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Sink or SWIM: The Case Study

SWIM 2013 ConferenceSWIM 2013 Conference

Sloan Women in Management (SWIM), a student-run club, works to increase opportunities for all women at MIT Sloan through networking events, speaker series, professional development workshops, mentorship programs, and community building events. Each year, members of SWIM participate in the planning and execution of a student-run conference, a unique opportunity for the group to host thinkers from a variety of industries and to engage in a dialogue with leading women in business.

In the 2012–13 academic year, three members of SWIM—Lauren Ankeles, MBA ’13, conference chief finance officer; Marine Graham, MBA ’13, conference chief operations officer; and Priyanka Ramamurthy, MBA ’13, conference chief marketing officer—acted as the co-presidents, and were well on their way to planning a conference that would meet, and exceed, the expectations set by their predecessors. Through months of planning, they were tantalizingly close to realizing their vision— only to be thwarted by one of the biggest blizzards in recent memory in Cambridge.

After they made the decision to cancel the night before the conference, Paul Buckley, associate director of Student Life, approached them with an idea—write a case study about their experience. The group jumped at the chance. For Ankeles, it was an opportunity to take a negative and turn it into a positive learning experience. “We had put a lot of effort into an event, and we weren’t able to see the results of that work,” she said. “Working on the case showed us that we still learned a lot from the experience.” For Ramamurthy, the process of planning and then cancelling the conference was a real-world application of all the things they had learned in the MBA program. “In the moment, we didn’t fully appreciate the different areas we were pulling from, but writing the case was a great opportunity for us to step back and evaluate our experience,” she said.

But beyond the learning experience, the group recognized a need for a case study that spoke to the experience of MBA students. Writing the case was a chance to highlight students in decision-making roles, to share stories of female leaders, and to explore the impact of student extracurricular activities. Ramamurthy noted that, “Many of the cases used in business school are from a C-level perspective. Our case was a chance for students to more easily put themselves in the shoes of the protagonists and think through what decisions they would have made.”

Armed with senior lecturer Roberta Pittore as their advisor, the group set out to write the case, compiling timelines of every event they could remember leading up to their decision, and structuring the case in such a way that their decision to cancel wasn’t obvious from the start. The process was challenging at first, forcing the group to turn a critical eye on their experience through the process of gathering the facts and fleshing out the case. Once the bulk of the case formation work was done, they began looking for classes that would be a good fit to present the case, and found a home in senior lecturer Pat Bentley’s course, “Practical Leadership.” The class content—decision making, leadership, constituencies, and peers—was the perfect fit; and with a small number of students, the authors were able to get more feedback from all the participants.

Through class discussions, the group gained a tremendous amount of support and feedback from their peers—and that feedback, in turn, provided perhaps the greatest benefit—a chance to further refine their case. For Graham, teaching the case “helped us to really work through the decision-making process for key points that we had thought were obvious.”

The conference-planning experience, coupled with the opportunity to write a case, was a critical learning experience for all three co-presidents. “It is one thing to learn about the frameworks to make decisions during a crisis, to motivate a team, to sell a product or service, but it’s another thing to actually do it and learn from your mistakes in real time,” said Ramamurthy, a sentiment echoed by Ankeles. “SWIM was the single most impactful part of our experience at MIT Sloan,” she noted. “To be in a situation outside of the classroom where you have to develop your leadership style, to motivate, to take into account individual motivations and rewards supplemented what I learned in the classroom and was critical to my education at MIT Sloan.”

The following is an excerpt from the case written by Lauren Ankeles, MBA ’13; Marine Graham, MBA ’13; Senior Lecturer Roberta Pittore; and Priyanka Ramamurthy, MBA ’13; and prepared by Cate Revis.

On Thursday, February 7, 2013, after 11 months of planning, the Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) club’s three co-presidents and two conference directors faced a difficult decision. The club’s third 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.

The impending storm was an ironic twist for the conference leadership team that had overcome a number of challenges during the months leading up to the start of the conference. When they began planning the event in March of 2012, the club’s co-presidents took on the roles of chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and chief marketing officer, and the two directors were responsible for speaker recruitment. In addition to navigating tense team dynamics over who had final authority in the decision-making process, the team faced many planning setbacks. Finding available speakers proved difficult and took many months. With an uncertain speaker line-up, marketing the conference was tricky and ticket sales lagged. The team experienced a host of last-minute logistical snags, including the cancellation of one of the conference’s two keynote speakers just one month before the conference was to begin. These challenges were set against a backdrop of high expectations. The club’s 2011 conference, by all measures, had been a roaring success with a sold-out crowd of 400.

Despite the numerous hurdles, with four days to spare, all the pieces of the conference-planning puzzle had come together. The “Dare to Fail” planners had succeeded in selling 500 tickets (100 more than in 2011), had hit their fundraising goal, and had confirmed all 15 speakers. But then came the predictions that a snowstorm of historical proportions was heading toward Boston. At 2:00 p.m. the day before the conference was to begin, with vendors on their way to begin setting up the venue, the leadership team needed to decide whether the conference would go on as planned, be modified, or be canceled altogether. The MIT administration had not yet closed the Institute, and would not comment on whether or not they would. MIT rarely closed its doors; but if it did, no events would be allowed on campus, including the conference.

The decision facing the conference leadership team was not an obvious one. The impending weather was not a certainty. New England weather forecasts were wrong as often as they were right. While some speakers and attendees were already on their way to Boston, many attendees were asking whether the conference would be rescheduled. The conference leadership team began weighing the potential ramifications of their final decision. They wondered what would happen if the conference was not canceled and MIT ended up closing later in the day. What if the conference was canceled, MIT did not close, and the storm was not the showstopper it was predicted to be? What would be the potential fallout with attendees and corporate sponsors? Would SWIM’s reputation be impacted? If the team opted to cancel the conference, would they be expected to give back ticket revenue? And, if so, how would that affect the bottom line?

While they muddled over their options, the planning team couldn’t help but be reminded that the conference revolved around the theme of coming to the brink of failure and still finding a way to succeed.

To read more, and to download the full case, please visit https://mitsloan.mit.edu/LearningEdge/Leadership/sinkorswim/Pages/default.aspx.