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Paul Laughlin


Four Things Our Summer Interns Have Taught Us This Pandemic Summer

The upside of being a beginner

Published: Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 12:01

During this month of thinking about thinking, it’s a good time to learn from fresh perspectives, like summer interns.

As a leader, it can often be helpful to adopt what Buddhism describes as a beginner’s mind or shoshin: seeking to let go of past knowledge, status, and assumptions to see things afresh and listen to new perspectives.

So, I am pleased to welcome back guest blogger Hanne Sorteberg, to share her experience working with summer interns this year. As she shares, many businesses decided to abandon their internship programs this year. Happily for us, Hanne did not, and her business has learned valuable lessons as a result.

You may recall that Hanne is a digital business developer for Storebrand in Norway. She has shared with us before on topics including co-creation, cultural-fit, and agreeing to KPIs. Over to Hanne, to share what she has learned from her summer interns during a pandemic…

An opportunity to still work with summer interns during a lockdown

My company runs a very popular student summer internship, “Sandbox,” hiring 10 students to solve real business problems during a period of six weeks. This summer’s planned internship was hit by the pandemic just after we had selected our candidates while waiting for the show to kick off June 15, 2020.

Many companies cancelled their summer internships; we decided to go ahead and run the program digitally on Teams. The students are spread all over Norway for their studies and reside in Oslo for the internship. The program’s first week traditionally involves a trip to Stockholm to get to know our Swedish interns—and visit a Swedish startup we coordinate with.

We looked at the opportunities a digital program would bring: the interns in Norway and Sweden can meet as often as they want to, we can visit four startups in a day, and key resources are available like they never have been before. All the while saving the planet and our budgets.

As a result, here are four things we learned from them.

1. There’s no place like a home office
We were, however, concerned how the team dynamics would play out when there is no room for physical dialogue and socialization. We mitigated this by running a digital onboarding program a couple of months before start. The students got to know each other on Teams in four 1-hour sessions with a “preparation” agenda:
• Introduction and welcome—who are the participants and the support team from our company?
• Who am I as a team player—what are my strengths and weaknesses?
• Place the 10 interns into two teams based on their Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality tests, personal strengths, experience, and skills.
• A study circle discussing the books on innovation theory they were sent to prepare for the way of working

The students loved this soft start and recommend us to keep doing this in “normal” times.

2. There’s no place like a real office
The first day we had some good news: Norway had reached a period of low spread of the virus, so company policy allowed our interns to work from an empty floor of the office building. The students were very clear that during the intensive six-week work period, it was key to be physically in the same place.

All meetings and dialogue with key resources from our company were still on Teams, that worked well, but to have all the discussions and idea-generation sessions on a digital platform would have presented a challenge.

Every Friday the teams would present their results of the week to the entire organization, with a grand finale on the last day. The auditorium was replaced with Teams—with no seat limitations and a much more engaged audience in the meeting chat than the earlier Q&A sessions had with a microphone.

3. You work better ‘9 to 5’ or earlier
The students started each day in a digital stand-up session with their facilitator and mentors at 9 a.m. I expected the students to dread the early mornings and work long hours into the night. Not so. Instead of using our advice to avoid “rush hour traffic” communication with a later start, they decided to meet in the office at 7:30 a.m. They ended their day at 3:30 p.m., with a half-hour lunch break.

Their rationale is that after eight hours of very intense work, you are not productive any longer. If the team got stuck in the afternoon, they called it a day and continued the next morning with a fresh start. I haven’t seen a more productive team than this year’s students.

4. You can quickly get to know your customer
Our internship program is based on customer insight. We aim to find a job or pain our customer is struggling with, and test different solutions to that problem with prototypes and frequent iterations. This is based on:
• Jobs theory, as in Competing Against Luck, by Clayton Christensen (Harper Business, 2016)
• Design Thinking theory, as in The Lean Startup, by Eric Reis (Currency, 2011)

Traditionally, a customer interview is held physically at our headquarters, with a long lead time of recruiting from our customer base. There is also a rather time-consuming process for conducting the interview. If we managed five interviews a day, we were at our limit.

The students challenged us on the issue of our interview subjects. They argued that as a large financial institution, we could use the population as a whole to represent the subset of our customers. Couldn’t they just reach out to their own network? It made sense, and if we “hit gold”—a real customer pain—we could always verify it with our own customers later.

The first week, one team interviewed almost 50 customers in one day. They used Facebook to recruit contacts in the right demographic segment, called parents, uncles, cousins, et al. They interviewed on Teams or just the phone. And they gathered insight that changed the direction of the initial case description the team was meant to solve to a much more relevant case for our customers.

Another example of innovation through constraints

Innovation works best through constraints. The constraints the pandemic has put on our summer internship program has contributed to the most productive six weeks our company has seen, resulting in new customer concepts our organization will realize moving forward.

Many thanks to Hanne for sharing her experience. I’m conscious that it usefully builds on the practical workarounds that have already been shared by Annette and Simon in their posts. Have you had a similar opportunity to apply beginner’s mind and look anew at how you normally work? Have you learned from your summer interns?

If so, I’d love to hear more about your example in the comments section below. Otherwise, I hope that Hanne’s experience has encouraged you to listen afresh to those who are less experienced. Do you perhaps have relatively new hires in your team? Why not ask their opinion or, better still, give them the opportunity to reshape “the way we’ve always done it.”

First published Aug. 18, 2020, on the Customer Insight Leader blog.


About The Author

Paul Laughlin’s picture

Paul Laughlin

Paul Laughlin is a speaker, writer, blogger, Customer Insight enthusiast, and the founder and managing director of Laughlin Consultancy.