The Wrong Way To Make A Decision Part 1

Bad decisions.  They have a wide range of consequences from causing a simple one time annoyance to crippling an entire organization.  Unfortunately, there isn’t any single method to follow that will result in guaranteeing the right choice will be made.

The best most of us can hope for is to learn from the experiences of our own life and by observing the decision making process of others.

I spend a good deal of time writing abut the bad decisions made by organizations in this column, but I don’t always go into detail about how an organization arrives at a bad decision.  And after all, much of what I perceive as a bad decision may be subjective.  But several months ago I ran across a situation that is endemic of exactly how an institution should not make a decision.

Regrettably, it involves an institution that I care about a great deal and contribute for confirming my desires early in life to become a musician; the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

This has not been an easy article to write.  It’s akin to telling a good friend they have a dependence problem and need help.

Given the catch-22 nature of my feelings about Interlochen and the desire to avoid any unnecessary damage to the institution, I spent six months gathering data and interviewing hundreds individuals involved directly and indirectly with this decision.

Having expressed those concerns, I feel confident that the process I used to arrive at these conclusions is not guilty of the same mistakes which I’m about to outline. 

The Decision
For those unfamiliar with Interlochen, it is an educational institution for young people who have an interest and demonstrated ability in the arts.  Their oldest educational program is the summer arts camp.  For decades the camp has utilized a merit based method to determine where students sit in any particular band or
orchestra.  This process is known as the challenge system.

Challenges have been a large part of each music student’s summer camp experience.  Consequently, the camp’s instrumental faculty regularly spent a large percentage of their time in sectionals preparing for and administering challenges.

The challenge process itself is a simple, straightforward process. Students are given excerpts from that week’s music to practice which demonstrate a particular technical and/or musical skill.  The students would then challenge each other on these excerpts at sectionals, which is when the ensemble breaks into smaller groups based on like

One student challenges another (usually starting at the bottom of the section and moving up) and after each of them play through the predetermined excerpt the remaining students in the section would then vote for which student they thought played the excerpt best.  The larger the number of students there are in any given section, the
longer this process takes.

Toward the end of 2003, the decision was made to eliminate the challenge system and replace it with something entirely different.  The person responsible for developing and implementing the decision making process behind this imitative was Interlochen’s Director of Music, Michael Albaugh.

Having had personal experience with the challenge system, I was concerned when I learned about Interlochen’s decision to eliminate challenges and even wrote an article about my experiences.

Since I assumed that the decision to eliminate the challenge system would involve a great deal of effort, I decided to investigate how Interlochen came to that decision. 

The Process
I began my research by interviewing Director Albaugh.  During that interview Director Albaugh said he decided the challenge system was having a negative impact on the students and it
was not doing what it needed to do.

When I asked Director Albaugh how he came to that decision and he said, initially, it was through his personal observations combined with some problems that had arisen over the years between students and some negative publicity in the New York Times.  Director Albaugh’s next move was to hold faculty meetings in the summer of 2003 to ask them what they though about the challenge system.  He also begins examining other summer music education programs to see how they operate compared to Interlochen.

After the summer faculty meetings, the next step included assembling a committee of seven music faculty members, now designated as "area coordinators" in a newly formed academic bureaucracy, in the winter of 2004 to attend a retreat where they would discuss designing a new arrangement to replace the challenge system.

After the winter retreat, the decision to replace the challenge system was finalized and the plan commenced to design a new program. Once the details of the new program were outlined, it was submitted for approval by the organization’s new President, Jeffrey Kimpton.

Once final approval to eliminate the challenge system was granted, steps toward implementing the replacement system for the 2004 summer camp were initiated.

Flawed Research
Throughout my investigation into this decision making process I encountered a multitude of flawed steps, any one of which would have been critical on its own.  But together they conspire to result in a faulty product that doesn’t serve the interests of the organization as well as it should.

The problems with this process begin with the negative side-effects of institutionalism, which is an attitude that believes certain topics are never subject to discussion or review: tradition replaces rational examination. 

For decades, the Interlochen challenge system was precisely one of those institutional topics.  Anyone attempting to discuss changes to the system were systematically shut down by an autocratic environment and not allowed to voice much of an opinion.  But times marches on and as particular individuals began to retire or leave Interlochen over the years, this resistance began to relax.

As new administrators began to emerge, such as Director Albaugh, they became so frustrated over previous attempts to change the challenge system that they wanted to distribute their own brand of "pay back" to those remaining who resisted their earlier attempts. 

This led to the first mistake of a "two wrongs don’t make a right" and allowing personal feelings to cloud professional judgment.

I spoke to Director Albaugh’s predecessor, Byron Hanson, who told me that Director Albaugh had talked to him about the challenge system and they agreed that there were problems with the system.  But he went on to say that Director Albaugh believed these problems were not "fixable".  Byron said that he wasn’t a part of the decision process to eliminate the challenge system but he’s always felt that the challenges are a good thing when they are administered properly.

The next step in this process was to allow the challenge system to deteriorate by not properly training new faculty members in how to institute the process.  This resulted in a spike of legitimate complaints from students and faculty members with regard to dealing with the system.

In the course of my faculty interviews, I identified four different members with a wide range of experience at Interlochen who volunteered in recent years to write a "how-to" manual (on their own time no less) for new faculty members so those individuals can be better prepared to correctly institute the challenge system.  I also interviewed several more faculty members who were also willing to sit in and offer direct support for new faculty members until a time where they felt comfortable dealing with the challenge system on their own. 

In both situations, they all claimed Director Albaugh declined their offers of help.  I then asked Director Albaugh if he instituted any sort of quality control measures or "spot checked" any faculty members while they administered challenges.  He said that he did not.  This is a clear sign of willfully neglecting proper oversight measures.

The next problem in the process centers on the percentage of faculty participation that was considered during the information gathering stages.  In my conversations with both Director Albaugh and President Kimpton, I kept hearing that an overwhelming majority of Interlochen’s faculty supported eliminating the challenge system. 

In particular President Kimpton assured me that the majority of the faculty stood behind this decision.  After my interview with him, he sent an email to reassure me that:

" if we thought there was a strong sentiment against improving our system, it did not emerge. If there was great divisiveness about this issue, I can assure you that as President I would have asked the faculty to delay implementation and watched the process over the summer.  But this has not been the case."

I followed up by asking if Director Albaugh distributed surveys to faculty members or kept any minuets from the faculty meetings where the topic was discussed.  President Kimpton said:

"To my knowledge, we have not maintained minutes from any faculty meeting, not just on ones relating to this topic."

Director Albaugh confirmed that fact as well, which leads to a lack of documentation problem.  This further points toward the process being dominated by a "top-down" decision making procedure.

This observation was supported after I interviewed Mike Davison, a member of the Interlochen trumpet faculty and brass coordinator that attended the winter meeting.  Mike said that over the last few years there was a great deal of conversation among the brass faculty about updating the challenge system but not eliminating it.  Mike also confirmed that there were never any written surveys distributed to faculty members which the area coordinators and Director Albaugh could use at the subsequent winter meeting.

Mike said that he is one of the faculty members that doesn’t mind eliminating the challenge system and is glad they are doing so.  He verified that many of the faculty members he talked to had problems that centered on logistical issues more than pedagogical issues and during the winter meeting there was never any discussion about updating the challenge system, only replacing it. 

This was further confirmed by Melissa Kraut, Interlochen cello faculty and string coordinator.  She verified that there were never any faculty surveys or other forms of documentation distributed to faculty members for their reference during the winter meeting.

To be continued…

I invite you to return tomorrow where we’ll continue with the remainder of this study.  We’ll cover the remaining flawed research points as well as reach some conclusions and provide some comprehensive statistics from my research. 

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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