In Times of Crisis, Passing Is Not Failing

Perhaps we as a student body are placing undue emphasis on the cold call. All the cold call usually involves is case facts; even if all one has done is read the case, this doesn’t need to be such a stressful problem. Even if one falters midway, or didn’t even read the case, she or he can fall back on the support of 80 classmates who are just glad it wasn’t them.

The average student speaks nine times during a 35-session course. Even if someone botches a cold call, it’s still only 11% of available opportunities. Most businesses would be happy to have an 89% fudge-up-free rate.

Moreover, the cold call is not just a heartless ploy by the professor to get students to soil their pants in the first five minutes of class. It’s another learning tool designed to hone abilities as a manager. In the business world, when a superior puts someone on the spot in a meeting with difficult probing questions about topics one would prefer to draft an email about, an instant reply is expected. The reply can be fashioned with facts, theories, or simple horse manure, but there must be a reply. This is part of the reason students are at HBS – tantamount to the HBS classroom subject matter is developing the ability to think, and especially the ability to think on one’s feet under stress.

That’s why, instead of banishing the cold call, classmates should provide better support for students who choose to use the “pass.” Applause would be better suited to these instances than the inevitable GASP-hands-in-the-air-quickly reaction. OI section lore tells us of the time when there was a triple-pass to start the class, with the case protagonist present. Now that’s a supportive learning environment. Everyone goes down with the ship, so nobody’s stressing out because they didn’t get a seat in one of the dinghies.

Passing, while clearly not the ideal answer to any cold call, at least shows that one has thought about the alternatives and risks and is exercising judgment. Passing is the same as replying in the above business meeting, “I don’t have the data/answer for that; let me get back to you.” By doing this, one avoids digging onself a very large hole and has bought some time to eventually redeem onself in the future. The same is true with passing on a cold call. There is nothing inherently wrong with passing; there will inevitably be another chance to atone for participation sins. Everyone gets caught with their pants down from time to time, and we students and the HBS faculty are human-we all understand this.

January 28, 2002
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