The Pink Shoe Posse

I was once asked to work with a nonprofit which held an annual outdoor dog performance show (think frisbees and obstacles courses) as a fundraiser.*  The event had been historically volunteer-managed and raised about $20K per year, but had grown stale and needed a new strategy for growth.  After the dog show chairman and I met for some preliminary work, we decided to engage the additional dog show leadership for “problem solving and brainstorming.”

That’s when I ran into one of the biggest stinks ever as a consultant. 

You see, when I told the volunteers we were going to do some “problem solving and brainstorming,” they heard, “Please give us ideas to fix the dog show.”  And they, being well-intentioned, came armed with their best.  A few of these volunteers had been together socially about a week before and had come up with a Great Idea.  They wanted all volunteers to purchase a pair of identical neon pink tennis shoes for the dog show event.   “This will be perfect!” one of the more experienced volunteers explained in an email to the group prior to our meeting.  “We are an all-women volunteer organization, and we can all wear the shoes on the day of the dog show.  How’s that for branding?!”  Then, “I have already called three of the previous dog show chairmen and we all agree.” 

Some of the other volunteers started taking sides, “I don’t WANT to spend $70 on shoes just to volunteer,” stated one.  Another added, “Wait, why do you all get to decide this?”  And, “This isn’t branding.”   Volunteers were defensive and exasperated.  The Great Idea had been shot down in front of others, and now feelings were hurt.  The group that liked the pink shoe concept started taking stabs at the group that didn’t.  The group who disliked pink shoes named the pro-shoe group the Pink Shoe Posse and started rolling their eyes behind the posse’s backs.

Okay, so plenty of bad behavior to go around.  And, in walks me, the consultant.  Long gone was the framework for open discussion and new idea generation.  Instead, I was poised on a board room battleground and asked to pick, on the spot, who was right.

First, I realized, everyone needed a win, and some common ground.  I asked them to help me list things that were going really well about the dog show.  We started a white board list and spent about 20 minutes enumerating successes and strengths.  We took extra time to make sure the group identified and lauded the individuals who had been responsible for these accomplishments.  I needed them to drop the pettiness for a few minutes and appreciate the great work they had done—together. 

Next, I asked them to help me come up with opportunities for improvement.  I placed two whiteboards at the front of the room:  one titled “opportunities/issues” and one titled “possible solutions.”  I explained that I didn’t want SOLUTIONS yet, we just needed to list the issues that needed work.   Someone (thankfully) mentioned that the entry lines were too long at the first of the day.  I wrote, “Customer service- long queue at startup” on my “opportunities” board.  “We should have more entry points from 9-10am,” someone offered.  I wrote that on the “possible solutions” board.   I used this example to reinforce the difference between opportunities and solutions.  We would look at other possible solutions later. 

So, back to issues.  One of the volunteers offered, “I think we need to wear pink shoes.”  “Okay,” I said, “where do I put that?”  She wasn’t sure.  So I wrote it on the “possible solutions” board.  “But,” I said, “I need to identify the problem we are trying to solve, by the solution you offered here?” She wasn’t sure how to answer.  “WHY the pink shoes?” I asked her.

“Oh, because they would be so cute,” she answered.  I wrote “volunteers not dressing appropriately” under “opportunities” on the white board.  Immediately I was stopped.  “That is not a problem,” someone said.  Of course not.  Everyone dresses just fine.  And, it doesn’t really matter for a dog show.  It could rain, there could be mud…. “Then we don’t need this solution because there isn’t this issue, I stated.”  The anti-shoe group thought they had won.  

“But,” I said, “clearly some of you are really hyped about this idea.  So I’ll ask again, ‘WHY pink shoes?’” Someone volunteered, “So we all look alike, and customers can tell who to ask for help!”  AHHHH, I see. I wrote, “customer service, identification of volunteers running the event.  “YES!” was the reply, “That’s why we all need pink shoes.”

I got them to agree that identifying dog show volunteers was the major issue.  “That’s a great point,” I said.  “Has this been an issue in the past.?”  They agreed it had and that visitors were confused.  (Yay!  I thought, some consensus.)

“Okay, now let’s talk about that.” I said.  “We have defined a problem, one of identifying dog show volunteers.  And pink shoes is absolutely, 100% a solution to that problem.  Indeed, a rather cute one.”  (Now the tables were turning in favor of the Posse.)

“But let’s think of other solutions,” I suggested. “How about cowboy hats?”  They laughed.  (Okay good, maybe I was winning some of them over).  “Identical T-shirts,” someone offered, “nametags,” “aprons,” “baseball caps.”  We were getting the hang of it.

Then I asked them to look at the pros and cons of some of these solutions.  Here is what they came up with:

Cowboy hats? (-) expensive   (-)blow off in wind   (-) not on theme for a dog show in Indiana

Pink shoes? (-) expensive   (-) get dirty  (-) people prefer to wear boots in the rain (+) cute (+) could become the brand or (-) will be offbrand

T-shirts?  (+) cheap   (-) if weather requires a jacket then T-shirt gets covered up (+)  incorporates new branding  (+) easy to reorder

Nametags? (+) really cheap   (-) fall off/don’t stick well  (-) general dislike “we can do more” (-) hard to see from distance/from back

Aprons?   (+) cheap   (+) could be ordered once, gathered and stored, and used for multiple years (+) could be monogrammed with new branding (+) can be worn regardless of weather (+) one size fits all

Monogrammed baseball hats? (+) cheaper than some options  (-) not everyone likes wearing hats   (+) incorporates new branding (-)  could be hard to reorder in small quantities annually as new volunteers are added (+) one size fits most

This was a great lesson for not only the Posse, but for the other volunteers to learn about the process of first defining an issue and then evaluating solutions.  By becoming attached to the solution, without first understanding the problem, the Posse had dug itself an emotional hole that was hard to step out of. 

Fortunately, the group was able to let go of pink shoes as the ONLY solution and consider others.   No one had to win or lose, we just collectively arrived at a great answer. 

The solution?   They went with pink aprons and nametags.  The leader of the Pink Shoe Posse even agreed to oversee ordering them.  Whew. 

* I changed a few details to protect everyone’s identity.

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