What's Your Favorite Case to Teach?
Five Harvard Business School faculty members discuss some of the most compelling cases they bring to the classroom.
15 Mar 2017  

Harvard Business School MBA students read some 500 cases over the course of their two years on campus. But which of these cases do their professors most enjoy teaching? Five faculty members weigh in with answers ranging across the fields of health care, hospitality, manufacturing, and more.

I teach a case called “H-E-B: Creating a Culture of Health in Texas” about a supermarket chain in Texas that you might not be familiar with if you don’t live in the state. The company is a hard-nosed, capitalist organization that is trying to make money in the hyper-competitive grocery industry. It is also intensely focused on caring about its customers and community, maintaining strong values that have been passed down since its founding over 100 years ago.

In a market where they have more intense Walmart competition than any other retailer in the US, they just kick butt. They do an unbelievable job of operating their current business while thinking very strategically about the future. The impact they have on everyone they touch has everything to do with their approach to the business— the way they think about how and why they make money. It’s a really fun case to teach because the students walk out of there saying, “Wow, I never would have thought that.” There are a lot of “aha” moments.

I have a case about the challenge of getting people to adopt a simple behavior: getting their statins (and other life-saving medications) delivered to their homes by mail instead of picking them up at CVS or Rite Aid. There are a number of reasons to get people to switch: It’s cheaper for the employer and employee; there are lower error rates; there’s evidence that it helps people adhere to their medication schedule. And yet if you looked at this company’s employees who were taking these types of drugs, only 4 percent were taking advantage of the mail order opportunity.

The case discussion becomes a brainstorming exercise for moving the needle: How can one increase the uptake of home delivery without shutting down the pharmacy pickup option? The primary reason I love teaching it is seeing the students’ ideas and creativity. The solution that the company adopted is both simple and powerful: not requiring people to switch, but telling people that they had to indicate their choice between the two options. All of a sudden, 40 percent of people are doing mail delivery.

It’s a wonderful illustration of the power of behavioral economics—setting up the environment in which people are making decisions so that they overcome problems of motivation and psychological biases. By embedding a simple intervention, almost as something that people have to bump into, that’s the way to help people make better, wiser decisions.

My favorite case to teach is one that I often teach at HBS reunions, Terror at the Taj. It’s such an inspirational story, heartbreaking and heartwarming, about courage under fire—the story of ordinary people that became extraordinary heroes. A year and a half after this horrific event, I was asking people to re-confront trauma as they related the events. I think that’s the most difficult project that I’ve ever worked on because it was emotionally wrenching, and the nature of that case interview process was so sensitive, but so rewarding in the end.

I’ve probably written 50 to 60 cases over my time here. I love doing research for journals, but it’s the case writing that really brings it to another level of understanding. And I have three favorites that come to mind.

A friend of mine from college, Seth Goldman, founded Honest Tea, and all the funding came from his family and friends. What’s great about the company is that it’s a marriage of passion with business and a social mission—it yielded great monetary returns but also great social impact. They do lots of work sourcing ingredients from underprivileged communities and using fair trade practices. Their success has demonstrated that those principles and where you get financing from are really important factors.

I also wrote another case on the first investment by two of my former students, called Hudson Manufacturing, a maker of heater and air filtration units for the military. Brett and Owen do this investment that looks like it’s going to be a disaster. They structure the deal by not putting in any of their own money, but made something close to $100 million because they were really smart in their approach.

The third case I’ll throw into the mix is on Checkpoint, one of the most famous Israeli startups. The company was initially called NSK so the students wouldn’t know what it was. It was founded by three friends that worked in the same unit in the Israeli army. On the face of it, you’d say there’s no way these guys could do what they did. But they end up making tens of millions of dollars by being able to see the business implications of the internet and the way firms would connect to it from a cyber security perspective.

In all three of these cases, you have individuals who see opportunity that’s not obvious to the typical person. And that’s a hallmark of a good entrepreneurs: passionately pursuing an opportunity they've noticed, and creating massive value with it.

I wrote a case with my colleague Kash Rangan about the Narayana Heart Hospital in Bangalore. It’s about how a cardiac surgeon is inspired by two very unlikely bedfellows—Sam Walton of Walmart and Mother Theresa— to build the lowest cost cardiac surgery center in the world. He was driven by the fact that 90 percent of people around the world that need heart surgery don’t get it because of prohibitive costs. Building this hospital helped lower the price of heart surgery to the point that it’s now accessible to millions of people who wouldn't have been able to get this quality of treatment before.

For several years, it’s been one of the first cases our MBA students read when they get to campus. It has strategy; it has leadership; it has ethics; it has healthcare, humanity, greed. Everything is in there, and I love teaching it. And two years ago, they opened a branch of the hospital in the Cayman Islands to bring that model to the Americas. That case is called Health City Cayman Islands. It’s a bit of a shocker, because it’s a high-tech case, but it’s in a very poor country. I wrote the original case almost ten years ago, and it’s been a central piece of my research since.


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