At 8 AM on the Monday morning after spring break, the 110 first-year William & Mary full-time MBA students learned about a new (fictitious) crisis: an outbreak of E. coli potentially traceable to a single company restaurant in Chicago.
People raised questions. Customers vocalized their concerns. The chain’s reputation was at stake.
That morning, the students were welcomed onto the company’s management team.
Over the course of the next week, the students met virtually in 22 groups via Zoom. They battled through real-time deluges of information from social media feeds, internal and external emails, news reports, and government officials. They responded to requests for information from suppliers, employees, customers, the CEO and Board, the press, and regulatory agencies.
On Friday, the students met with the Board of Directors. They shared their strategies for the steps they had taken over the last week and laid out their plans for managing the crisis moving forward.
After forty intense hours, Sprint Week came to a successful close.
A unique experience
Each semester, full-time MBA students participate in a simulation that tests the cohort’s collective business management skills. This Sprint was one of four which are required before graduation.
Sprint Weeks are a unique opportunity offered by William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business. In these intensive one-credit programs, students practice real-life applicable skills that can’t be taught in a classroom. By managing crises from different positions within a business, students learn how to handle similar scenarios in the real world. In this way, Sprints provide distinctive out-of-classroom advantages.
During this Sprint, students assumed the role of marketing director. Their job was to build a chain’s brand from the ashes of a tragic accident.
Industry experts like Dan Webber, the Managing Director of Edelman in Washington D.C, and Matt Williams, former CEO of the Martin Agency and visiting Clinical Professor of Marketing, gave keynote presentations via Zoom and pre-recorded video. Both have experience managing real-life corporate crises. Their valuable insights helped students navigate numerous hurdles.
The full-time MBA students were originally going to camp in “war rooms” in Miller Hall to manage the crisis together. However, plans changed rapidly when the campus was evacuated in response to COVID-19.
“It took some heroic pivoting by Mason School staff, volunteers, and students to adapt the Sprint to a world in which nobody could meet face-to-face,” said James Olver, Associate Professor of Business.
Since the students could not meet in-person, they met in their groups via Zoom. Instead of holding a press conference with a room full of reporters, they gave phone interviews with a radio host through a mock “NPR-style” interview. Their individual presentations to the entire Board of Directors became a Zoom conference call with a single board member.
When the campus shut down, students adapted to the swiftly changing plans. Some were in transit from the college campus to somewhere else. Many were out-of-state. Everyone had to learn how to work together remotely.
“I was really impressed with the way they responded to a very challenging week,” said Olver. “Despite having their lives upended, they responded to the simulation with enthusiasm and generosity of spirit, given the disruptions to their own lives and the inevitable challenges of adapting the Sprint Week in real-time.”
Overcoming geographic separation
When Sprint Week became virtual, the students faced new challenges. Many agree it became inherently harder when they moved off-campus and switched to the online environment.
Tiffany Jones is from Queens, New York. She was living in the graduate dorms when she heard that the campus was closing so she rented a car to move back home. During Sprint Week, she had to quickly adjust to working in a new environment, separate from her classmates.
“I’ve stayed pretty much in my room,” she said. “It’s my work cave. My whole life has been on a MacBook Pro, trying to get work done.”
During the simulation, Jones noticed the differences between taking classes in-person, and participating in the Sprint online.
“I’m a hands-on, in-person, visual learner. So, for people like me who prefer being in front of the professor and feeling the comfort of the professor coming over to actually assist me with whatever questions I might have, I didn’t really get that,” she explained. “Instead, I emailed for three business days with the professors and colleagues that I was working with.”
For Kurt Everzt, this Sprint Week was more challenging than the one the cohort participated in during the fall because of the geographic separation.
“I would say that this one was inherently harder than the last one. I think it’s easier when it’s in-person to do anything. People are more focused, and it’s just easier to communicate. You can see everyone’s facial expressions,” he said.
However, he pointed out that in his experience in the workforce, it’s critical to know how to work virtually. He believes that participating in an online Sprint was valuable practice for his future job after graduation.
“I think it was a good experience because there are so many virtual jobs, and right now everybody practically is working virtually,” he said. “You’re going to work with people who you may just have a picture to the name. You’re absolutely going to have these online, less personal interactions, so it’s good to practice them here in a low-risk environment.”
Everzt thinks that despite the challenges of working remotely the cohort successfully executed the Sprint.
“People were really nervous about what to expect and how it was going to work, but I think that they did a really good job of adapting to the virtual environment,” he said.
Managing a fictitious crisis during an actual crisis
Sprint Week this spring took on a whole new meaning due to COVID-19. Students balanced participating in a crisis simulation while dealing with real-life upheaval.
“It did feel strange reacting to the Sprint Week staged crisis while a very real crisis was unfolding. There were moments during the Sprint where I felt frustrated to be spending so much time on a simulation when I could be working on a project my classmate and I were trying to get off the ground in response to Covid-19,” said Cara Simpson.
“However, since Sprint Week, as we continued to work on our Covid-19 response project, there have been several times where we realized how similar real life was to the simulation. It is easy to not take the simulation seriously on its own, but when parallels start to pop up with real life, it makes you realize how valuable conducting crisis simulations in business environments can be,” she said.
How a crisis can drive academic innovation
The successful adaptation of Sprint Week into a virtual format demonstrated how quickly the Mason School students and faculty members were able to adjust to sudden changes making the Sprint a highly memorable and valuable experience.
“Running the Sprint fully virtually with 110 students tested the limits of our technology and creativity, particularly for the staff who managed everything behind the scenes,” says Olver. “They did an incredible job, and I couldn’t be prouder. We learned a lot quickly, and I suspect much of what we learned will find its way into future academic experiences.”