Park Perspectives: Operational concepts get real

By: Cecelia McDonald, Two-Year MBA ’20
Students high-five over a table of LEGO

Incoming Two-Year MBA students participate in a team-building activity at Destination Johnson.

Park Perspectives are authored by Johnson’s Park Leadership Fellows.

Every year, the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management hosts Destination Johnson, a weekend of fun and informational sessions welcoming admitted prospective students. As I participated in the weekend and spoke as part of an entrepreneurship panel, I was asked what advice I would give an incoming first-year student. I answered:

  1. As utilization increases, delays increase exponentially; and
  2. Ask for more help.

Let me explain what I mean.

Applying operational insights to your commitments

In class, Andrew Davis, associate professor of operations, technology, and information management, showed us that a five-percent increase in flights out of John F. Kennedy International Airport can cause a 50-percent increase in delays. If utilization is already high, delays can start to spiral out of control, and the system falls further and further behind.

Modeling utilization, which sounds nerdy, can help you see things in a different way because the implications get very real, very fast. So, it’s possible that the more commitments we have (or how much we’ve utilized ourselves and our time) the more we see delays in the running of our lives—it’s not just an anecdotal observation, it’s an observational reality.

A line graph plots utilization percentage on the x-axis and delays on the y-axis with an exponential curve

Where are you on this graph? Are you already swamped? Overwhelmed? Exhausted?

I looked at this graph and thought, “Wow, this is my life.” I’ve dabbled in self-help methodologies, including essentialism, Tony Robbins’s life coaching strategies, minimalism, and others, but it wasn’t until I saw this graph that I realized I couldn’t do everything, and I cut back on commitments.

The good news is that at high utilization, every little thing that you can take off your plate will make a huge difference to your ability to keep the trains, and your life, running on time. Which brings me to my other piece of advice: ask for more help.

Learning to ask for more help

About five years ago, a softball struck me in the side of the head as I slid into third base during a corporate softball game, and I suffered a significant concussion. I needed about six weeks off work as I recovered, and even when I was back on the job, my verbal abilities, reaction times, and working memory were all significantly impaired.

For the first time in my life, I couldn’t just work harder. My capacity was severely limited, and I had to ask for help from both my work team and my medical team.

I learned an important lesson: asking for help can decrease utilization (and reduce delays) in two ways. First, you can take things off your plate, and second, you can increase your capacity. The first reduces the numerator, the second increases the denominator. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget, and it’s easy to ignore the possibility that your capacity can be increased.

It has taken years of work with vision therapists, neuropsychologists, physical therapists, chiropractors, orthopedists, psychotherapists, plus a psychiatrist or two for me to perform at my current level, which is still not at my peak. But beating myself up has never been beneficial, so I keep asking for help. My next project is to find a skills coach to help me get back the working memory that I still haven’t recovered since the concussion.

Giving and accepting help is a way of life

Fortunately, asking for help (and giving it, of course!) has become a way of life for me. When my cofounder and I ran into some roadblocks with our women’s workwear startup, we had a great opportunity to ask for more help. We scheduled consultations with classmates, many of whom had relevant tech, fashion, and/or startup experience. We recruited interns by reaching out to professors, heads of departments, and undergraduate clubs, who passed on the word to their students and club members.

Ten interns joined our team for the fall 2019 semester, and their help was a tremendous gift. They identified competitors and vendors, scoped the landscape of women’s workwear brands, managed our database, identified data sources, and helped us understand the world of tailoring and pattern-making.

Yoda says, “Either do or do not; there is no try.” Given what I’ve learned about asking for help, I understand this fully now. We accomplish what we set out to do when we help one another. It’s when we muddle along alone that we are less likely to succeed.

Cecelia McDonald

Cecelia McDonald, Two-Year MBA ’20

Cecelia McDonald is a second-year MBA candidate at Johnson. She spent five years in corporate finance at TJX, a Fortune 100 retailer, and before that, two years at L.E.K. Consulting in Boston. She worked on projects for clients in private equity, retail, aviation, and life sciences. She also served as treasurer of a national intersex support group and gave a TEDx talk on intersex. In the summer of 2019, McDonald interned with SC Johnson in corporate finance. She has accepted a deferred offer of employment there and will be working full-time on her startup, Geometrie, for a year after graduation.