2017 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Loran Nordgren, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management and Organizations

Kellogg School of Management

What was the biggest compliment that Loran Nordgren ever received? One of his students recommended an app called Candor to him…not knowing that he’d developed it!

You could call Nordgren a man for all seasons, a cross curricular cognoscente whose expertise spans psychology, programming, economics, leadership, biology, and the arts. His goal, ultimately, is to understand human behavior — how to influence actions and elevate performance. In the past decade alone, two of his papers, which examine unconscious thought and decision-making, have been cited by more than 2,000 scholars. That doesn’t count lengthy discussions of his work in the pages of Inc. and the Wall Street Journal.

Over his career at the Kellogg School of Management, Nordgren has earned six impact awards for his work with students, a true source of pride for Nordgren. “I collect the thank you notes I’ve received from former students and display them in my office,” he tells Poets&Quants. “It’s a daily reminder that the work has purpose.”  

Age: 38

At current institution since: 2008

Education: PhD, Experimental Psychology, University of Amsterdam, 2007

List of courses you currently teach: Leadership in Organizations; Idea Incubator for Behavioral Sciences

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it? Creativity research has (quite rightly) focused on factors that improve creative performance in individuals and groups. With my collaborator Brian Lucas, we are really the first to explore whether people’s beliefs about the creative process match the psychological reality. One of the most import observations we’ve made is that people end the creative process far too soon. In a series of studies, we’ve asked people to generate creative solutions to a variety of problems. We ask participants to notify us when they believe they have run out of good ideas. We then force them to continue to brainstorm and get their estimates of how productive this additional time will be. We consistently find that people quit too soon. Not only do they continue to come up with good ideas after they first signal they have run out of good ideas, but often their best ideas emerge in this period. By quitting too soon, we don’t uncover our best ideas and thus don’t maximize our creative potential.      

Professor you most admire: Keith Murnighan. Keith was a wonderful mentor to me and many, many others in the field.  Keith cared most about developing the next generation of scholars and put the needs of others above personal acclaim (though he received plenty of that, too). He is my role model.  

“I knew I wanted to be a B-school professor when…I realized how wonderful it is to teach MBA students (or at least Kellogg students). MBA students are at this point in life where they have enough experience to understand how the world works, but enough time in front of them to think big. They know who they are but are still open to self-development.”

“If I weren’t a B-school professor…I’d like the experience of starting a company. I like the idea of creating jobs and value.”

One word that describes my first time teaching an MBA class: Equal parts exhilarating & sweaty

Most memorable moment in the classroom, or in general, as a professor: I developed an app called Candor that helps groups give candid feedback and brainstorm more effectively. The first time a student recommended I use Candor (not knowing it was my creation), was a memorable moment.

What professional achievement are you most proud of? My wall of thank you cards. I collect the thank you notes I’ve received from former students and display them in my office. It’s a daily reminder that the work has purpose.  

What do you enjoy most about being a business school professor? The autonomy the work provides.  There are many careers I find intriguing.  The freedom makes this one tough to leave.

What do you enjoy least about being a business school professor? The constant need to be research “productive.” My view is that great scholars are remembered for one important idea, and our goal therefore should be contribute one truly important idea over the course of a career.  That is hard to measure, so instead we are constantly churning out minor contributions that, in my view, get in the way of big picture thinking.   

What is your favorite company and why? I think a lot more about leaders than companies.  Ernest Shackleton, Mary Kay Ash, and Joe Maddon, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Ray Dalio are leaders I admire.

Fun fact about yourself: I have a 40 lbs pet tortoise named Icarus. Is it a good idea to have a desert tortoise that is strong enough to borrow through drywall and can reach a max weight of 200 lbs when living in Chicago? No. But he’s mine and I am determined to see it through. I got him in high school; the idea was to have an intergenerational pet. It’s interesting to live with the choices of your former self.

Bucket list item #1: I’d like to spend a few months living abroad.  I spent most of my 20st in Europe and am getting the itch to relocate again.

Favorite book: I have a tattered field guide to North American Birds that my father gave me that is very important to me (he and I are bird nerds).

Favorite movie: I have not thought of this in a while but I really like the hard to find monologues by Spalding Gray, like “Swimming to Cambodia.”  Also, I have an embarrassing need for action films.  I thought it would stop somewhere in my mid-20s but I think I’m stuck with it.

Favorite type of music: This is tough because I listen to new music obsessively until I wear it out and no longer have any feeling for it.  Now I am doing that to the bands King Krule and Future Islands. Jazz is on when cooking.

Favorite television show: Planet Earth; Game of Thrones (we have a dog named Hodor).

Favorite vacation spot: When I was living in Europe, I found myself returning to the Pyrenees.  The whole region between Barcelona and Bilbao suits me. Rugged landscape. Great food. Forgotten ancient villages.

What are your hobbies? My favorite activity is morel mushroom hunting/gathering. In the Midwest, the morels come out in early May.  It is one of the best times of year to be in the woods.  Weeds and bugs are not up yet, trilliums are in bloom, and if you are patient, you can find the most delicious mushrooms. You can search for hours with no luck and then stumble on hundreds of them.

Twitter handle: N/A

“If I had my way, the business school of the future would have…virtual reality-based simulations in the classroom. Roleplaying, team competitions, and other classroom exercises are the experiences students remember years after leaving Kellogg. I’d like to see technology that allows us to create vivid, immersive experiences for students that trigger human emotion.”