For this assignment, you will be asked to read a case study and then answer some questions related to the case. This case deals with making decisions under pressure, especially when information is insufficient.
Authors: Lauren Ankeles, Marine Lea Graham, Roberta Pittore and Priyanka Ramamurthy
From: MIT Sloane
After 11 months of planning, the Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) club co-presidents and two conference directors faced a difficult decision. The club’s 3rd annual conference, aptly named “Dare to Fail: Taking Risks When it Matters Most”, was scheduled to begin around the time a winter storm, fortified with up to 50 inches of snow, was predicted to hit the Boston area. At 2:00pm the day before the conference was to begin, the leadership team needed to decide whether the show would go on, be modified, or be canceled altogether.
How could a sunny February afternoon take such a turn for the worse? The clock ticked in the MIT Sloan Student Life Office (SLO), where the three Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) club co-presidents and two conference directors were gathered.1 (Links to an external site.) SWIM’s 3rd annual conference, 11 months in the making, was scheduled to take place the next day. A winter storm was looming, with weather predictions varying widely from three to 50 inches of snow in the next 48 hours. It was almost 2:00pm and a decision had to be made – setup was slated to begin in minutes, and speakers were boarding their flights for Boston. Should the conference be canceled, modified, or go forward as planned?
SLO Associate Director Marco Esquandolas looked at the five women seated in front of him and asked, “Ladies, what is your final call?”
During the many months of planning, each member of the leadership team had visualized dozens of possible scenarios for the conference. In some, there were no attendees, the food never arrived, or the speakers forgot their talking points. In others, the room was packed and the crowd was on their feet giving thunderous applause for a life- and career-changing event. After so many setbacks, it was finally all within reach, and it was going to be glorious. Except now, there was a new and unprecedented scenario to consider – canceling the conference for a potentially monstrous snowstorm, when there was not a cloud in the sky or a snowflake on the ground.
At 1:30pm on Thursday, February 7, SWIM’s three co-presidents and two conference directors, who had been in varying states of misalignment and frustration for so long, met with Marco in his office to sort through their options. Weather reports had been monitored from different networks. Now, there was every indication that a storm would hit Boston at some point, but most networks expected the storm to hit after 12:00pm on Friday, while others said it could be as late as Friday night. It was simply too early to tell.
Janet and Merrill collected a status update of where each speaker was, and when planes would begin taking off toward Boston. They confirmed that all 15 speakers were unfazed by weather reports and were ready to attend the conference the next day, regardless of the potential snowstorm. One had already changed her ticket to fly in earlier to avoid any airport closings, and a second could not be reached as she was already on a flight from London.
At precisely 2:00pm, vendors would begin setting up the venue and SWIM would be liable for the costs. Further, if MIT closed, the rental fees would triple from a one-day rental to daily rentals through the weekend, when the rentals could be picked up. Lea did a back of the envelope calculation and quickly saw that if the conference was canceled after vendors arrived, the costs could increase significantly. The catering company had already warned her that it was too late to cancel the perishable food items that had been prepared for the conference – it was unclear what percentage of the $13,000 catering bill would be recoverable. Lea knew what her vote was, but she was curious to see which way her two co-presidents were leaning.
The MIT administration had not yet closed the Institute, and would not comment on if they would. MIT rarely closed its doors, but if it did no events would be allowed on campus, including the conference.
What would happen if the conference was not canceled, and MIT closed later that night? What if the conference was canceled, MIT did not close, and the storm only hit Friday night? What would be the fallout with attendees and corporate sponsors? Rachel was particularly concerned about the ramifications for the sponsors, whom her team had worked so hard to secure. Would SWIM’s reputation be impacted? Would they be able to secure sponsorship funds in the future? Tarini wondered if attendees would show up for the conference, even if it was not canceled, and if they did, was there a risk of them being snowed in? If the team opted to cancel the conference, would they be forced to give back ticket revenue, and, if so, how would that affect the bottom line? Could they really give up on the event that they had sacrificed for and had devoted the last year of their lives to? The entire conference revolved around the theme of coming to the brink of failure and still finding a way to succeed. With graduation around the corner, there would be no second chances.
Given that most weather forecasts suggested that snowfall would only begin at 12:00pm Friday, and would not escalate until early evening, Merrill began championing the idea of a half-day conference. Could they run the events concurrently instead of sequentially, giving attendees the option to choose which speaker to hear from? Since the event space would be set up for one speaker at a time, would it even be feasible? Would attendees show up for a conference that only lasted three hours, and if not, would low attendance be disrespectful to the high profile speakers?
The conference directors and co-presidents narrowed it down to three choices:
1. Cancel the conference before 2:00pm, thus saving operational costs that would otherwise be incurred.
2. Hold a half-day conference with concurrent speakers.
3. Wait until Thursday night to make a decision, based on more accurate forecasts and updates on speaker travel plans.
While initially on the table, rescheduling was not an option for the team. With only three months left before the conference leadership team graduated it would be impossible to find a date that worked for all, or even most, of the speakers. Additionally, because the venue had no availability in March, April, or May, the team would need to find a new location for the conference. They would in effect be planning an entirely new conference in one-quarter of the time it took to plan the initial conference. For these reasons they knew rescheduling would not work.
In his facilitator role, Marco Esquandolas remained an impartial observer, telling them,
The way I look at clubs on campus is that it is your chance to practice management. You put this all together. You know best if you should cancel or go forward. In all my years here, this situation is unprecedented. If it is canceled, it will be devastating. If there is a storm, it will be devastating. If there is no storm, it will be devastating. I will support whatever decision you make.
The women discussed their options at a rapid pace, knowing the minutes were winding down. How would speakers react if the conference had to be canceled after they had already flown in? Would companies expect sponsorship money to be returned? What was best for the safety of attendees? How much of the setup cost would be sunk if they postponed the decision? If first year students never got to see a conference executed, what would a cancelation mean for the legacy of SWIM? What alternate venues could accommodate the conference if MIT closed? Would it even snow?
The only thing they were sure of was that whatever decision they made would have a long-lasting impact on the event and organization that they were so dedicated to.
- As a consultant to this group, what would you recommend they do? Provide the rationale for your choice.
- Identify 3-5 issues that will result as a consequence to the resolution you recommend.
- What suggestions do you have for this group on ways to develop contingency plans in the future?
- Explain why you believe it is difficult to engage in decision making in organizations.
Your paper should be a maximum of 4 pages, with a title page and a maximum of 5 references in APA style.B