Jeffery Moran, a vice president at Pernod Ricard, a company that produces a portfolio of distilled beverages, had a problem early this summer. He was co-leading a team that had stumbled into a significant roadblock in the midst of a change management program. “I was feeling a bit desperate about how to get to the bottom of our issue and continue to propel change,” Moran said. So he brought the problem to the Kellogg Action Lab Experience (KALE), a 2-year-old program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. “Within a few hours of our opening session, I knew I’d walk out of the classroom with a much more level head,” Moran said.
Each two-day KALE brings together a small group of hand-picked leaders from a broad range of industries. The group of roughly 20 business leaders works together – assisted by Kellogg’s faculty experts – to solve their own complex, real-world problems.
Jean Egmon, KALE director and a faculty member at Kellogg, said she aims not only for diversity in industry when inviting participants, but also for diverse functions – people who ordinarily would not be together – so everyone gets to tap into new idea pools. “We call it intimate crowdsourcing,” she said.
That intimate setting, along with a promise of confidentiality, allows participants to unveil their stickiest issues for discussion and dissection. “I had no qualms opening up to anyone who would listen or lend a hand,” Moran said. “Not only was the environment conducive to ‘sharing’ and ‘releasing,’ but the atmosphere was one of ‘Tell us what’s going on and we can crowdsource it.’ ”
That’s the atmosphere Kellogg was aiming for when it developed KALE in late 2013. “Diverse companies in non-competitive situations love to come together to learn from each other,” Egmon said. But KALE offers a few extra layers to events such as a best practices round table: “We have real thought leadership on relevant topics from the faculty at one of the top graduate schools of business in the world.” Faculty members are supportive of the program, Egmon said. “They want to make sure what they are researching is relevant.”
KALE provides the core content and facilitators, as well as the tools necessary to translate faculty research to make it usable for solving real-world problems. “We show them how to make it practical,” Egmon said. “They have all this access: To the faculty, the research, the tools and of course, to one other.”
Issues that have been addressed in previous KALEs include dealing with multiple regulators and stakeholders around the world; designing technology that’s useful and encourages desired behavior; and reaching out to populations that don’t typically associate with a particular brand.
These days, companies are asking for invitations to KALE events. Egmon said when choosing invitees, she looks for businesses that have an interest in the topic for that session. “For instance, we have a whole KALE built around health and well-being, so I invite companies that I know care about that space: pharma, food, beer companies, healthcare,” she said.
In addition to picking the right mix of companies, Egmon said it’s important to get the right mix of people. “I really try to pick individuals who have an appetite for this kind of experience and will put it to good use,” she said. “These are folks who are really innovators at heart. They want to learn something new. They want the experience of problem solving with a group of people they aren’t usually with, so they have to be a little trusting, maybe be made a little uncomfortable. But then they will put what they learn into action.”
Moran puts himself squarely into that group. “We spent the time sharing thoughts and applying KALE principles that continue to be of use today,” he said. “It was refreshing, liberating and calming to know that others experience similar – and much more difficult – challenges.”