Case Studies

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Google:  A Car With More than a View (A, B, C)
Case Numbers:  2012-0630-001A, 2012-0630-001B, 2012-0630-001C

Marius Milner swiveled in his office chair at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, drumming his fingers excitedly on the armrest, and checked the time on the clock in the corner of his computer screen.  It was early in the afternoon on May 29th, 2007, and Google Maps Street View had been live for only a few hours.  Although Larry Page, co-founder and current CEO, is largely credited with the idea of what began as an experimental project to snap photos of every public building in the world and put them online, Milner was one of the lead software engineers assigned to build and deliver what would be known as Street View.

Milner's email blinked with a fresh message from Stephen Chau, Google’s project manager for Street View.  Chau was keeping a close watch on public reaction online and had sent Milner and the team a compilation of user reviews so far and from the looks of it, things were picking up.  Several sites like had already been asking users to submit interesting images captured by the Google service that had been taken as Street View cars drove around miles of streets around San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, Miami and Denver.  With the release of Street View, the blogosphere began to light up with positive comments about the application. One blogger wrote, “Google Street View can scope out real estate, travel destinations, and even save you from your next parking ticket!  It combines the convenience of standing in the street and looking around with the comfort of not being hit by a truck.”  But not all the reviews focused on the applications functionality.  At least some parts of the Web were abuzz about Street View but the topics focused on privacy concerns instead of the stored images.

Google had said in a public statement that it takes privacy seriously and considered the privacy implications of its service before it was introduced on Tuesday.  Google also stated that it had consulted with public service organizations and considered their feedback in developing the service, which allows users to request that a photo be removed for privacy reasons.  “Street View only features imagery taken on public property,” the company said. “This imagery is no different from what any person can readily capture or see walking down the street.”

Milner scrutinized the early user reviews, his mind and pulse racing.  He had sunk more than a year of his life into developing software to automate the capture of street views.  He was known for being thorough and he kept wondering if he had anticipated everything.  He clicked open the ‘design document’ of Street View on his desktop and scrolled through the pages wondering: Was the team missing something?  Had they thought through all the potential pitfalls and consequences of launching this product? 

Key features:  The case encourages students to formulate the challenge facing Milner from multiple perspectives.  Google, its reputation, consumers from different countries, regulators and governments, all have different perspectives.  Assessing the differing perspectives requires an emphasis on evenhandedness and ethics as well as assessing the long run consequences of Google's especially with respect to how Google might be treated in the future especially by European and US governments.

The Un Amor Decision (A, B, and C)
Case Numbers:  2010-0630-001A, 2010-0630-001B, 2010-0630-001C

Spring of 2010 had arrived in Kansas City, bringing with it chirping baby birds and new buds on the trees. But not everything in Kansas City was blooming. Ed Lang, President, General Manager, and co-owner of Lang Distributing Company, was concerned about the erosion of his Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) portfolio of beers. Nationwide, sales of Budweiser, the number two brand of beer, had fallen seven and a half percent in 2010, while sales of Bud Light, the country’s number one beer, had fallen nearly two percent. While the decline was in part due to the economic downturn, there was no doubt that consumer tastes were changing, and Ed was fearful that these brands and other A-B InBev products he carried might not rebound with the economy.

Working at his large oak desk in his warehouse office, Ed heard a rap at the door. He looked up, saw his son Brian and gestured for him to enter and have a seat. Brian had worked in sales for the distributorship for three years since he graduated from the University of Kansas and knew that business wasn’t as good as it used to be. Profitability was clearly on the decline. He had come to Ed with a new idea. He wanted Lang Distributing to be the distributor for Un Amor, a premium brand of tequila, for the state of Missouri. Brian had heard that a few other A-B InBev distributorships had started carrying this non-A-B brand and believed that distributing Un Amor was profitable.

After hearing Brian out, Ed said that he would think about the proposal and get back to him in a few days. As Brian left the office he reflected on the meeting with surprise. His dad typically made decisions very quickly, often shooting from the hip. Given past experiences, Brian wondered why Ed would need a few days to think the opportunity over.

Key features:  The case encourages students to formulate specific aspects of the situation, mostly around the operations of distributing Un Amor.  For instance, the relationships with A-B InBev, local distributors, and various distribution channels draw students’ attention.  Also, students will consider issues around internal operational issues.  But, has the issue been comprehensively formulated?  A vital aspect of the case is that Lang Distributing is a family business and Ed has the opportunity to develop his son in terms of how to deliberate decisions and to engage him by running and experiment based on his son’s recommendation.  The case can be used to apply the I2 process and PPPICACC to reformulate the challenge and to compare student formulations to that of Ed.  The case is valuable for discussing the importance of comprehensive formulation.     

Renewing Kid Meal Toys (A, B, and C)
Case Numbers:  2010-0220-001A, 2010-0220-001B, 2010-0220-001C

Steve, the CEO of an independent and international marketing and advertising firm faced a dilemma. His firm had enjoyed 20 years of profitable growth in the promotional products' business – essentially toys and gifts used as give-aways to incentivize purchases. An important part of his firm's growth came from a long-standing relationship with an international fast food company. On behalf of this quick service restaurant (QSR), Steve's organization would negotiate with movie studios and producers to contract for the licensing rights to movie characters and then work with pre-approved Chinese factories to produce small toys to be included with kid meals.  

These toys were credited with stimulating demand for fast food because the value perceived by kids and parents far exceeded the toys' cost. The appeal of Hollywood in American and global culture, the steady stream of new licensing opportunities and continued growth of fast food stimulated long-term growth and an enduring relationship for Steve's firm.  

Steve's contract with his QSR client was coming up for renewal and he was concerned about how best to approach his client to extend the contract for the next five years. Steve lay awake at night worried about the macro trends related to his client's business. Kids seemed to be getting older younger, which corresponded to a decline in the appeal of kids meal toys. Doing business in China was becoming more difficult, with raw material costs going up and increasing export tariffs. Recent product quality problems suffered by other toy firms suggested an increased risk for his client‘s brand. Child obesity and health problems were receiving greater attention in the media and the threat of regulations was increasing, especially in Europe where numerous advertising regulations were already in place. Steve needed to figure out what he should do to insure renewal of the contract.  

Key features:  The case features all of the biases introduced in Critical Thinking@Olin.  Knowledge and motivation traps abound, which lead the team to solve the wrong problem.  Only after losing the QSR contract does Steve understand that his organization solved the wrong problem.  The case can be used to apply the I2 process and PPPICACC to reformulate the challenge and to compare student formulations to that of Frank.   

Gifts for Students (A, B, and C)
Case Numbers:  2010-1230-001A, 2010-1230-001B, 2010-1230-001C

In the fall of her fifth year as principal of Dunbar Elementary School, Rebecca Davis found herself standing in front of her faculty embroiled in an increasingly heated conversation. For the last few minutes of her bi-weekly faculty meeting, she had been listening to Mr. Johnson, a long-time 3rd grade teacher, who was "explaining" to her why kids shouldn’t get rewarded for bad behavior. The discussions focused on gifts provided several times a year from a dedicatedcommunity partner. In addition to donating a backpack and school supplies to every student on the first day of the school year, the partner hosted parties around Halloween and Christmas for students, parents, and staff. At each party, candy and toys as well as more expensive gifts like bicycles, televisions, and hotel stays were given out to attendees. Mr. Johnson, backed up by a chorus of the more dominant personalities in the room, insisted that students who acted up didn’t respect the teachers or their peers, and that repeat offenders should not be allowed to attend the events or get a chance to receive gifts. He argued that doing so only rewarded inappropriate behavior and undermined teacher authority and their ability to control the classroom.

Principal Davis had heard the growing concerns before. Over the past couple of years, Mr. Johnson and a few other teachers had occasionally complained about the message these parties and gifts were sending to students with behavioral issues. They believed that teachers should be able to bar students from attending the parties as punishment for bad behavior, including behavior for which punishments had already been assigned. Some teachers now wanted her to formalize their policy and have it apply to the entire school. While Davis believed she understood the teachers’ concerns, she held a different perspective. When students acted inappropriately, they received a consequence. Teachers wrote referrals to the principal’s office where sanctions were imposed on students. Unruly and inappropriate behavior received detention; fights incurred an in- school suspension. All types of inappropriate behavior received well-known consequences (See Figure 1). For some teachers, the consequences seemed insufficient, causing them to continue to punish students long after the bad behavior—and consequences—had passed.

To stimulate broader thinking and further discussion, Principal Davis asked why Mr. Johnson and others thought the punishments should continue even after students received the appropriate consequence. Several teachers emotionally responded that many of the students in question continued to act inappropriately even after the consequence, which is why they don’t deserve to attend the parties. Principal Davis continued by asking "But you write a referral to the principal’s office and the student receives a consequence, help me understand why we’re still holding that incident against the child?" She tried to explain that, from the students’ perspectives, "if they have done one bad thing then it is like they have earned a bad reputation that puts them in jail for life. The students believe that they can’t overcome their bad reputation, can never improve because the teacher is not allowing them to do so, and therefore can’t do anything that is right—so why even try?" Davis even presented the teachers with a relatable scenario: "It’s as though a police officer catches you speeding and gives you a ticket. Would you then like to be ticketed each time you pass this particular officer [even though you are not speeding], having already received punishment for your original offense?"

Davis sensed that some of the teachers understood her perspective, but these teachers were not the vocal ones. Many teachers in the room long ago had dropped their eyes away from the tense exchange and, with their body language, removed themselves from the conversation. Mr. Johnson and his supporters, however, were unmoved by Davis’ questions and perspective. The air in the room was thick with tension as the meeting ended.Principal Davis wondered what she could do to change the teachers’ minds about allowing students to attend the parties. More importantly, she wondered about what she could do to reduce disciplinary problems within the school so teachers and students could focus on learning instead of punishment.

Key features: The case explores how Principal Davis might change the teacher’s minds in such an emotionally charged context. A variety of biases can be identified from the exchange. Case B introduces a specific event involving a teacher keeping a student from the holiday gifting event and the resulting confrontation with the student’s parent. Given the exchange in Case A, readers often jump to the wrong conclusion about what the "real" problem is. Case C surprisingly reveals that the student’s behavior problems as well as the parent's response are connected to the fact that the parent cannot read or write, leading to the conclusion that the teachers had formulated the wrong problem.

America’s Greenest City (A, B, and C)
Case Numbers:  2011-0118-001A, 2011-0118-001B, 2011-0118-001C

With the 2006 elections over, Mayor Brumbaugh got to work trying to follow through on his campaign promises. During his campaign he offered a vision of turning his major city into "the greenest city in America." He believed that this vision helped him get elected and therefore was going to deliver it in part because it was only four short years before the next elections and headway had to be made to improve his reelection chances. By early 2007, Brumbaugh had identified some major initiatives—urban commercial agriculture, energy sustainability, open spaces, etc. — that would put substance behind his vision of the greenest city in America.

To deliver on the initiatives Brumbaugh hired in March 2007, Deputy Mayor for Recreation and Parks Frank Finnegan to oversee the Mayor’s green initiatives. Soon thereafter Finnegan hired Stephen Wang, an outgoing, energetic public servant who began working for the city in April 2007. Stephen was chosen to lead the regional food and urban agriculture initiative and, to do so, was given the position in the Office of Deputy Mayor Finnegan. Finnegan explained to Stephen that his prime task is to launch commercial, environmental sustainable/friendly agriculture within the city. Bringing to city markets organic produce grown in the city would be the poster child of the Mayor delivering on his America’s greenest city pledge.

As Stephen began the first day at his new position he was bubbling with enthusiasm. He loved the Mayor’s vision and was excited to be the driving force behind the initiative for commercial, sustainable agriculture. He knew that city was steward over a lot of parkland that could be used for agriculture and was ready to get the project going. Having not embarked on such an important and novel change effort before now, Stephen sat down at his desk and began wondering about the best way to lead the initiative. Should he develop a specific change management plan and if so, what should it be? He had read management books about leading change but most of the books talked about businesses and the role of top management leading change. Would leading a major change effort in a government agency be any different than leading one in business? If so, how? He didn’t have much time to reflect on these questions because just then Finnegan walked into his office and said "just don’t sit there day dreaming. We have to deliver on the Mayor’s promises before he comes up for re-election. Get moving."

Key features: Stephen tries to launch a change initiative but fails to consider important constituencies. By not applying PPPICACC to identify all points of view and formulating the problem comprehensively, his change effort fails. 

Targeting a Response (A, B, C)
Case Numbers:  2011-0223-001A, 2011-0223-001B, 2011-0223-001C

Chris, a Colonel in the Air Force, was sitting in a morning intelligence meeting in Suffolk, Virginia, kicking off a joint military exercise. At 9:05 am a senior officer burst into the briefing blurting out that an aircraft had struck one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. A few minutes later the scene occurred again with the senior officer describing that the second tower had been hit by another plane. Almost immediately, across the room Chris’s work station phone began ringing. As he moved to answer it Chris’s mind raced about the implications of two crashes. On the phone was Chris’s commanding officer who was curt and to the point. "Did you drive or fly to Suffolk?" "I drove," Chris replied without hesitation. His commanding officer told him that he needed Chris to get in his car and drive to CENTCOM, which is located in Tampa, FL. For a split second, Chris was confused by the order. But, his confusion was quickly wiped away by his CO’s next utterance. "The continental United States was attacked this morning. We may be at war. Get to Tampa, now!"

Within minutes, Chris was in his car speeding south down Interstate 95. He was heading to the military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters. CENTCOM has representatives from the various US armed forces, with the Middle East being its primary area of responsibility. Chris’s mind jumped around as the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded on his car radio. During his drive he came to understand from the radio and from phone calls that operatives had successfully hijacked four U.S. based airliners and used them as weapons against the United States. Two had been flown into New York’s World Trade Center ultimately causing both towers to collapse, likely killing thousands. One crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., where Chris had many friends on duty. The fourth aircraft crashed into a western Pennsylvania field, having not reached its intended target, which also may have been Washington D.C., apparently as a result of the passengers battling the on-board operatives to reclaim control of the aircraft. Chris’ mind was awash in emotions while he was mentally processing the information he was receiving.

The continental United States had been attacked and provoked without warning. As a USAF airpower strategist for the Central Command Air Forces, the air component for CENTCOM, Chris couldn’t help but begin crafting scenarios and alternative military responses in his mind. He knew that his first task when reaching CENTCOM would be to develop a retaliatory strike. The only problem was that he didn’t fully know what enemy he needed to target. Nonetheless, because he was recalled to CENTCOM he knew that the target would be somewhere in the Middle East.

Chris arrived in Tampa just before dinner and joined a group of strategists from CENTCOM and the other subordinate components. He was the sole air component planner present as the rest of the air component forces were airborne aboard military aircraft headed for the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia. The CAOC would be charged with implementing the airpower response to the 9/11 attack. Once established in the CAOC, they would implement the strategy Chris and the other planners developed. Chris himself would soon move forward to the CAOC, once the rest of the team was established. But for now, Chris’s focus was on figuring out who the enemy was, and how the United States could punish them for the attack.

Key features: At CENTCOM, a one-star general is assigned after the bombing campaign in Afghanistan has begun. The general is anchored in his approach to bombing by taking past experiences and applying them in appropriately in Afghanistan. While filled with military acronyms, the case provides a fascinating and accessible insight into military decision-making that has had a profound effect on the world and on how one person’s biases and ego commitment can have profound implications. Without understanding the various perspectives of CENTCOM, the general staff, and American allies in the region, the case explores how the general’s biases and jumping to conclusions undermined the war effort and led to his demise as a leader.

A Landmark Flight (A, B)
Case Numbers:  2009-0623-001A and 2009-0623-001B

On April 24, 2009, George Mulligan, Deputy Director of the White House Military Office, was reviewing his email. The previous day, he had received the final details of the photo op that entailed a flyover of New York Harbor as coordinated by the Presidential Airlift Group and the Air Force. The flight was scheduled to allow the Air Force to take several publicity photographs of Air Force One, which would then be distributed to the media and as souvenirs. After having a quick conversation with Colonel Scott Turner of the PAG to confirm all the details were in place, Mulligan sat down to draft an email to Louis Caldera, the Director of WHMO, in order to apprise him of the finalized plan, and to ask him to notify the White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Press Secretary. As he was attaching Turner’s plan, he wondered if there were any attributes of the plan that were overlooked during the planning process.

Key features: The case explores how the organizers did not consider the perspectives of the people of New York City and how the event of September 11, 2001 shaped citizens' perspectives. What would be their response to a flyover by a large commercial jet followed by several military attack aircraft? This short case highlights the importance of examining situations from all perspectives.  

A Reckoning of Invoices (A, B, C)
Case Numbers: 2013-0615-001A, 2013-0615-001B and 2013-0615-001C

Simon’s administrative assistant, Sue, is in tears and is so stressed out that she’s about to walk off the job because she is spending 8 hours a day on billing and up to four hours every night at home in an effort to keep up with creating and sending invoices to over 100 customers per day.  Sue knows that the failure to send the invoices will result in the company being unable to reconcile the books at the end of each month. 

Simon is the general manager of two Missouri Metal Services Center (MOMSC) locations, one in Boonville and one in Kansas City.  The centers provide an important economic function by purchasing metal products from steel mills and holding them in inventory until needed by manufacturers.  Sue’s job is to provide administrative support to Simon and to send all invoices to clients in a timely manner.  Clients have 30 days to pay the invoice and receive a 10% discount for paying on time.  If invoices are not issued promptly, the structure quickly falls apart and MOMSC loses money. 

Gretta, another administrative assistant who reports to Simon, assists Sue at the Boonville plant by collecting all of the paperwork for a particular sale and taking a first pass at it to make sure that what was purchased lines up with what was shipped to the client and the amount that remains in inventory.  When the paperwork does not line up, Gretta highlights the issues for Sue to resolve.  It’s these issues and the time it takes to resolve them that are making Sue’s life a nightmare. 

MOMSC has a typical organizational structure and as Simon begins to think about his plant’s orders, operations and billing processes, he wonders what has gone wrong and how it can be fixed.  Critically thinking, he knows that a solution will most likely involve his manager of operations, the manager of the shipping department and his new manager of sales.  Perhaps by a careful examination of how all pieces of the organization are working together to provide the product to the client, Simon will be able to solve Sue’s problem.

Key features:  This case encourages students to consider the perspectives of the sales, shipping, operations, and billing processes for Missouri Metal Services Center in an effort to comprehensively formulate the challenge before attempting solve the problem of how to invoice clients quickly.

Companion Role Playing Exercises are Available for MOMSC case:

General Manager
Senior Administrative Assistant
Junior Administrative Assistant
Operations Manager
Sales Manager

Collecting Debts
Case Number: 2013-0615-002A

Veronica and Bill were friends and co-workers in the collections group of Bayview Bank.  For several years they both enjoyed success in collections, and most months found themselves at the top of the performance leader board and also in the top tier of bonuses.   


During the 2008 financial crisis, banks were desperate to shore up cash reserves to weather the storm.  Bayview was no exception and looking for cash, they turned to delinquent credit card debt.  Veronica had a difficult time making the adjustment and had it not been for Bill’s guidance, she would not have been successful.  Eventually, she once again joined Bill at the top of the performance leader board. 

Fast-forward to 2012.  By this time, Veronica is interested in management and Bill enthusiastically encourages her to apply for an open supervisory slot.  He’s not interested because he can make more money in bonuses as a collector.  Veronica is promoted in the early summer of 2012. 

By the fall of 2012 new regulations have changed the collection game and bank processes are strictly audited.  Bill is struggling with collections, and is no longer appearing at the top of the leader board because he is failing to meet coding requirements now necessary in the process.  Not only is he failing to earn the bonuses he once received, Bill is also triggering auditors to come down hard on Veronica and affecting her supervisory bonus. 

Veronica needs to make Bill understand that the work has changed and that he has to learn the new processes if he is going to meet his numbers and hers. 

Key features:  This case explores Veronica’s challenge to comprehensively formulate why Bill is struggling with collections and why audits are being triggered.  Of particular interest is considering the extent to which Veronica jumps to a solution without critically thinking about her role in explaining Bill’s behavior.