Richard Nolan’s novel twist on the case study method has a sequel

Jim Barton is back. The effective but fallible Everymanager who rose to the CIO office of a fictional financial services firm in Adventures of an IT Leader has now made the jump to CEO of an equally fictional aerospace giant in Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First-Century Leader.

This most recent year in the life of Barton sees the newly minted CEO cope with a slate of new challenges, from transforming an ailing icon and restructuring its board to living in the fishbowl and navigating some dangerous liaisons with a flirtatious journalist of uncertain motivations.

It’s the latest in a novel twist on the case method of management education developed by Richard Nolan, the Philip M. Condit Endowed Chair in Business Administration (Emeritus) at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

The original

Nolan and longtime collaborator Rob Austin are no strangers to the board room. Before becoming colleagues at the Harvard Business School, Nolan ran a consulting firm that guided strategy for Fortune 500 clients, and Austin was the CIO of Ford.

Both men also have vast experience writing business cases and teaching. But over the past decade, Nolan noticed a change in students. “Today’s digital natives are more demanding,” he says. “They need to be, if not quite entertained, then engaged. It’s a different world.”

To address this pedagogical conundrum, Noland and Austin partnered with Shannon O’Donnell, a research associate with a background in drama. Together, the authors developed the concept of integrative cases involving a central protagonist who faces a series of unfamiliar challenges in the 21st century corporation—a modern spin on the classic hero’s journey. The episodes became a powerful instrument of engagement, a way to get students to know the companies, care for the characters, feel the weight of decisions. And learn.

“We’re able to use the character of Barton as a vehicle to pull the student deeper into collaborative decision-making situations,” Nolan says. “The format allows us to orchestrate management issues as they develop and recur, engage readers in the complexity of the real enterprise.”

Nolan’s and Austin’s serialized cases in IT management turned into a proven pedagogic technique—its extensive testing in the classroom was documented in the Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal. They also produced a leadership book disguised as a ripping novel, published by Harvard Business School Press.

Adventures was named one of CIO Insight’s “Best IT Books of 2009.”

The sequel

After the success of Adventures, HBS Press asked what else the authors had in mind. In his many years consulting corporations, serving on boards of directors, and studying strategy and leadership, Nolan had also noted a recent shift in the balance of corporate power. Where once the stewards—champions of portfolio management and profit—held almost all the cards, now the creators were becoming more central to corporate strategy.

“How do you sustain innovation while maintaining profitable operations?” Nolan asks. “It’s the central question of 21st century leadership.”

This became the context for Barton’s new challenge. Nolan and Austin brainstormed the issues and built a new narrative around their protagonist’s fitful tenure leading Santa Monica Aerospace, adding the perfect balance of pulp and pedagogy. And plenty of dubious decisions to discuss.

Harder Than I Thought is available on and in bookstores and classrooms.

And just try to put the thing down.

Part three?

“It looks like this book is taking off, like the last one,” Nolan reports.

So no retirement for Jim Barton—or his creators. Nolan & Co. are already working to make the series a trilogy. The forthcoming book will chronicle our hero’s trials, tribulations and triumphs serving on the boards of directors of a global firm, a family company and a non-profit organization.

“Organizations everywhere are reinventing their boards,” Nolan says. “To prepare students and future leaders for effective service, we need more than just war stories. We need structure, a way to see how the episodes and issues fit together.

“We’re hoping the book will meet that need.”