One of the most interesting aspects of my job is that it often presents unexpected and complex issues about which high-consequence decisions must be made within limited time frames. Such was our decision to go forward with APA's 2003 Annual Convention in Toronto--made amidst of the uncertainty of the SARS crisis.
Although it seems perfectly logical now that we went forward with the meeting as planned, the choice between going forward or canceling was not at all obvious this spring when the decision had to be made.
While worldwide news coverage made us painfully aware of SARS deaths in China and Toronto, APA was faced with trying to determine what Toronto's health profile might be in early August and the ramifications (financial, legal, for our members) of holding or canceling the meeting.
Throughout April and May, the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued travel advisories and alerts respectively recommending that travelers to Toronto take health precautions, but not recommending against travel there.
Some other professional organizations were canceling their Toronto meetings while others were staying the course. Communications we received from members showed a split between those who thought the risk was extremely low and that the meeting should be held and those who thought it should be canceled. The challenge facing APA's Board of Directors, the Board of Convention Affairs and senior staff was to create a process for a decision in the context of rapidly changing and imperfect information.
Our first decision was not to make a quick and impulsive decision. When the SARS news first hit in the spring, despite a natural urge to cancel, the Board of Directors decided that patience was the best initial course, while we continued to monitor developments.
The second decision, made at the board's April meeting, was to rely on travel recommendations from the CDC and WHO--if either one warned against travel to Toronto the meeting was off. Having worked within the federal health community at the National Institutes of Health, I know how seriously these public health officials take their responsibilities and the expertise they would bring to bear on the SARS issue. Still, this decision opened the door for only the third cancellation of the convention in the 111-year history of APA (the other times being during World War II).
One early proposal was to move the meeting to another city. This seemed like a logical proposal. But, as we quickly learned after investigating this, and as our convention staff knew all along, no city could handle a convention as large as ours on such short notice. So it was Toronto, or no meeting.
Gathering input from you
A third decision then was to collect data from other sources to assist in decision-making. There were several groups whose opinions about the convention were critical: Members who regularly attend the convention, presenters, APA staff and convention exhibitors.
We talked to CDC health officials to get more nuanced information, and we talked to the Toronto Convention and Visitors Association to discuss contingencies, plans and other issues.
To get the opinions and plans of the aforementioned groups, we conducted a pair of e-mail surveys, asking if they would likely attend the convention if the travel advisories and alerts were lifted. These survey results proved helpful but were not definitive, proving once again the truth in the statement from Sheldon Kopp, "All of life's major decisions are based upon insufficient information." And, as Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." It was time to make a final decision.
At its June meeting, the Board of Directors reviewed all the information collected and voted to reaffirm its decision to hold the convention, recognizing that this could be changed if the situation in Toronto worsened.
I believe the process by which we arrived at this decision was an example of APA at its best. It was deliberative, systematic, inclusive, analytical, empathetic, comprehensive, open, had a sense of urgency but not impatience, and, at the proper time, was decisive. Fortunately (and luckily), the decision proved to be the correct one.
See you in Hawaii!The Sheldon Kopp quote is courtesy of Dr. Paul Craig.