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EDI + P&G: Six Years in the Making

Robb Olsen is a principal scientist in global products research at Procter & Gamble (P&G). He teamed up with EDI six years ago and continues to sponsor a robust partnership between the program and P&G including multiple studio-based classes. Robb is also a member of the Segal Advisory Board.

Q: Tell me about your role with P&G?

Robb: I’m in products research and have been for about 80% of my time at P&G, and that’s the part of Research and Development (R&D) that does the integration across consumer, business and technology to create the products. There are other parts of R&D that are very deep on different technologies, but then there’s a role that’s about 20% of R&D, where we do the integration. That’s what I do and I’ve been at P&G for 33 years with a bunch of different businesses – Pampers, Femcare, our tissue business, Puffs. Some things we’ve sold – like our food businesses, and that’s where I started – but lately I’ve been in fabric care and that’s Tide, Gain and those kinds of things.

Q: How’d you get involved with P&G 33 years ago?

Robb: [P&G] came to campus. I went to school at the University of Toledo, [where I studied chemical engineering]. The thing that first struck me is that I, like many people, had never given any thought to the science and engineering behind everyday things. So then I went on a lot of day visits [to companies] and got a bunch of job offers. The other thing that struck me was that in the visits to the companies, the smartest people I encountered were [at P&G], and I thought, “Wow, this is a funny place.” They work on these everyday things and yet they’ve got all these super talented people. And I do have a trait I’ve seen in myself where I sometimes take the hardest path instead of the easiest path, and so I said to myself, “Wow, this will be the most challenging, and I’ll take the job here with all these other really smart people and see how I do.” And that’s how I got started.

Q: What’s your day-to-day like at P&G?

Robb: In the products research role, you’re going to move across the domains of consumer needs and understanding them even if they’re unarticulated. So you might spend a significant block of time one day actually designing and conducting primary research with consumers. This is another thing that’s unusual about the products research role [at P&G] – we are R&D, but we actually design and conduct the consumer research ourselves, we don’t hand that off to somebody else. We want that knowledge in one head that can address business, consumer and technology. So one block of time could be conducting, designing, analyzing and modeling the feedback from the humans we are trying to serve. Then another block of time working on the actual design of the product, incorporating the technologies that would help us serve those humans better. We are big on addressing tensions, so whatever the issues are in the use of the everyday thing or the interaction with the everyday thing, we try to understand those very deeply and then address them very fundamentally with the technologies. I also work a lot with other parts of R&D who are deeper with the specific technologies for my product. And then another block of time would be spent building the proposition – understanding how we are going to fit that into the business; how we are going to fit that into the evolution of the brand of which this product is sold; making sure that we are pushing that business and that brand in the right direction.

Q:  Let’s transition to the EDI class that P&G partners with. Tell me more about the class, the structure and how P&G is involved?

Robb: This is [P&G’s] sixth year working with EDI, and one of the things about us products researchers at P&G is that we all come in with undergraduate or graduate science or engineering degrees, because that basic technical skill set tends to not be teachable on the job. And then we learn on the job the consumer science and the business science. What I mean by business science is the science of product innovation: How do you really drive business results with innovation? So it didn’t take me very many years to go, “Wow, okay. I learned this all on the job, but how much more productive and efficient could I have been if I had learned a bunch of the basic theory and practice at the university level before I started this job?” And so I started looking for university programs, and that was in 1989. It wasn’t until 2009 that I started to get wind of what was going on at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. In the meantime, P&G had hired its first EDI graduate. And one of the things I was doing at that time was teaching our products Research College. So I’m [teaching] my block and somehow we got on the topic of: Wouldn’t it be great if you learned [these skills] in university and there were degree programs like that?” And so Eric, our EDI graduate, raised his hand and said that he graduated from a program like that. After that, Eric and I talked, he explained the program and I got names of a bunch of different professors. Eric worked in a different part of the business than I did and so I talked to his management and I said, “Let’s go [to Northwestern] to understand this program. We need to do more – I’m not sure what ‘more’ would be, but we need to do more with this program. It’s very pioneering.” So I came [to Northwestern] and met with Ed Colgate and Kim Hoffman and had a great meeting of the minds. And so Ed and Kim invited me to join the advisory board, which I did, and we started sponsoring the fall product design class – and sponsoring it with real-world challenges of ours. This is our sixth year [partnering with EDI]. Besides my role on the advisory board, I’ve been coordinating how P&G engages with EDI to bring the projects forward; we’ve made a lot of cool changes. When we first joined, the students were also just starting their journey on design – they hadn’t taken design and research; they didn’t know much of anything about consumer understanding methods. So one of the things I did a couple of years in was I started designing a block of consumer research using our state of the art tools and bringing that to the students to execute so they would learn by doing. That started out great – every year we kind of upped the challenge of the class with stronger and stronger deliverables. We’ve increased the focus on the physical prototyping against the consumer need, but it’s very cool. In 10 weeks the students are achieving a level of mastery of doing – that kind of master integrator role across consumer and technology. It’s quite a bit less focused on business, because the way business gets tackled in the class is that the business need is embedded in the challenge we bring to the students. So the students don’t need to understand our business very well in this very first studio class of theirs – just well enough to figure out the need. They do a great job within that business context of understanding where the tensions are with the consumers and solving those tensions with innovative product design. So I have a kind of stewardship role in the process, but I also constantly try to improve the process for the students to make them more and more ready to go tackle those kinds of challenges when they graduate.

Q: How is the class structured? Are the students in groups?

Robb: Yeah, it’s all teams and we are pretty deliberate when choosing the teams. This year, for the first time, I sat in on the team formation because I’m here now doing an innovator in residence, and so I was physically present. Ed and Kate [my wife] are teaching the class [this quarter], and it’s really cool to have my wife co-teaching the class. So I sat down with Ed and Kate and went through what we thought would be good mixes of background, temperament, learning style and all of that. So the teams were pretty carefully chosen and it’s very much a team deliverable. Within the team, the individuals have to excel, but what shows up to me is the team output, not the individual output. And that’s like the real world also – nobody goes and accomplishes some great thing all by themselves; that’s a fairy tale. You accomplish great things when you combine your talents with other people’s talents, focused on a common purpose and you do it extremely well; then things happen.

Q: Do you tell each team what challenge to focus on?

Robb: So this is has evolved a little bit. In each case, we have always brought the challenges forward, but we don’t say, “Here’s the answer, go prove that.” That’s not what this class is about. But the challenge can’t be totally invalid, because this class is only ten weeks, and so we have to put the right objective in place with the right boundaries to explore this space. We provide plenty of white space for both understanding the humans [the students are] trying to serve, the consumer understanding, and developing the technical solutions. But we’re not saying, “Go figure out everything,” so we bring them some boundaries. And over the six years, I’ve learned more and more about how to set those boundaries and goals effectively. And in every case it’s still a massive struggle, which is the great learning – to cover the white space available there, effectively, in ten weeks and come up with something that people love. But many times they have come up with something that the consumers love.

Q: I know most of the projects are confidential, but what are some examples you can talk about?

Robb: A lot of them have been on packaging and devices, so we’ve been working to improve our fabric care packaging experience. We just got done doing the service design course in the spring and one of those projects we actually just launched as a pilot program in Chicago where it’s a laundry service. It’s kind of like an Uber for laundry. That came to fruition quite quickly as a pilot and we’ll see where that goes. But you know, the students are doing real-world work [in these classes].

Q: What’s it like having your wife co-teach the class? Robb Olsen and his wife Kate.

Robb: So my wife is extremely talented, she’s also an engineer, and also worked at P&G. She was a Duke grad, [studied] mechanical engineering, and we met at P&G when she was in one of our plants. And so she and I started working together and one thing led to another. She decided she wanted to be in R&D because she’s unbelievably creative, so she came up and joined R&D and things went well, we got married and we’ve been happy ever since. She only worked for P&G for five years though and then she got a Master’s in Educational Foundations – so not the practice of teaching, but the practice of creating curriculum and human learning. She’s been doing consulting work since she left P&G, so when she had the opportunity to teach here she was just delighted. It suits her design background, her engineering background and her educational foundations background. The way she got co-teaching with Ed was she came and lectured one time when a couple of P&G people had their flight cancelled. She filled in for them, and Ed and Kim liked her so well that they said that she should come and teach this class next year. And they said, to me, “Robb, you can still be the sponsor.” It’s been great; it’s really cool to have us both here for a professional purpose but the professional purpose is something we care about.

Q: Why do you think EDI students are well-suited for this class?

Robb: This is something that I’ve come to appreciate: It’s taken me all six years to even get the knowledge that I have now, but Northwestern and McCormick have been on the leading edge of this human-centered design thing. It started 20 years ago with the holistic design-oriented programs that are required of undergraduate engineers [here], and that’s really huge and it’s forward thinking to think that that started 20 years ago. But then EDI itself is kind of that perfect marriage from where we at P&G sit. We have these undergraduate science and engineering degrees and then we learn the product design part on the job, including the consumer understanding and the business part. Well, EDI students tend to have undergraduate technical degrees – especially engineering degrees – [and are] now learning human-centered design, but not on the job, so there’s almost a perfect congruence. And that means they’ve self-selected into this master integrator kind of role where they want to bring together disparate needs and solve them simultaneously through product or service or interaction design. Perfect, perfect, perfect. That’s also good for us because we know what they’re passionate about being in the EDI program. And then EDI is selective, so you get really good students. P&G, like I say, is a tough place and so it’s not for everyone. We’ve hired about an average of one [EDI] a year who is a good match between what we are looking for and what the students are looking for. But there’s that mash up between design and engineering – or design and you can call it technical rigor – that was perfect for what we are looking for. I recently described it as: Creativity meets technical rigor, and they both win.

Q: What would you say EDI students gain from taking this class and working with a real client?

Robb: It’s crucial; these are real-world experiences. These are projects that P&G is investing in and so they get to see what that level of reality entails. And yet, we are very careful to constantly ensure that it’s a great educational experience for the students. We are very careful to not ask the students to find the answer we are already looking for. We are very careful to say, “We are after truth and we’ll help you craft an experience where you can find truth, but truth is the output from a consumer standpoint and from a product design standpoint,” not , “Here’s what we want to hear.” So the students, through that real world interaction, immediately get to practice applying these disparate skills that they’re growing in EDI. That’s what I think they get out of it: A degree of reality that is unusual and hard to find, combined with right away practicing that master integrator role that by the time they graduate EDI, they’re actually really good at it.

Q: What would you say are the biggest challenges students face in the class?

Robb: Since they’re mostly technically degreed, they know they want to do the holistic thing, but they haven’t been in environments – for the most part – where they could do the holistic thing. They’ve been in environments where they’ve been solving engineering problems as opposed to solving human problems with engineering, and there’s a huge difference. That’s why I brought a predesigned consumer research package to the class, and it’s been going great. Before we were doing that, it would take them most of the first year to be ready to really design their own research, conduct it, interpret it and apply it. But by having the pre-designed package, they get a much faster start. I think the second biggest challenge is the team dynamic, because if they just came directly from undergrad – while there is teamwork in undergrad – it’s generally not as intensive as this teamwork. Because now they sink or swim on the success of the team, and in this case we have teams of three, so they’re one third of that success. And so really figuring out how to work well together is the second challenge. Most teams tackle it very quickly, some teams struggle with it; we’ve really tried to get compatibility in the teams. The third challenge is that we do have very demanding deliverables and so they really have to bust their butts to get done by the end of the quarter what we’ve asked them to do. But they rise to the challenge every time. They do brilliant work that they can be proud of. While I am a nice person, I think, I’m also not a coddling person. This is the time to test yourself and to find out how good you are and to figure out you can do it even when it’s really challenging and tough. I’m all about that. I’m all about helping the students rise to the challenge and not say, “Oh yeah that is kind of hard, you don’t really have to do that.” That doesn’t help anyone in the real world, not when you’re gone from the hallowed halls and out making money on your own.

Q: What is the role of the P&G single persons of contact (SPOC) whom the students work with?

Robb: These are people who know business, consumer and technology of the project. They come and do a kickoff where they set the boundaries, set the stakes in the ground on the consumer and technology side, set the design challenge for the students and then they’re working with them each week. Then they come for the midterm review and they come for the final review. So there’s quite a lot of coaching and guidance that the teams get, but it never gets to the level of telling people what to do – because again, that’s not helpful. I love the level of maturity of the students because I think it would be much tougher in undergrad. These are folks who have already distinguished themselves in their undergraduate degree program and that wasn’t enough for them. So they are committed to not just getting a job but getting the right job, and they are going to find it through their EDI experience. And that level of maturity helps hugely in addressing those three big challenges.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Robb: It’s fun here. It is fun if you like the rigorous environment and the challenges, and fun for you succeeding in these tough challenges. It’s a creative place, a very cool place to be, so I like it here a lot!

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