Entrepreneurship Prof. Ethan Mollick: Middle Managers Make “Huge Impact” on Innovation

A professor in Wharton’s EMBA program, Ethan Mollick covers a lot of ground in his research on innovation and entrepreneurship. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, he discusses middle managers’ surprisingly large impact on innovation while a blog for The New Yorker features his work on the use of videogames to motivate employee performance. We asked Prof. Mollick to tell us more about his research and experiences teaching in our EMBA program.

Q. What are some of your current research projects?

I’m very interested in how individuals can be more successful in starting firms or innovating. The HBR blog is based on my research on how individuals matter in firm performance. Looking at the video game industry, I analyzed how much innovation could be attributed to individual innovators, middle managers, and firm-level executives. I found that middle managers have a bigger influence on firm performance than any other level. So having a good middle manager can have a huge influence on how your team performs.

I also recently completed a survey of Wharton alumni to analyze the factors that led them to become successful entrepreneurs. I’m currently analyzing that data and writing papers.

On the topic of funding startups, I’m working with government regulators on ways to prevent fraud when equity crowdfunding becomes legal. My research shows that less than 1% of the money pledged to crowdfunded projects are actually going to projects that are fraudulent or aren’t doing what they are supposed to do with the funds. However, 85% deliver late.

Another area I’m working on is the intersection of videogames and business. There is a trend toward gamification in which businesses use videogames as a motivation tool for employees. I’ve found that mandatory fun is only good when people agree to it and believe that the game is appropriate and fair. Otherwise, it can have a negative impact.

Q. What classes do you teach in Wharton’s EMBA program?

At various times, I’ve taught Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Advanced Entrepreneurship on both coasts. I try and combine the latest academic research on what makes entrepreneurs successful with cases, in-class discussions, and the ability of students to take action in their own startups. We do a lot of market-based experiments and I bring in panelists of VCs to assess students’ pitches.  The introductory-level class attracts students who are interested in entrepreneurship, but not necessarily committed to starting a business. The advanced-level elective tends to attract people who are ready to start a business so we go deeper into their ideas in that class.

Q. What do you like about teaching EMBA students?

Wharton’s executive MBA students are really smart, engaged with what they are learning, and care a lot about entrepreneurship. My classes are a great opportunity for them to be operational, but also to pause and think about next steps in their startups or businesses. Our classroom discussion is at a very high level because they bring in great insights from their careers. These are very fun classes to teach and hopefully to participate in.

Q. Do you enjoy commuting to San Francisco to teach?

Yes, there is a palpable energy in San Francisco because people in that area are very excited about entrepreneurship. I always learn something when I teach out there. And with so many successful Wharton graduates who are entrepreneurs and VCs on the West Coast, it’s a very supportive community.

Q. How do you work with EMBA students on independent study projects?

Those projects tend to involve students developing real businesses. Several of them have launched with good results.

Q. How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

My first entrepreneurial experience was actually in a high school business plan competition in Wisconsin. My business involved creating and selling cow-shaped doorstoppers. My plan was successful enough that I was invited to the national-level competition, which really got the entrepreneurship bug going for me. Later, I started a company with a college roommate in New York and I made every mistake that I now teach about in my classes.


Wharton Prof. Ethan Mollick