the minimum viable product was to have no product at all.

      The principle still applies today, thought not as aggressively as before due to the laws.


  • Dorothy Zhuomei Mar 21, 2014, 1:49 pm

    Hi Victor,

    I have been a subscriber to your emails since my MBA days almost 2 years ago. I always found your messages very insightful. But this post is the one that really prompted me to leave a comment for the very first time, because I absolutely resonated with the second half of the post regarding career change.

    I am one of those MBB consultants that recently decided to leave the path to explore a field that is full of uncertainty but feels true to me. Everyday I struggle with my uncomfortableness with uncertainty and I feel vulnerable and scared quite often. I keep turning around and look at my MBB and MBA friends who continue to pursue the traditional route in business and I have to keep reminding myself that I was unhappy and I should not cave in for another easy way out. It’s a quite a fascinating journey for me as I slowly develop the muscle to deal with uncertainty and retain the grit to follow through with my new path.

    So yes, your insight around MBB’s risk-adverse, uncertainty-adverse mindset is dead on, and your encouragement for those of us to take the step is well-received, at least by me 🙂

    Lastly, I plan to start a blog and a website soon which is related to my field (coaching and personal/leadership development), and would love to quote some of your words. Just want to check if this is ok with you and I will definitely share the sources when I quote.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 12:32 pm


      Congratulations on have the courage to break from the pack to meet your own needs and goals. I always find it ironic that MBA programs and consultants train people to become independent critical thinkers, and a surprising number do not think independently in their own personal lives.

      I will write about he topic of being able to absorb uncertainty in the future, but needless to say being able to do so both emotionally and financially opens up many more opportunities.

      You are welcome to quote me so long as it is limited to a paragraph or less. Under US copyright laws, that constitutes the definition of fair use. So need to ask for permission to quote a few sentences. I just ask that you reference that the quote originated from me and a link back to a specific article or to my website home page would be appreciated.

      Good luck,

  • VV Mar 21, 2014, 3:01 pm

    Great Article (from an MBB consultant ) – at a time when I am trying to pivot from my current consulting job.

    Being a rigid thinker myself, I feel that the reason we come up with ONE rigid strategic plan stems from a deep fear of failure that all of us have within us, and this is more pronounced in people who are extremely competitive

    The emergent strategy is a good alternative – to try out and experiment and see how things work out and ACCEPT if things don’t work out — But for the emergent strategy to work out, it is very important for us to lose this fear of failure and be willing to try and fail

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 12:44 pm


      Yes, yes, yes!

      In school environments, failure = bad. The premise in academic environments, which seems especially ingrained in the minds of those successful in a traditional sense (e.g. successful in school first, as opposed to “street smart” people who did not perform well in school, but did in life after school ), is that failure should be avoided because failure was entirely avoidable.

      In school this is true. In business and in life this is not. Making mistakes in life = how we learn.

      A 1 year old child learns to walk, mostly be trying lots of ways to walk and falling down a hell of a lot. No parent ever said, OMG the baby fell down while trying to walk, she is a failure. That’s because making mistakes is a normal part of being human and is how human beings learn.

      The oldest school in the world is not Harvard. Is it the school of “trial and error”.

      In addition, the legacy of the artificially created academic thinking is that there is one correct answer. In real life, there are multiple “correct” answers.

      Not only that but there are multiple definitions of “correct”.

      In school, “correct” is defined by what the teacher wants to see. In life, “correct” is defined by what YOU want out of life.

      As a result, what is “correct” for you is very likely to be completely different than what is “correct” for me. That is why there is a danger in benchmarking one’s career plans versus others because the definition of “correct” will vary tremendously between individuals.


      • VV Mar 23, 2014, 3:25 pm

        Great thoughts Victor ! Thank you for your reply

      • LKL Apr 13, 2014, 5:42 am

        VV and Victor,
        Totally agree that “… it is very important for us to lose this fear of failure and be willing to try and fail” and ” In life, “correct” is defined by what YOU want out of life”. Thanks for sharing such insights. You gave me courage to follow my intuition.

  • Francisco Mar 21, 2014, 5:51 pm

    Dear Victor, perhaps my comment is going to be a bit out of line, but I would like to know your opinion and suggestions about an old urban myth in my region regarding chastity as an asset or liability, and how it can be related to the planned strategy or emergent strategy.

    For example you wait for the right-one, then you get married, have kids,and both partners try to motivate each other in order to make it to the top by getting a job at BBM.

    There is also an expression that if you jump in the labor market as a virgin (literaly speaking), THIS will affect your instinct to foretell people, their intention and attitude towards you, as well as the lack of confidence for being open to oportunities and challenges. The end result will be that you are being left behind by life itself due to your own slowness.

    However, being the other way could be also a liability. Being a player or womanizer like former president Bill Clinton could guarantee being succesful miserably as a family man.

    Without discredit the former president, considering that very few become head of state, if he would have kept his integrity and commitment on his relationship, could he had become a legitimate success in life? Or as the expression goes, he would not have moved ahead of his game/ plan.

    What are your thoughts about this urban hypothesis

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 12:52 pm


      My read is the analogy seems to be overly forced into the career context. My take is that in your 20’s (and sometimes later for those who got a lot start) that’s a time to learn about yourself and to figure out what you like and are good at.

      This applies in both the personal and professional contexts. Most 20 year olds have only recently left the orbit of their parents. For such a person, it is a time to figure out who you are. Which ideas are your own vs your parents? Which values are yours as opposed to those of someone else’s?

      Similarly in terms of careers, what kind of work do you like?

      For someone who is never worked a full time job, this is a tough question to answer without actually working in a job?

      For example, I’m pretty good at in person selling but I could never be a full time sales person. The role has too many repetitive aspects to it and I get incredibly bored and miserable at anything repetitive. I know this about myself now, but I didn’t when I was 20.

      To have a successful and happy career it useful to figure out 1) what you are good at and 2) what you enjoy. The first is the prerequisite for success, the latter for happiness (from career).

      Some people figure this out before they turn 20. The rest of us have to figure it out. Anything that disrupts this process, in my opinion, disrupts the path to either success of happiness (from career), or both.


  • Ank Mar 22, 2014, 3:52 pm

    Hi Victor:

    I love your posts and have been a reader for over two years now.

    I work in client interfacing role in the semiconductor industry. I don’t know whether I will do this forever, but right now in my position I’m learning and making an impact over my firm.

    I tend to enjoy certain aspects of my job a lot and am presently conducting informational interviews to find out positions that primarily focus on these aspects.

    However, my mental barrier about not being so proactive about it is that there would always be some aspects of my future jobs that I’ll like and dislike.

    How can we know ‘when’ do we take a jump from a ‘wrong’ career path, leave our job, and create an urgency to search for an option? How can we define a ‘wrong’ career path? Don’t you think having something in hand gives a lot confidence while applying to other places? What could be the kind of questions one could ask oneself before taking a leap when the present role seems okay, but we also know that there could be something better awaiting us?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 1:09 pm


      The leap from something that makes you miserable to the possibility of something that makes you happier is an easy one to make. The situation you describe is harder.

      What if the current situation is reasonable? It may not be the dream job, but it’s not a nightmare either.

      In this situation, I think it is worth considering the strategic question of whether you want your career to be a source of happiness for you or if you prefer the career to be a neutral contributor to your happiness and you plan to derive happiness exclusively from your non professional life.

      I think both options are valid. I know at least one person who loves music and is also competent at finance. He has assessed his career opportunities in music and has determined he is unlikely to be financial successfully at it.

      He has decided to stay with his career in finance which he finds slight better than neutral. It is 9-5 work, he is good at it, he earns an acceptable income, and it is low stress work. Then in the evening and weekends, he puts his passion into his music.

      Taking this portfolio management approach (borrowed from the asset management industry to create a financial portfolio with certain characteristics by combining characteristics from multiple stocks in to a synthetically created asset that is not identical to either stock in the portfolio) it works for him.

      If you do want to have more enjoyment from your career, than I think it is worth continually “upgrading” your career to roles that are increasingly enjoyable.

      A big part of the process is to know what you like and do not like about what your are doing and to seek our roles with more of what you like and less of what you do not.

      It also helps to have some objective sense from others as to what your exceptional talents are. Identifying and developing self awareness of your career competitive advantage is very critical. Never ever take a role where your competitive advantage is not relevant to the job.

      If you are good with people, don’t take a role that requires you to be in front of a computer all day. (Unless it is a deliberate move to shore up a weakness you want to work on).

      I think you are on the right path. The more you are exposed to, the more you realize what options you have available to you. I would encourage you to keep doing it.

      In terms of when to make the leap, I think it is largely when a new, well researched, opportunity seems exciting enough to compensate for the uncertainty of the opportunity in hand. In most cases, if the opportunity is only 10% better than what you are doing now, it’s probably not worth the risk. If it is 30% better or more targeted to what you want, that probably would be worth it.

      Also it helps to ask if in your current role are your skills growing? Are you more skilled today than 3 or 6 months ago?

      Across multiple fields, especially in today’s economy, I think it is vital to continue to grow your skills. In each year and probably every 6 month span of my entire career, I can honestly say I was more skilled than the previous time period.

      In today’s global, easily outsource able economy, you either continually grow your skills or you are slowly facing career obsolescence.

      So if at some point you hit a ceiling in terms of professional development at your current role, I would probably weigh external options more heavily. In the meanwhile, keep exploring to gain exposure and pay attention to both what you like at your current role and what you are good at it.


  • Ankur Mar 22, 2014, 9:06 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Firstly, thank you for all your amazing material. More on that later.

    Its strange that I have not come across any other blog, article exploring this subject “emergent strategy for career” in greater details before. I have been experiencing personally the concerns mentioned in this article and can identify with almost all. However, I was struggling to summarize them, so thank you.

    1) Emergent Strategy problem: I did Engineering school, worked at Monitor, then came to business school to go back to MBB (oversimplified version but true !). But during the past 2 years at school, I developed interests in the areas of high-growth tech startups and would be starting my career in one soon. I am finding it EXTREMELY difficult emotionally to manage this pivot from ‘Planned Career Strategy’ to ‘Emergent Career Strategy’. Ever few days, I realize my mind is trying to convince me to fall back to “successfully miserable” career plan. So, your observation is pretty much on the mark.

    2) Fail Fast strategy: I clearly see where you are coming from. I guess Lean startup and ‘fail fast’ seems to be the way ahead. And perhaps, they approach would reap similar fruits when applied to individual career planning as they have done for startups.

    If possible, I would request for more content on areas highlighted in your article, emergent strategy and Fail Fast . Perhaps, a full article on Lean Startups methodology and how we can use it for career planning.

  • Ziad Mar 23, 2014, 1:32 am

    Hi Everybody,
    I always used to imagine that the guaranteed way for success is to reach out to MBB asking for some pro-bono support for my startup that focuses on an important social cause. However, after reading the first part of the article, what used to seem very obvious now holds the threat of sinking the startup with a strategy overload, especially if I don’t have the means to continuously stress-test and validate the proposed path to the future.
    I have 2 questions really:
    – How can I really reach out for MBB and get them interested in probono work for a stratup?
    – If they do accept, then what safeguards should I be putting in place not to sink the startup?

    • Victor Cheng Mar 23, 2014, 1:15 pm


      I think it is extremely unlikely they would provide pro bono help to your startup. I’m tempted to say 0% chance of success.

      The reason MBB does pro bono work is NOT to do pro bono work. If you were a pro bono client for 6 months, it would cost them $500k in hard costs and probably $2 million in opportunity cost.

      The reason MBB does pro bono work is to be able to have access to Fortune 500 CEOs who sit on the boards of those non profits as a way to build relationships with them. Pro Bono work is really just a cleverly disguised form of advertising… Mostly using the demonstration of value technique for sales.

      Fortune 500 CEO sees the excellent work MBB does for non profit group whose board the CEO sits on. CEO gets to know the MBB partner,uses partner as sounding board for certain ideas, ask MBB partner if MBbB can advise on similar issue within CEO’s company.


  • Darryl Jun 18, 2014, 8:19 pm

    Victor, I have read and reread this article and the subsequent posts, at least ten times. I think a lot of the choices that we make also are because of the values and investments that our families instill at early age. Education, I would gather from everyone was emphasized in the home and then finding a JOB after all of the time and costs of education is a more innate logical (planned) endstate.

    Fear is also an innate emotion and no one desires that experience whether in school or asking someone on a date. What I read in your article is that; fear is natural; and that your approach to dealing with said fear and risk is best managed when you have a glidepath.

    My positions have been for the most part exceedingly interesting and rewarding. The area that was most challenging was that I had 6-years of constant traveling. It always sounded exciting when I was young but while the work was rewarding, the travel took its toll professionally and personally after the kids came along. For two years, I traveled from the US to Dubai on a project that went like this; 2weeks in Dubai, come back to the US for 7 days; back to Dubai, 3 weeks, US 10-days.

    I came to hate going to the airport in a post 9/11 world and traveling thousands of miles, never being home for any of my kids school or sporting events. I know why I was doing it, but at what cost in the end. All I know is that I can never get those years back.

  • Catherine Jul 2, 2018, 2:29 pm

    This is REALLY true! I’m literally being through this should-I-make-that-move period. I envisioned myself before college: go to the top 10 university, then get my PhD, stay in academia and be an excellent professor in my field. Now, As a PhD student, I like science but also feel sick of the politics and toxic environment for young scientists. I found management consulting at the beginning of the year and really enjoy it! On the other side, you will always feel uncomfortable to step out of your zone but I’m pushing myself to try bc you won’t know until you try it!

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