Friday, May 15, 2009

Post-Conference Thoughts

It’s been six days since the UHV Spring 2009 MBA Conference in Cinco Ranch, and we still are waiting for the winner announcements. I have been promised we will know today. The delay comes from the fact that grades have to be released prior to the announcement of winners, which makes sense on one level but is nonetheless a bit disappointing on another level. The case competition counts as the final exam for the capstone course, so it makes sense that the grade matters. On the other hand, the competition is separate from the course itself (per the Dean of the Business School), and the effect of the competition is a bit diluted to delay the results, especially since in past years the winners were announced the same day as the competition. I’m afraid that the delay will encourage participants to leave once they have given their presentation, rather than meet with other teams at the event and experience the competition for all its potential. We were given feedback forms the day of the competition, but I think it would be smart for the university to follow-up about two weeks following the case competition for the perspective from that distance.

My team got 99% for its project grade, which means we missed a perfect job but so far we have not seen the detailed feedback from the panel judges, nor in fact do I know for sure where we lost our point (though I have a guess or two). Hard to say if that point cost us the win.

The format for the competition itself was interesting. Over the course of the semester, we each produced three individual versions of a paper analyzing the pet supply and services industry and a company analysis of PetSmart, Inc. (the focus company assigned for the project). We then put our individual reports together to create a team report, which was eventually refined into the final report for the project. Our paper was 122 pages of text and charts, with another 9 pages of sources listed.

This paper was then distilled into a PowerPoint presentation, which in our case took 39 slides, and this in turn caused a problem for us. The heart of the presentation was the team’s set of recommendations, which is usually two or three but in our case four strategic actions. The reason the length was a problem, was because we would have 25 minutes to present our case, giving us less than 39 seconds per slide to make our case, and some of those slides would require a bit of talk to make them clear. So we faced the problem of speaking clearly and in detail, covering more than one slide a minute but without rushing. So we spent some time rehearsing and working out the tricky timing.

The other half of the presentation was the question and answer session. At the start of the semester, we expected to present our case to a panel of three judges. At the end of the semester, we saw that panel count climb to four. Accordingly, we printed and bound four copies of our presentation for the judges. When we walked into the room for the presentation, however, we found six judges waiting for us. Fortunately, they were willing to share with each other. The other big thing about having six judges, was that the question-and-answer session following our presentation was detailed and deep. We spent the full twenty-five minutes allotted for that session answering questions from the judges, everything from our reasoning behind our recommendations, to their cost, scope, payback, and so on.

It’s a little difficult to explain how hard the question-and-answer session is. On the one hand, a team should be able to anticipate most of the questions by examining their case critically, with team members role-playing skeptical judges to find places where questions would rise, but on the other almost half an hour or straight verbal questions from six different people, and meant to be answered by different team members, creates a bit of uncertainty on its own. Add to that the fact that no team can really practice for the spontaneity of panel questioning, and you have a situation that can be tense and throw you off your rhythm. Of course, it makes you feel better to consider that every team faces the same obstacles.

More to come.

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