Jackson Nickerson is our 2023 Sir Donald Hibberd Lecturer
A former NASA engineer turned academic is breathing new life into the topic of strategy execution at Melbourne Business School.
Professor Jackson Nickerson is a former NASA engineer, entrepreneur and award-winning scholar on strategic management, leadership and organisational change from Olin Business School, Washington University in Saint Louis.
This month, he will also bring the latest ideas on strategy execution to Melbourne Business School as the 2023 Sir Donald Hibberd Lecturer.
"I've been to Melbourne Business School before, and I found it to be a wonderful community," Prof Nickerson says. "I'm very excited to have more time to interact with people and get to know and learn from them."
Prof Nickerson will use his appointment to help MBA students analyse the structural and behavioural roadblocks that keep organisations from successfully executing on their strategy.
It's also an opportunity for Prof Nickerson to review the latest research and breathe new life into a topic that he says is overdue for new ways of thinking.
"Many of the approaches to leading change or strategic implementation had their origin in a paper from 1947," he says.
"So, the field itself is ripe for some new approach that changes the paradigm."
These fresh perspectives and insights are precisely what Prof Nickerson intends to deliver to students at Melbourne Business School.
"I created a new course from scratch that I think no one else is delivering on strategy execution," he says.
"I'm in that point of my career where my role is to try to break old paradigms and build new ones that will be better – and I view this opportunity with Melbourne Business School as part of that undertaking.”
From NASA to the boardroom
Prof Nickerson holds three degrees from the University of California, Berkeley in business and public policy, business administration and control system engineering. He is also the author of several books on strategy, leadership and organisational change.
Before becoming an academic, Prof Nickerson was a control systems engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There, he worked on upgrading the antennas that communicated with the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes.
It was his time with NASA that led to one of Prof Nickerson’s main research interests in strategic management. The concept he calls 'fragility drift' starts with a story that goes all the way back to a nature reserve in Canberra.
The concept itself has to do with the resilience of organisations, and how it can be weakened over time by adaptations that don't consider their impact on the entire system.
As Prof Nickerson explains it: "Every business is one big system made up of a bunch of subsystems, some of which interact in particular ways. What my colleagues and I discovered is that people make a local adaptation in one subsystem without assessing how it might affect other subsystems over the long run."
Systems are designed so that when they experience a disturbance or shock, the system comes back to equilibrium. But if adaptations are made to a subsystem without assessing impact on other subsystems (the technical term is a homeostatic analysis), then the amount of "bump" the system can handle narrows, making it more fragile without leaders knowing it.
"So, at some point, a disturbance or shock happens and the system can't handle it, and it goes into an unanticipated state."
This resulting fragility drift can lead to industrial catastrophes or large-scale failures, such as the widespread flight cancellations Southwest Airlines experienced in late 2022.
According to Prof Nickerson, fragility drift also is a substantial contributor to failed strategy implementations. The answer, he suggests, is to know when systems should be put in place to ensure innovators or operators carefully study how the whole system works before making adaptations that could affect the integrity of the system.
Inspired by work in Australia
Prof Nickerson first stumbled upon the inspiration for fragility drift while tackling an operational problem at a 100-metre tall NASA deep-space communication antenna near Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in Canberra and two other locations around the globe.
The antenna was vacillating, losing vital communications from Voyager. Only after exploring the entire system did the reason for the failure became apparent. Several years earlier, operators had made a small change to one antenna subsystem without understanding the long-run implications for the system as a whole.
That experience revealed a truth about change, industrial catastrophes, and strategy execution that has informed much of Prof Nickerson's work since.
"It turns out fragility drift also happens in train systems, airplane systems, oil extraction systems, refinery systems, mining systems, space shuttles, and business systems like Southwest Airlines," Prof Nickerson says.
"So, in some ways, my whole life has been about understanding these systems and I just didn't know it until recently."
The Sir Donald Hibberd Lectureship was established in 1984 to celebrate the legacy of one of Australia's most significant nation builders, and inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
Sir Donald held influential positions in the public service during the Chifley years and helped to create Australia's $10 billion aluminium industry.
Recent appointees have included economist Mark Crosby, who is the Director of the Bachelor of International Business at Monash University, innovation expert Professor Dan Galai, who helped to launch the Biodesign Innovation program and Professor Cordelia Fine, a psychologist and author specialising in neuroscience and gender.