The five-person executive leadership team of Happy Planet Bistro, a casual dining chain with 120 locations around the United States, is scrambling. According to reports on traditional and social media, several cases of E. coli have been traced to contaminated beef at Happy Planet's restaurants in the Midwest. Every minute, the number of affected customers is rising.
The leadership team is watching a video that has just gone viral on social media. Shot in a Happy Planet Bistro kitchen, it features a young employee laughing about the way he and his co-workers play games with the food before it is served. "I would never eat here," he says as he smiles into the camera.
As social media explodes with posts about the restaurant, television news outlets begin reporting the story and asking for interviews. Employees are shaken. Government agencies are investigating. Company investors are demanding answers. There is no proof of a link between E. coli and Happy Planet Bistro, but the leadership team still is faced with a crisis that, if handled incorrectly, could put an end to its business.
The Happy Planet Bistro is a fictitious restaurant, and the disastrous scenario was created by a faculty member at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. But the weeklong simulation allows full-time MBA students at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business to learn crisis communication in a more intense and memorable fashion than they would through cases, lectures, videos, and discussions.
At William & Mary, we believe simulations provide students with a unique form of experiential learning. We deliver simulations through Sprints, which are 40-hour, one-credit, graded, immersive, hands-on, interdisciplinary, and integrative sessions. And all MBA students are required to take one every semester.
Forty Intense Hours
The Happy Planet Bistro simulation began one Sunday night when we gave our 120 first-year MBA students access to a portal that included basic information about the Sprint's contents and activities and assigned each of them to one of 24 teams. The rest of the week unfolded like this:
In the morning, everyone buzzed with anticipation as they gathered in the business school's auditorium, found their teammates, and speculated on what might take place over the next five days. After the associate dean welcomed the students, the lead faculty member for the Sprint explained the schedule and grading expectations
The next speaker was Dan Webber, a William & Mary alumnus who is general manager at Edelman, a communications marketing firm. Webber spent the day teaching students crisis communication strategies, such as how to interact with social media, traditional media, investors, customers, and others. The day included a lecture, breakout sessions, videos, exercises, and other activities.
As Monday came to a close, students were given the Happy Planet Bistro case and told the roles they were to play. They also were assigned learning team rooms and directed to report to those rooms at 9 the next morning.
Teams learned about the E. coli outbreak and spent the day handling the crisis communication simulation. They were subjected to a daylong barrage of tweets, social media posts, viral videos, and news reports that had been produced ahead of time by faculty, staff, and the simulation vendor. Students viewed the posts and videos live throughout the day on the monitors in their learning team rooms.
Each team worked to develop a communication strategy and tactics to manage the growing crisis. All of the teams devised thoughtful, strategic, and creative responses. Some produced and posted videos featuring statements from their CEOs. Others replied to the social media posts continuously throughout the day. Some designed and launched websites that shared information about the chain and the crisis. One team created a Twitter account to communicate with customers, while others wrote and posted statements and news releases. Each team received guidance from professors who periodically visited the team rooms.
"It was an intense day," acknowledges student Lauren Fithian. "My team quickly forgot it was a simulation. We approached it as though we were the leaders of the company and the crisis was real."
Each team learned it would participate in a news conference that afternoon, so students prepared strategies for dealing with the media and generated answers for questions reporters might ask.
When student teams arrived at the news conference, they were met by video cameras, lights, microphones, and a dozen reporters asking questions. The journalists' roles were played by actual working reporters and public relations professionals who had previously worked in the media. Also taking part were business school staff members and some of the 140 executives, known as Executive Partners, who volunteer as leadership coaches and mentors to our MBA students. Staff members and Executive Partners were given a list of questions they could ask.
Each news conference was recorded so the students could evaluate their videos later on their own or with the input of a communication coach. "I now have a better grasp of the role strategic thinking plays when preparing for a news conference," says Jack Kaplan, who played the role of CEO for his team and was primary spokesperson in its news conference. "It did not go exactly the way I had hoped."
In the morning, the student teams learned that they must prepare for an afternoon meeting with five of Happy Planet Bistro's investors, who would be played by alumni, venture capitalists, former and current CEOs, and other practitioners. Students spent the day reviewing financials and determining how to gain the trust of these important stakeholders.
While teams crafted solid plans, they often found reality different than their expectations. For instance, MBA student Abdulrahman Almulla and his team decided they would first describe to investors the efforts they had made to protect the brand. Then they would relate the list of actions they had already taken, which included formulating messages for stakeholders that ranged from customers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They would also make a clear distinction between rumors and ongoing issues before presenting estimated financial impacts and detailing their long-term plans.
"But the meeting deviated greatly from that scenario," Almulla says. "Shortly after the meeting started, we realized that the board's main concern was with the estimated financial impacts. We never got the chance to present some of our other slides, as the board immediately told us to go through the financials. That unplanned deviation put a lot of pressure on us, but we were well prepared to answer their questions."
"We came with high expectations and tough questions," admits Ed Coleman, former CEO of Gateway and Unisys, who played one of the investors. "The students were prepared and professional, and they did an excellent job. There were times I forgot it was an exercise."
The entire class gathered back in the auditorium for an interactive discussion highlighting the lessons learned over the week. This was followed by a celebratory lunch and the presentation of student team awards. The Sprint ended with the a panel discussion featuring two CEOs, a crisis communication expert, and an executive.
MBA student Sara Tanzer calls the week an incredible learning experience. "The mix of hands-on learning, faculty leadership, and alumni participation made this something we won't forget."
While first-year MBA students were handling the Happy Planet Bistro crisis, second-year students were at a different location in the business school, participating in a Sprint about the future of the auto industry. Students played the roles of outside consultants hired by the chairman of a major U.S. vehicle manufacturer. Their task was to research how demand for various vehicles was being affected by factors such as technology, the sharing economy, and the rise of millennials.
Student teams were expected to develop a quarterly forecast of demand for the next years to allow their clients to better schedule production; research a developing trend that was beginning to disrupt the industry; recommend investment strategies that would help their clients improve returns in light of this disruptive trend; and present their findings to a panel of auto industry practitioners, faculty, and executives acting as the company's board of directors.
While both Sprints required students to communicate effectively to executives, they were considerably different from one another in most other aspects. In the auto industry Sprint, students developed quantitative skills as they conducted market research, developed forecasts, used regression analysis, and made recommendations about future products and partnerships. In the communication crisis event, students focused on qualitative skills as they developed an outward-facing communication approach and formed responses to concerns expressed by multiple audiences.
We want students to approach each new Sprint knowing they can draw on skills they learned in previous ones. For most students, the initial Sprint is their first intense team project. They must function at a high level, or they will hit a wall. During their second-year Sprints, they have a better idea of how to operate and succeed in a team environment.
By their third Sprints, students have completed a year of coursework and participated in internships. They are more relaxed, thoughtful, confident, and prepared. They've learned to mobilize resources, so they're able to complete important tasks at a faster rate. This is exactly the goal of the Sprints - to prepare students for high-pressure, high-stakes situations they might encounter in the real world.
A Major Investment
Unforgettable experiences like Sprints require major investments of time and effort on the part of the university staff and faculty. There are no textbooks, teaching notes, or PowerPoint decks. In fact, associate professor Jim Olver, who has led two Sprints, says that creating the one-week event requires more work than developing a one-semester course.
Mobilizing resources is key. The MBA program team must play a major role in planning and delivering the Sprint, while personnel from development, alumni relations, IT, career management, and special events must lend their knowledge.
In some specialized cases, it’s also worthwhile to bring in outside expertise. For instance, because we wanted to include a social media component in the crisis communication Sprint, we hired a vendor who offers crisis communication training to corporate teams. We asked alumni for recommendations, and our instructional design team also researched options. We were seeking a vendor with the right experience, price, and fit for our Sprint, as well as one who was enthusiastic about working in the business school environment.
In the weeks leading up to the event, school representatives worked closely with the vendor on the exact content of the messages, tweets, and other information that would be posted during the Sprint. While we produced some elements in-house, including the viral video, the vendor was responsible for creating, scheduling, and posting the social media posts throughout the day. A representative from the vendor spent the entire day of the simulation on campus, monitoring posts from “the public” as well as the students. He also checked in on the teams throughout the day, which allowed him to take the pulse of the students and alter the rate of posts when necessary.
In addition to outside vendors and school personnel, volunteers are essential in every Sprint. For the crisis communication simulation, more than 75 people served as reporters, investors, panelists, subject matter experts, coaches, and speakers. A large number of these volunteers were alumni, and Olver says the Sprints would be all but impossible without their participation.
“In order for the Sprint to be topical, relevant, and memorable, we have to capture the imagination of the alumni, who then help us create the Sprint so that it is not a fully academic experience,” explains Olver. He adds that engaging the alums in this fashion also gives the school “a meaningful new way to connect with graduates.”
Deborah Hewitt, a clinical associate professor at the school, agrees that the participation of past students is critical. She has led a number of Sprints, including the one on the auto industry and one on the future of the beer industry. For these events, she was able to secure the participation of two highly visible alumni—the former CEO of GM and the former CEO of Molson Coors.
“Having the participation of alumni like these raises everybody’s game,” Hewitt says. “Plus, graduates share candid and helpful feedback the students would receive in real business situations.”
Part of a Redesign
The Sprints were integrated into the William & Mary program as part of a curriculum overhaul that began in 2014, when the faculty and leadership of the business school made a strategic decision to commit to the full-time MBA. As part of the yearlong redesign effort, a six-person task force sought input from stakeholders. The goal, according to dean Larry Pulley, was a final program that would be “relevant, differentiated, and sustainable.”
More than 5,000 people participated in a seven-week online discussion, generating ideas about how to update experiential learning by making it competitive and including alumni and practitioners. “A good portion of the curriculum in the past had been dedicated to experiential learning,” says Olver, who served on the task force. “But the input and ideas we received in our online conversation made us examine our experiential learning offerings with a fresh set of eyes.”
In one task force meeting, Olver mentioned Sprints, a concept developed at Google Ventures in 2010 and featured in Jake Knapp’s book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. Sprints bring people together to answer important business questions or launch new products or startups in one workweek.
After a series of formal and informal discussions, the faculty defined the requirements of Sprints. Sprints were adopted as part of the new full-time MBA curriculum and calendar that was put into place in the fall of 2017. The new calendar divides the academic year into two semesters, each with two seven-week sessions. A Sprint is held for each of the two MBA classes at the conclusion of the first session of each semester; no other classes are scheduled for that week. Full-time MBA students will have participated in four Sprints by the time they graduate.
Big Investment, Big Dividends
In March 2019, we conducted our seventh and eighth Sprints, one focusing on global mergers and acquisitions, and one on ethics in leadership. As we look ahead to future events, we are considering how we might tweak the program. For instance, we might hold a cross-program Sprint or experiment with a Sprint that combines first- and second-year MBA students with those in the master’s of accounting program.
Like our students, we learn something new with each Sprint, and we now approach the events more intelligently. For instance, we know that Sprints place demands on the faculty, the staff, and the building, so we are becoming more efficient in how we pool resources and work with alumni.
Despite the considerable investment of human and fiscal resources, we believe each Sprint brings huge payoffs. A Sprint allows the school to teach critical skills and cover emerging topics that might not currently be in the curriculum. It brings alumni and employers to campus, enabling them to work closely with students and improve both the culture and the professionalism in class. And a successful major event builds buzz throughout the business school.
The best Sprints combine physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects—and this combination leads to the kind of experiential learning that students will always remember.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2019 issue and online.